An overview of NBA offenses: playstyles that work
By: Abhinav Madabhushi
Introduction to playstyles
The NBA has 30 different teams spread across 2 conferences, each with its own coaching staff and players. Each team is composed of players with different abilities and physiques, and each team has a head coach with different methods and strategies in mind. The NBA is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. The strategies teams use are essential to the teams’ success. In this article, I will mainly focus on offensive strategies. More precisely, I will talk about the different playstyles NBA teams use and through my analysis, I will answer the question: “Is there a particular playstyle(s) in the NBA that leads to success?”
Teams adopt different playstyles that suit the ability of their players. A playstyle is the way the players of the team move to get their baskets. A team usually has multiple playstyles, but not all playstyles can be adopted by one team. A team chooses the playstyles that give them points most efficiently. Some examples of playstyles are Isolation, Pick and roll, Off ball screens, Transition, cuts, spot-up shooting, post-ups, handoffs, and putbacks. I will discuss all of these playstyles in my article, their trends over the past six years, the prominent teams that used them, and finally, the correlation between the different playstyles and winning.
The data used to produce the graphs below is only from the regular season from the 2015-16 season to the 2021-22 season. The reason I used only the regular season is because the number of games each team played in the playoffs is not the same, and the result will be skewed a lot towards the playstyle of the winning team. For example, the Golden State Warriors(GSW) dominated the league for the last six years and hence there will be a very high correlation between off-ball screens and winning because that's the playstyle GSW uses. Also, the NBA started to track playstyle data only from the 2015-16 season, and hence the graphs below are reflective of only the last seven years.
Which playstyles produce the most points in the NBA?
The graph above shows the distribution of points between different playstyles on average per year. We can see that the league scores the most points through spot-up jumpers, followed by transition plays, and pick and rolls where the ball handler makes the basket. The graph for each year represents this shape, but this does not tell the full story. Is spot-up shooting most related to winning since it produces the most number of points? What if the spread of spot-up points throughout the league is the same? Do winning teams produce more points through certain playstyles that make them different from the rest? These are the questions we are going to answer at the end of this article. First, let us analyze each playstyle by seeing its trend over the years and which teams use it the most.
The y-axis of all graphs produced below is the sum of the points per game of all 30 teams in the NBA. The x-axis represents the year.
Definition: Isolation is a playstyle where the floor is cleared for one-on-one play for usually the best player on the team. The rest of the players are usually ready to catch and shoot the ball in case their man goes to double-team the player who is playing isolation.
From this graph, we can see a slight decreasing trend of points from isolation play, and a small spike in 2022. This tells us that the league is going away from isolation and going towards a playstyle that moves the ball around more. The concept of isolation makes sense theoretically as the team is producing the most points through their best player who can make plays most efficiently. There are several teams that have used Isolation playstyles, but one of the most successful teams that used it are the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James(after their championship in 2016) and the Houston Rockets with James Harden. After Kyrie left the cavs, LeBron James put the team on his back and his team led the league in isolation points in 2017. After 2017, the analytics of Daryl Morey and the coaching style of Mike De Antoni made the Houston Rockets produce around 12 percent of the total isolation points produced by all teams. They led the league in isolation for 3 years straight (from 2017-2020) and they scored almost 10 points per game more than the second-highest producer of isolation points in this time period. During this time period, the Houston Rockets finished at the number 1 seed once and the number 4 seed twice.
Definition: This is a playstyle where players quickly push the pace after a defensive rebound, usually getting an advantage in numbers, and creating good looks. Teams with fast and athletic players use this type of playstyle more.
According to the graph, the points produced through transition increased over the years. This is due to the boom of analytics over the past few years and the effect it has had on the game. Teams are pushing the pace more and more to create more opportunities and space on the offensive end. In the current 2022-23 season, transition points are expected to increase much more due to the introduction of the take-foul rule, which is when the defender does not make a play on the ball and stops a transition opportunity. There has not been any one team that is dominating points in transition every year. A few notable teams that were consistently in the top 5 in terms of scoring in transition are the Golden State Warriors (from 2015-2019) and the Milwaukee Bucks (2017–2022). The years from 2015 to 2019 mark the dominance of the Golden State Warriors where they won two consecutive championships in 2017 and 2018. The reason for their dominance in transition was due to 3 players: Stephan Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant, who scored a lot of 3-pointers in transition due to their excellent shooting ability. Another player who dominated in transition, not using 3-pointers but by his points in the paint, was Giannis Antetokounmpo. He had his breakout season in 2017 where he averaged 27 points per game. This increased to 31 points per game in the current NBA season. He has also led the league in points in transition in the past 4 years straight, averaging almost 9 points per game in transition in the current season. His long strides and excellent athletic ability and skill set helps him dominate the paint in transition.
