By: Jake Mattleman
Greetings, dedicated readers! It’s March and the playoff winds are beginning to blow, but which teams are actually equipped to make a run at the title?
As intelligent, well-informed readers, I’m sure you’re familiar with the established contenders: the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers. Yet, beneath all the media rhetoric an underlying question lingers: Why are these teams widely considered to be more complete than the others? What makes them different? This question drives me, and I believe I’ve found part of the answer.
It’s my belief that 99% of players in the NBA can be defined as Creators or Facilitators on the offensive side of the ball. Obviously there is more depth and complexity to NBA players than just these two categories. However, I believe at some level it’s valuable to observe our teams through this lens. Have you ever watched a game and thought, “This team features too many players who need the ball in their hands,” or, “This style of play might work against the 76ers, but it won’t work against an elite team?” If so, this article is for you.
Operating on the assumption that each NBA player can be classified as a Creator or Facilitator, I sought to gain some tangible clarity on the right combination of players that make up a championship level team.
Hypothesis: Successful teams must have a healthy balance of Creators and Facilitators.
Method: Looking back at the last 10 years of NBA Championship teams, I identified every player from each team that logged an average of 15 minutes per game or above in the playoffs. These players were then classified as Creators or Facilitators based upon their style of play. Based upon these classifications, I documented the number of Creators vs. Facilitators on each team and their team’s total number of qualifying players. After calculating the Standard Deviation and Variance of each data set, I was able to extract some interesting results.
Creators: Players that make opportunities for themselves. They don’t need a specific situation or crisp ball movement or their teammates to be successful. These players can create offense spontaneously, bringing immense opportunity to their team.
Facilitators: Players that take opportunities when available. Basically to restate, they’re opportunistic. These players function tangentially to the creators and feed off of their creation. They serve a distinct purpose and are almost as valuable as creators. These players are the spot up shooters, the offensive rebounders, and the guys on the floor to win 50/50 balls. Facilitators make the right play.
Standard Deviation (SD): Based on a set of numbers, this metric helps provides a range of numbers where the experimenter can be “confident” any given number will fall between. Once you have established a mean from a data set, there’s a 68% chance any given number will fall between one SD on either side of the mean- there’s a 95% chance any given number will fall between two SD on either side of the mean.
Variance (V): Based on a set of numbers, this metric tells us the average distance any given number will differ from the mean.
Charted below are the Creators, Facilitators, and total qualifying players on NBA Championship teams from 2006-2015.
Creators: Mean: 3.3, SD: .48, V: .23
Facilitators: Mean: 4.3, SD: 1.16, V: 1.34
Let’s unpack this information:
- No team has won the title with less than three Creators or more than four. Therefore the variance is quite low, and so is the standard deviation. We are 68% confident that a championship team will have between 2.82 and 3.78 Creators and 95% confident this number will fall between 2.34 and 4.2.
- The number of Facilitators ranges from 3-6 with high SD and V.
- Over the past 5 years, there has been a noticeable upward trend in total qualifying players. This signifies a greater necessity for depth and team basketball.
- The ratio of Creators to Facilitators is about 3:4, and this makes sense. Only one player on the court can posses the ball and create at any given time. Therefore successful teams will need a handful of facilitators working off the ball. The 2006 Heat are the only championship team with more Creators than Facilitators.
- It appears that makeup of championship teams is fairly predictable.
Now let’s check out the frontrunning contenders this year using regular season statistics:
Based on the championship criteria established above, it appears that the Spurs and Warriors are within the range of necessary Creators and Facilitators, however a Cavs 2016 Championship would be anomaly due to a creation overload. It’s not a surprise they have experienced chemistry issues throughout the year.
What about the next tier of contending teams?
These numbers are all over the place, thus exposing these teams as unbalanced and incomplete. The Raptors, Celtics and Hawks all suffer from featuring only two Creators, resulting in an excess of Facilitators. Conversely, the Thunder, Heat, and Bulls are disadvantaged due to their inflated number of Creators- five, seven, and seven respectively. These teams boast superstar flash and entered the season with high expectations, however their rosters represent fools’ gold. The public is often enticed by a team’s Creators as their game and potential is more visible, however our data suggests balance is more important. Even a team like the Thunder, who trot out 2 of the best 5 players in the NBA each night, cannot escape being surrounded by the wrong players. Finally, the Clippers are the only team of this group that falls within our confidence numbers. This might be a strong case for the Clippers to surprise folks in the Playoffs.
The data clearly shows that Championship teams feature 3-4 Creators with at least 8 players making significant contributions in the playoffs, regardless of talent level. For instance, the Suns signed Isaiah Thomas before the 2014-15 season thinking of running a 3 PG lineup with Dragic and Bledsoe- Sounds good right? Wrong. This team already suffered from an excess of Creators and the addition of Thomas gave them a whopping 7 for the next season. The result, a 9 win decrease from the previous year and a franchise in crisis. Dragic was unlucky and landed on another Creator-dominant team in the Heat and has struggled, Isaiah is flourishing with the Celtics, and poor Bledsoe is still with the team. Lastly, I believe our data also sheds light on the necessity for efficient Creators, as a successful team only has so many spots for these players. This could potentially explain why players like John Lucas III, Aaron Brooks, and Nate Robinson have difficulty finding a home in the NBA. All of those players can flatout create and score, but fail to achieve this with efficiency against good competition. Even though Michael Beasley won an MVP award in China (congrats Michael) and Matthew Dellavedova could never, Dellavedova is one playing significant minutes for a contender. So respect the Facilitators, because the Creators we all know and love couldn’t exist without their help.