Reverse Engineering the Ideal Offense
There is still some mystery surrounding exactly what the Brooklyn Nets will look like on both sides of the ball (and some early season night terrors). We know coach Hollins will expect them to be more active and intense on defense, but there will also be some change to the offensive sets. Over this past weekend I was browsing through some offensive plays that the Memphis Grizzlies ran under Lionel Hollins (as all the cool kids do) when I had a bit of an epiphany.
I was attempting to superimpose some Grizzlies plays onto the Nets personnel when it hit me like a Steven Adams elbow: I need to figure out where these guys should be shooting from. I have since spent a few too many hours analyzing the offensive skills of Brooklyn’s best lineup and reverse engineering a play to get them into those desirable spots. What follows is the result and it contains a lot of semi-technical stuff (which is itself a technical term), so if you like Xs and Os welcome to my nerd party.
I’m honestly not sure yet what the best Nets lineup is going to be, but I can take a pretty good guess. Assuming everyone is healthy, Deron Williams will be the point guard, Joe Johnson will be at shooting guard, and Brook Lopez will be the center. At the end of a game I would be surprised if the power forward isn’t Kevin Garnett, despite having been in the league almost as long as he’s been out of it (he’ll actually cross that mark on April 19, 2015). The small forward spot is the hard one, although I expect it to be a shooter. Since there’s not a lot of data available for the brand new Brooklyn bomber, Bojan Bogdanovic (whose name is alluringly alliterative), I’m going to insert Mirza Teletovic in this lineup. (Side note: Yikes, this is a rough defensive crew, but that’s a story for another day.)
Ideal Shooting Spots
Easy, everyone gets a slam dunk. Next section.
Fine, fine, I guess it’s not realistic to expect all five players to be in the restricted zone at the end of a play. That said, the slam dunk or layup is the best shot, so we already know we want someone in there. As has been much discussed over the past few years, the next best spot is the corner three point shot, so we should expect to utilize that as long as someone is efficient from there. As for the rest, and their exact placement, I used the effective field goal percentage (eFG%) data found on NBA.com. The reason I went with eFG over standard field goal percentage is that eFG accounts for the extra point that a three-pointer earns. The calculation is super-easy (you multiply made 3 point field goals by 1.5 before dividing by attempts), but it shows the true value of each shot.
For this analysis I combined field goals for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, mostly because a few of these players didn’t play too much last season (specifically the large, Lopez-shaped one). I also removed any shot styles or locations that had fewer than 30 attempts. That’s still a smaller sample size than I’d like, but I’m not going for the Nobel Prize in Basketball Journalism here (I’m saving that for my “How a Joe Johnson Step-Back Cures Ebola” opus).
The best overall eFG% out of those five guys listed above was a little surprising to me: Deron Williams in the left corner. The sample size is low at only 46 attempts, but he’s hit 22 of those for a 47.8% FG, or a 71.7% eFG (22*1.5/46). Alternatively, Deron’s taken 585 above the break three pointers in the past 2 seasons. While he’s hit a respectable 36.1% of them (54.1 eFG%), he, unlike Baby, should be put in a corner.
After Deron in the corner comes Mirza Teletovic in the corner. Luckily for the purposes of this article, Mirza is better from the right corner, although much like Deron, he has not taken nearly as many as above the break threes. In the past two seasons Teletovic shot 388 threes from above the break, but only 26 from the right corner, despite making 12 of those for a 69.2 eFG%.
The next placement is utterly unsurprising: Brook Lopez in the restricted area at 65.5%, with even better numbers for layups, dunks, and banked hook shots. That means we need to get Brook on the block, specifically the right block.
Now we’re getting into territory where shots are less reliable. Above the break three pointers are rarely high-efficiency shots unless you’ve got someone like Steph Curry (spoiler alert: the Nets do not), and therefore we don’t want everyone hanging out behind the line. So then we’re in mid-range nation, which can be a slippery slope between high percentage foul line shots and Josh Smith jumpers (28%…oof).
This is the part where Kevin Garnett becomes important. KG is one of the rare players that is a very good mid-range shooter, hitting 45% of them in the past two seasons. One of his favorite spots to shoot from is that pick-and-pop area between the elbow and the wing. Since we’ve already got people in the corners and one on the right block, we’re putting KG on the left side, about 18-20 feet from the basket.
