Some stats are easy to figure out. Look at shooting percentage. Did the ball go in the hoop? How many times did the ball try and go in the hoop? And do you know division? To borrow from a show that I'm excited about today, it's the AT&T of stats.
From there, you can start to get into the advanced analytics. A three is more valuable than a two, right? Well, how much more valuable? And how can that value be changed into a shooting percentage? Thus, the favorite effective field goal percentage (eFG%) was born. It's like cooking a steak: slightly more complicated, but ultimately, you're still just applying heat to meat.
But then you have stats that make absolutely no sense to somebody without an advanced math degree. Stats that you're not quite sure what they tell you, other than that they have to mean something. Everybody, I'd like to introduce you to John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER).
You've probably seen it by now; Hollinger was over at ESPN for a while before going to the Memphis Grizzlies. And you probably know what it measures just from the name: Player efficiency! But what exactly can you do with a stat that has a league-average of 15 and it's tough to tell what a difference of 0.1 actually means? The answer is direct comparisons.
For most, this is used to rank the best players in the league. But for me, the most apt direct comparisons that can be made are the ones between teams. Or more accurate, between a team and their opponents. Especially when broken down by position, this can be a useful tool. Who played more efficiently, the Heat's power forwards or the Knicks' power forwards in a game between the two teams? Learning this can go a long way towards learning who is actually the better team.
And that's what I want to do: use PER to not necessarily say who has the best team, but who has the most well-rounded team. Who is the NBA team with the least amount of holes? Who can't be attacked? And using stats from 82games.com, that's what I intend to find out.
To figure out how well-rounded a team is, I first need to look at PER by position for each team. This isn't the players that I'm looking at; somebody like LeBron can play as many as three different positions and cover five different people in a game. Instead, I'm going to focus on just a specific position on the court, whoever was playing that position for a period of time.
Then, I'm going to compare that PER to their opponents' PER by position. This should give me a Net PER after subtracting the team's at a position from their opponents. Simple math skills hats on: if the Net PER is positive, then that means a team is better than their opponents on the average at that certain position. If the Net PER is negative, then on average their opponents have gotten the best of them at that position this season.
Finally, I'm going to look at every team overall and tally how many positions with a positive Net PER they have. If they have all five positions on the floor with a positive Net PER, then they are one of my most well-rounded teams. If they have four, then there is just one weakness that can often be covered up by the other players on the floor. But if there are two or more weaknesses, then that team should be looking for some help at the trade deadline if they want to be truly elite.
The Five-Star Squads
When I began compiling this list, I started to think about all the ways that I could say how the Thunder had a complete team around Kevin Durant, or how Chris Paul is so good because of the people he could pass to, or why the New York Knicks are sudden contenders because of their team play. But all of those teams have weaknesses, sore spots.
In the end, there was only one team in the NBA that had a positive Net PER at every single position on the floor. And they're currently at 31-18 and lurking in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race.
|Team||Biggest Strength||Smallest Strength|
|Denver Nuggets||SG (+2.3)||C (+0.5)|
None of the Denver Nuggets' strengths are outlandishly huge, but that's because the team does not have any breakout stars. In fact, of the top 20 qualified NBA players as ranked by PER this season, all at 20.5 PER or higher, exactly zero are Denver Nuggets. (And we're talking about a supposedly elite group that contains Andray Blatche and Andre Drummond here.) Among Denver's starters, the highest PER is Kenneth Faried at 18.8.
But then again, none of the Denver Nuggets players have a low PER as well. Of the eight Nuggets players who have recorded at least 500 minutes this season, exactly one has a PER below the league average of 15.0. And that player - Andre Iguodala - is actually experiencing his lowest PER since his rookie year in Philadelphia at 14.6, just a bit below the league average. As it stands, the Nuggets are destroying Daryl Morey's theory that you necessarily need a star to keep up with the Big Dogs in the Western Conference.
And it has paid dividends for the Nuggets in the more conventional stats as well. They're seventh in the NBA in offensive rating with 108.7 points per 100 possessions and 13th in defensive rating with 105.1 points allowed. Of Dean Oliver's Four Factors, they're in the top ten of the league in all four offensive facets of the factors and top ten in two of the four defensive facets (turnover percentage and free throw factor). And they have the most offensive rebounds in the league, second-most field goals made, fourth-most blocks, and fifth-most steals.
Will it result in a championship? That remains to be seen: the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, and Heat all have higher average Net PERs by position. But when playing the Nuggets, there is not a specific area that you can attack. They're strong across the board.
The Four-Star Squads
After the Nuggets, there are a host of teams that were so close, yet so far. This group contains the expected names at the top of the NBA, and in most cases, the team's glaring weakness can be overcome by strengths elsewhere on the court.
|Team||Biggest Strength||Only Weakness|
|Atlanta Hawks||C (+1.1)||PG (-1.4)|
|Los Angeles Clippers||PG (+13.3)||SG (-0.0)|
|Miami Heat||SG (+9.8)||PG (-4.5)|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||SF (+11.5)||C (-5.9)|
|San Antonio Spurs||C (+8.4)||PF (-2.0)|
The Hawks may be the most surprising team on this list, but they're also the weakest: all four of their supposed "strengths" are by less than one rating point. This means that if they go through an exceptionally tough stretch, what may be a strength now can easily turn into a weakness going forward. To show how easily that can happen, with Chris Paul out, the Clippers have dropped 3.0 PER at point guard over the last two weeks alone.
But in speaking of the Clippers, point guard remains a tremendous strength. In fact, Paul and Bledsoe have given the Clippers the single biggest positional strength over their opponents in the NBA. And they don't have much of a weakness to overcome; the Clippers were decimal points from joining the Nuggets as the second team with five positive Net PERs.
The Heat, Thunder, and Spurs are all similar: James, Wade, Durant, Westbrook, Duncan, and Ginobili are all capable of leading their respective teams to the championship. But in order to do it, they're essentially playing four on five because of a glaring weakness on the floor. I don't expect any of these teams to address these needs this season, but it's something that they may want to look into during the offseason if they want to stand out as truly elite.
Need Some Help
Then, there is the rest of the NBA. I'm not saying that the rest of the NBA can't win; I'm just saying that they'll probably have to borrow some of Ole Miss's bribe money to be able to help them out. (Too soon?) Below is a list of the seven teams that have only two positions with a negative Net PER. And yes, this also explains why I wouldn't count out the Pistons or Timberwolves from playoff contention quite yet, either.
Chicago Bulls - PG and SG
Detroit Pistons - SG and PF
Golden State Warriors - SF and C
Memphis Grizzlies - SG and SF
Milwaukee Bucks - PF and C
Minnesota Timberwolves - PG and SG
New York Knicks - PG and SF
Missing the Rockets, Pacers, or Lakers? That's because they're nowhere to be found here. The Rockets only have a positive Net PER at shooting guard and small forward (and even the one at SF is only +0.1). The Pacers are only more efficient than their opponents at small forward and power forward, although those strengths are pronounced and their weaknesses aren't that weak. And the Lakers only have positives at, and you'd never be able to guess this, shooting guard and center.
All of these teams have holes that they should be looking to fill if they want to make a serious run at the title. Because those well-rounded teams up there? Yeah, they have the weapons to be able to attack any weakness.
And if you're the Grizzlies or Warriors and draw the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs? Well, let's just say that I have mercy on your soul.