It’s clear for all to see that it’s easier to put up big numbers against the Sixers than the Pacers this year. But how much easier? Are there players better suited to bullying the lesser lights and poorer defenses of the league who might then struggle against the tougher competition they face in the playoffs?
We compared the offensive output of the top 25 scorers in the league against the teams with the top 10 defenses, as defined by Defensive Rating per Basketball-Reference.com (in order of best to worst: Pacers, Bulls, Warriors, Thunder, Spurs, Bobcats, Raptors, Timberwolves, Wizards and Grizzlies) with their production in contests versus the bottom 10 defenses (from worst to best Jazz, Bucks, Sixers, Pelicans, Knicks, Kings, Lakers, Mavericks, Pistons, and Trail Blazers). We also looked at the average scoring against these teams to use as a baseline for comparison.
Taking a hypothetical fantasy stud with season long averages of 20 points, 5 assists, 2 offensive rebounds, and 2 turnovers per game while shooting a studly 50/40/90 and assuming he’d played equal numbers of games and minutes against the best and worst defenses, here’s how his stats would look on average.
|Vs. Top 10 D||49.04%||39.43%||90.14%||1.85||4.57||2.06||18.72|
|Vs. Bottom 10 D||50.96%||40.57%||89.86%||2.15||5.43||1.94||21.28|
As shown above, our hero shoots a little bit worse from the field overall and from 3, gets about 1 less offensive rebound every three games, loses almost a full assist, turns the ball over slightly more and scores 2.5 points per game fewer. Top 10 defenses also allow slightly fewer 3 point attempts (around 6.5% fewer) and free throw attempts (over 12% fewer) than do the worst defenses.
Armed with this baseline for comparison, what did we find out about the top 25 scorers in the league? By comparing both per game per 36 minute averages we were able to see that of these top players, some are in fact much more effective, relatively speaking, versus good defenses than others:
The chart below shows the % decline in points per minute in games versus the top 10 defenses as opposed to games against the bottom 10. The second column is the decline in raw points per game. In both columns a negative number indicates the player actually scored more and/or at a higher rate versus the better defenses
Per Minute and Per Game Drops in Scoring vs. Top Defenses
We then looked a little deeper into that players’ contributions across the board and separated players into some rough groupings. Note that all of these numbers are based on extremely small sample sizes (most players have between 15 and 20 games versus each category), are not pace adjusted and do not take into account possible confounding factors such as injuries (though see the specific discussion of Kevin Durant as we looked specifically at his output in games with and without Russell Westbrook).
Looters In A Riot
Some players simply perform at a much worse rate across the board versus the top defenses. It should not be a surprise that despite only 7 of the top 25 scorers in the league being on teams likely to miss the playoffs, that group includes the 3 with the biggest drops in offensive prowess against the better teams and 4 of the top (bottom?) 6. This group of players gorging themselves on stats versus the weaker teams in the league while playing on equally poor teams themselves are the type of player Kenny Smith has taken to calling “a looter in a riot.”
To name some names, Kevin Martin, Arron Afflalo and DeMarcus Cousins all find their scoring dropping off by over 20% against top defenses. Martin has the largest drop off in the league, averaging more than 7 points per game fewer against top defenses than against bottom, with his scoring dropping by almost 1/3 on a per minute basis. In particular, the top defenses keep Martin away from his sweet spots behind the arc and at the line, as he averages barely over half the free throw attempts vs. top defenses that he does vs. bad, while being forced into significantly more turnovers. Martin’s struggles dovetail nicely with the impression that Kevin Love is forced to try to do it all himself against the better teams, a topic we’ll get to in a minute. Affalo and Cousins each also see substantial drops in scoring with Afflalo losing almost 7 points per game and Cousins over 8, though these are smaller proportional drops than the one experienced by Martin. Rudy Gay rounds out this group with a dropoff of just over 5 points per game, though his decline is smaller on a per minute basis than any of the first three.