So here we are with Joe Johnson, who has to be the distributor…Iso-Joe himself. He’s going to end up at the right elbow, where he’s right around 50% shooting, but he has the most options, which I’ll discuss as we go.
If the players were just told to go stand on those spots it probably wouldn’t work very well (although I’m convinced that’s what some NBA coaches do). Therefore, we need a few offensive actions to get them in place and hopefully shake off a defender (by “offensive actions” I mean things such as cuts and screens, not what went down at the Gold Club).
I’ll start with the easiest one: Mirza Teletovic is just going to go stand in the corner as if he used a naughty word while helping his dad change a tire. Forget about him for now, he’ll be over there when we need him.
Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett are starting across the lane from their end position, so Lopez is on the left block and Garnett on the right elbow.
Deron Williams is bringing the ball up while Joe Johnson waits just outside the wing area setting up for a dribble handoff.
This is an uncomplicated play by NBA standards, but when broken down into segments, plays are simple. Piling action on top of action and taking into account the options of every player is where things get complicated. Since this article is long enough, I’m keeping it simple.
So last we saw Deron and Johnson, they were in the middle of a dribble handoff so JJ can get the ball. After his handoff, Williams cuts tight around Garnett at the elbow, giving the impression that he’s trying to lose his man. He then dives straight to the rim and sets a quick screen for Brook Lopez to move across the baseline. After releasing the screen, Deron sprints to the left corner looking for the pass.
Following the screen by Williams, Brook Lopez cuts under the basket and attempts to seal off his defender near the right block. Meanwhile, Garnett is moving toward the left elbow to set a ball screen on Joe Johnson’s defender. After releasing the screen, Garnett will “pop” into his position between the elbow and the wing looking for the ball.
Joe Johnson dribbles right to utilize the Garnett screen and drives down toward the right elbow. Oh the options he has…
As I see it Joe Johnson has 4 basic options.
1. As outlined above, the best shot is Deron Williams in the left corner, so that’s Johnson’s first look. If Deron’s defender gets hung up under the basket or cheats toward either Brook Lopez or Kevin Garnett, the pass goes to Williams.
2. Should the defender stick to Deron, Joe looks to the block and checks on Lopez. If he has his man sealed, that’s where the ball would go. From there, Brook has two options: if Teletovic’s defender comes for the double, he would kick it to Mizra in the corner, otherwise the shot goes up.
3. The next best option is going to be instinctual for a player like Johnson, and that is to score. If his defender got left behind on the Garnett screen (which, let’s face it, was probably moving) and neither of the above options are there, Joe puts up a jumper.
4. The worst option in this case is to slide it over to KG. If Deron’s man is dumb enough to leave the corner to run at Garnett, he can swing the ball to Williams, otherwise that patented KG 18 footer flies toward the hoop (legal disclaimer: patent office will neither confirm nor deny that papers have been filed).
Of those options above, even the worst one is an area where Kevin Garnett hit 47.3% of the shots he took. That means that, on average, they can expect a minimum of 0.95 points per possession. Over the past two seasons, the Nets pace (average number of plays per 48 minutes) was 92.46. That equals an expectation of 87.8 points per game. In the best case scenario, the eFG% is 71.7, which calculates to an expectancy of 132.59 points per game. Taking a crude average of the best and worst options, the Nets can expect 110 points per game running this play over and over again, which would have put them atop the league last season (the Clippers led with 107.5 per game).
Obviously this is simplified and takes very little of defense into account. It also doesn’t account for the scenario where all options are covered. In that case, the team would ideally move into further actions. If the opening night Celtics game was an indication, however, layered action is probably a lot to ask for since the offense more closely resembled zombies wandering the streets than NBA players.
The animated gif below shows the movement and ball options described above. I know it’s a little rough (and I don’t know why the dots change colors), but it gets the point across. Click to see it move as if by magic.
That’s as far as I’m going to go for now, please leave some comments or talk to me on Twitter @YesThatBrian. I accept any and all questions, criticisms, suggestions, and unconditional praise.
If you’re liking this sort of deep dive into play structure let me know, I hope to do it periodically with actual Nets plays from the season. Of course, if they’re going to perform like they did against Boston, I may just have to keep speaking theoretically. Also, if you don’t hear from me for a while, I’m stuck searching stats at NBA.com and may be under some sort of stat geek spell. Contact the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office immediately (and yes, that’s a deep, deep Harry Potter reference. Dorks gonna dork).