Stat Central: Welcome To The New NBA, Part Three — A Possession Game

Erik Spoelstra

Erik Spoelstra is revamping how we should think of turnovers, rebounds and the possession game. (Flickr.com photo/Keith Allison)

Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley have most likely had some heated discussions over the course of the Big Three era. One of the biggest arguments, though, most likely revolved around the final decision to commit to the Miami Heat to a consistent small ball rotation. Riley probably only had one real complaint, but it was a huge one coming from the guy who once said “no rebounds=no rings”. Spoelstra was not concerned about the extra shots Miami would relent via offensive rebounds though. He figured he could make up most of the damage by forcing turnovers with his supremely athletic lineups and felt the Heat’s spacing and 3-point advantage gained would be worth the sacrifice on the boards.

Last year Miami made up the difference and then some. Miami did lose out on the boards because of their smaller lineups — they only rebounded 73 percent of available defensive rebounds (24th in the NBA) — but did make up for their rebounding deficiency by winning the turnover battle. There were 44.6 defensive rebounding opportunities per 100 possessions for the Heat last season. Miami only grabbed 32.6 of these rebounds, relenting 12 offensive boards per 100 possession to their opponent (hence, the 73 percent figure). If Miami had grabbed defensive rebounds at a top level rate instead — Golden State’s league leading 75.5 percent, for example — they would have relented only 10.9 rebounds per 100 possessions. So, Miami sacrificed around 1.1 rebounds per 100 possessions by going with their small ball lineups more often — and that is assuming they rebound at the top level if they stick with the traditional lineups they used in the first Big Three season.

But Miami erased those extra 1.1 scoring opportunities they were relenting to their opponent by taking scoring opportunities away by forcing turnovers. Miami forced opponents into 16.7 turnovers per 100 possessions — which ranked third in the NBA — while only turning the ball over 15 times themselves per 100 possessions. That 1.7 turnover differential in Miami’s favor means the Heat got back those 1.1 scoring opportunities lost via giving up offensive boards, and actually gained an extra 0.6 scoring opportunities back when it was all said and done. So instead of sacrificing possession with their non traditional lineups, Miami actually turned their lack of size into extra looks by using their speed and athleticism to win turnover battles.

These may seem like small numbers but when you put it all together, these are the couple of extra possessions each game that can swing close match ups. There are two main points to take away from the Heat example above. 1) Gaining extra scoring opportunities over your opponent is definitely a factor worth tracking and pursuing as an NBA team and 2.) you can win the possession battle in nontraditional ways.

The New York Knicks provide an even better example of team dominating the possession battle. They also gained an edge an scoring opportunities by winning the turnover battle last year, but it was the protection of the basketball along with the forcing of turnovers that won the battle in a landslide. The Knickerbockers only turned it over 13.1 times per 100 possessions last year, the lowest turnover rate in basketball. They also were top in the NBA at forcing turnovers, forcing 16.5 turnovers per 100 possession, which ranked fifth in basketball. So the Knicks earned an extra 3.4 scoring opportunities by forcing turnovers, and unlike Miami, were also an above average defensive rebounding team as well — which meant they won the possession battle quite handedly. Their ability to gain these extra scoring opportunities helped them succeed despite a porous defense, and gave their offense a boost.

Teams can also win the possession battle the traditional way, though, and the best example of that type of success may be the defending Western Conference champions. The San Antonio Spurs were one of the leagues worst offensive rebounding teams and played the turnover battle close to even most nights. They gained their possession advantage by being one of the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. The Spurs grabbed 74.9 percent of potential defensive rebounds — the third highest number in basketball. So while they did not gain many extra scoring opportunities via the offensive board, they typically made sure their opponents only had one shot opportunity. You could argue they are missing out on some opportunities to gain extra shot attempts, here, but with the ability of their offense and defense, playing the possession battle about even works well for this squad.

The Indiana Pacers on the other hand were particularly bad on offense last season, but brought themselves up to around league average offense by winning the possession battle. Specifically they were dominant on the offensive glass. The Pacers grabbed 30.1 percent of available offensive rebounds — which ranked third in the NBA. Their were 45.6 offensive rebounding opportunities for the Pacers per 100 possession and the Pacers managed to grabbed 13.8 of them, a full 1.7 offensive rebounds more than the league average. In watching Indiana play last summer we saw how that rebounding advantage helped them push Miami to seven games. Frank Vogel was adamant about the team dominating the offensive glass, installing specific schemes to garner offensive boards without sacrificing transition defense. It is a strategy that many traditional teams refuse to employ, figuring grabbing offensive boards will sacrifice another transition D. You do not have to be traditional in the way you win possession, though. You just have to win that aspect of the game.

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Topics: Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Pat Riley, San Antonio Spurs

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