Moving on to some players who will in all likelihood be in the postseason, there are a few players who drop off enough versus top defenses to be major causes for concern in the higher-stakes of the playoffs:
Dirk Nowitzki - one of the more surprising players on the list, Dirk’s biggest issue against top defenses has been simply getting looks at the basket. Dirk’s free throw attempts drop by almost one half versus the top defenses, and his 3 point attempts are down significantly as well. Meanwhile, his turnovers are up just over 36% on a per minute basis versus the top defenses. Whether this is simply an older player husbanding energy in the regular season or Nowitzki’s slow but sure decline in athleticism costing him that little bit of explosiveness needed to be as effective as he’d like against top teams remains to be seen, but this must be the number one concern for Mavericks fans heading into post-season play.
John Wall - The biggest complaints against John Wall remain his over-reliance on midrange jumpers instead of using his speed to get to the basket area. The data supports a conclusion that the better defenses have learned to take advantage of these failings, as Wall is shooting nearly 40% fewer free throws versus top defenses and his shooting percentage from the floor is down just under 9 percentage points (47.6% against bad defenses versus 39% against good) leading to a big drop in scoring despite a slight uptick in field goal attempts. Washigton’s playoff opponent will certainly scheme its defense to encourage Wall to shoot as many long two’s out of the pick-and-roll as possible in an effort to hold down his scoring. That said, Wall’s assists are up very slightly versus good defense so perhaps he will choose to become more of a playmaker rather than fall into the midrange trap.
Al Jefferson – The Bobcats transformation from doormats to something resembling respectability has been predicated in part on their improved defenses under Steve Clifford, but also upon the presence of Big Al as their first true go-to scorer in quite some time, perhaps even for the first time in franchise history. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s go to area, the low block, is susceptible to a great loss of effectiveness against top defenses. First, the better defenses in the league tend to have better individual post defenders – of the 9 top defenses (not counting the Bobcats themselves) at least 7 and possibly 8 (Washington) have at least one starting big man who is a plus defensive player, with only Minnesota definitely lacking in this category. Additionally, better teams can prevent Jefferson from getting touches in favored areas and then make life difficult for him when he does catch. The numbers all back this up, as he experiences one of the larger drops in FG% (over 5%), and takes over 20% fewer field goal and 21% fewer free throw attempts per minute while turning the ball almost 19% more frequently versus top defenses.
DeMar DeRozan – Much like John Wall, DeRozan’s effectiveness is predicated on getting easy points at the free throw line. Further, as the secondary creator in many of Toronto’s sets, DeRozan’s ability to get into the paint allows him to create opportunities for teammates. Again, much like Wall, top defenses do a better job of keeping him out of the lane, off the line (free throw attempts down almost a third) and preventing him from setting up teammates (assists down 28%). What’s left is the high proportion of isolation into mid-range jumpers which came to symbolize Toronto’s play prior to the Rudy Gay trade in December.
Made Someone Else Beat Us
Some primary weapons deal with the extra attention they get from defenses by ‘taking what the D gives them’ and hitting open teammates. Three of the more dynamic and multifaceted scorers in the league fall into this category: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Paul George. Opponents work to take away the major avenues of “easy points” in terms of free throw attempts (Durant’s FTA are 37.5% lower vs. top defenses), looks from 3 (Harden’s 3PA are just over 25% lower, while George’s attempts from deep are down over 37% vs. top defenses). These guys respond by setting up teammates more. Both Durant (over 7% more assists vs. top defenses) and especially Harden (just over 20% higher assists vs. top defenses) deal with the lack of easier shots by setting up teammates more. George’s assists are slightly down vs. top teams, but they are down less than would otherwise be expected versus top defenses. More on Durant later, but Harden’s role as the primary creator in Houston’s drive-and-kick scheme looks like it will translate to the degree the Rockets shooters continue to make shots.
Putting In Work
The Clippers’ duo of Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford both experience relatively small drop-offs in scoring versus the top defenses, despite having to work much harder for their points. Both see their free throw attempts down by almost a quarter and Crawford is defended much more actively at the arc. Both make up for this to a degree by simply shooting more, as Blake averages almost 10% more shot attempts. He manages this by both limiting his turnovers (down almost 20%) and pounding the offensive glass (up just over 14%). With the continued expansion of his game, including the ability to find ways to be effective against top competition, this should give cause for hope in Clipperland for their playoff chances.
Kevin Love, who has a similar profile to Griffin and Crawford, is a particularly interesting case. We’ve already talked about how badly Kevin Martin fares against good defenses, and you can see how this effects Love’s game. He actually keeps his scoring up fairly well, but his assists are way down (over 37% drop vs. top 10 defenses). Concerning, as this is one of his main improvements coming into this season (he’s accumulating almost double his career average at 4.1 per game). Love is also taking a few more shots per game to balance his lower free throw rate, but mostly, he’s just shooting the hell out of the ball from deep versus the top teams, shooting 43.6% from 3 (as opposed to 38.5% against bottom teams). Though it looks like any playoff push from the Wolves might be too little too late for them to make it, there is a questions as to whether this shooting is sustainable or whether Love would need more help from his teammates to be successful in that environment.
Don’t Give a F
Unsurprisingly, given his 3 straight finals appearances and consecutive championships, LeBron James is a player who isn’t particularly bothered by playing against high-level opposition, and in fact one could construct an argument that tougher competition brings out greater focus and drive in him, as his rebounding rises, he settles for fewer three pointers, gets to the line a great deal relative to other top scorers (less than a 1% dropoff in free throw attempts/minute, when the league average against these top teams is around 12% lower) and even shoots far better from the line in these more pressure-filled contests. Despite coasting through large parts of the season, LeBron is still the king to be taken down come the playoffs this year.
Other players who show up surprisingly well against the top defenses are three point guards in Goran Dragic, Damian Lillard and Isaiah Thomas. While one might wonder if the Suns’ rip-and-run style can work in the playoffs, Dragic will likely do his part as he’s performed exceptionally well against the best defenses, and would have done even better if not for an anomalous-looking drop in his FT% versus these teams (nearly 18%!). Lillard not only keeps his scoring up against these best defenses, but he’s also increased his assists by over 15%. Of course, the biggest question for Dame to answer is whether his own defense (as well as Portland’s overall perimeter D) can hold up enough to allow their spectacular offense to win games. Thomas appears to be an outlier in this comparison, as he is the only player among the top 25 scorers in the league who actually increases his points per minute productivity against top teams. And he does so by a large amount, averaging just under 16% more points per minute. In terms of raw production, this translates to almost 5 more PPG against the toughest teams. There is no one area that stands out, Thomas simply shoots more, gets to the line more and shoots more threes (and does it all more efficiently) against the best teams, perhaps by default picking up the slack from his less successful teammates Cousins and Gay?
Paying the Cost to Be the Boss
While most players see their free throw rate drop against top defenses, three players in the top 25 actually increase their attempts from the line against top 10 defenses. LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry all see increases in free throws. Curry needs these extra attempts at the line to make up for the large degree to which the better teams defend him at the arc, as he is shooting “only” 38.4% from 3 versus top teams as compared to 42.1% overall and 43.7% against the bottom 10 defenses. Anthony in particular seems to be more willing to do the physical dirty work against the best defenses as his offensive rebounding is significantly higher versus those teams.
The Curious Case of Kevin Durant
As a topic best left as part of a future breakdown but worth mentioning here, Kevin Durant’s performance splits almost look like two different players with and without Russell Westbrook available. With Westbrook playing, Durant looks very much to take on more of a facilitating role versus the top defenses, with his scoring well down, but his assists increase by an amount similar to the drop in his scoring. Meanwhile, during his “Slim Reaper” phase with Westbrook sidelined, Durant’s scoring barely dropped off at all versus top defenses, but his turnovers skyrocketed by almost 46%. Much more on the differences in KD’s play with and without Russ in a full breakdown in the near future!
Finally, here are is the overall results of the study. As with charts above, negative numbers indicate improvements in games versus top ten defenses.