Definition: A basketball cut is an offensive skill that occurs when a player without possession of the ball uses a specific action to move from one location on the court to another with the primary purpose of creating space and getting open from a defender.
According to the graph above, there has been no significant trend with points due to cuts over the last seven years. But there have been a couple of teams that dominate the leaderboard in terms of points through cuts. The Golden State Warriors is one of those teams, leading the league in points through cuts 4 years straight from 2015-2019 and in 2022 again. They scored almost 4.5 points per game more than the second-highest producer of points through cuts in this time period. In the 2 years in between, they were still in the top 5 but their points through cuts decreased by 6 ppg due to the injuries of Stephan Curry and Klay Thompson. Another notable team that was consistently in the top 5 in all six years in points through cuts is the Denver Nuggets. This is majorly due to the coaching style of Mike Malone. He likes to emphasize the importance of moving without the ball to create easy scoring opportunities. The development of Nikola Jokic as a passer has helped other players in the team to get easy points of cuts.
Definition: A spot-up shooter is a player who runs to a spot on the floor, catches the ball, and shoots quickly, usually off a pass from the playmaker of the team.
The points generated through spot-up shooting have increased significantly over the past few years. The analytics era has increased the demand for 3 and D players, and hence the shooting ability of teams is increasing drastically. This is one playstyle that has changed the most in the past seven years and is likely to continue on an increasing trend. One team that has been in the top 5 all six years in spot-up shooting is the San Antonio Spurs under the mentorship of one of the best coaches of all time, Gregg Popovich. He emphasizes that the ball touches the hands of all 5 players on the court before a shot is taken. He does not believe in giving the best player on the team the ball each time but instead emphasizes ball movement. Due to this reason, the ball is shuffled all across the court and someone usually gets an open spot-up jumper. There is no one player on the team that leads points through spot-up jumpers, again emphasizing the importance of team play.
Definition: This refers to when an offensive player moves down near the basket or into the lower part of the key, puts their back to the basket, and establishes position in order to receive a pass from a teammate.
The graph above shows a decreasing trend in the points scored through post-ups. This is due to the decreasing importance of the big man, a position that used to have a lot of importance. Teams are moving towards more shooting on the floor and playing “small ball”, a lineup without a center. Still, there have been some prominent big men in the past seven years, starting from the dominance of Lemarcus Aldridge on the San Antonio Spurs and Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2020s. LaMarcus Aldridge has led the league in post-up points in 2016 and for 2 years straight in 2018 and 2019. The most dominant big man over the last 6 years in terms of post-scoring, though, has been Joel Embiid. He has led post up scoring 3 years straight in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Although he is yet to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a deep playoff run, he has had a significant impact on the game with his post-game. The reigning 2-time MVP Nikola Jokic also has been a dominant center in the NBA second to only Joel Embiid in post-scoring.
Definition: The handoff is a tactic consisting of offensive action that occurs when one player in possession of the basketball initially dribbles it toward a second player and then that same second player receives the ball, particularly via a handoff, to essentially dribble it as well for scoring or playmaking opportunities
There has been an increasing trend in the points produced by handoffs during the six years. This is due to the fact that the league is becoming a more and more guard-dominant league, and more plays are being called for guards every year. A big man usually does a handoff to a guard to create space to immediately shoot it (usually the case) or to get ahead of the defender for a driving lane. Players that have used the handoff extensively to get open 3 points shots are JJ Redick (who got passes from Blake Griffin in the Clippers and Joel Embiid in the Philadelphia 76ers), Stephan Curry (who gets passes from Draymond Green), and Duncan Robinson (who gets his passes from Bam Adebayo). JJ Redick averaged 5.7 points per game through handoffs when he was on the Philadelphia 76ers, the most anybody has averaged through handoffs. Overall though, the points scored through handoffs are the least compared to any other playstyle in the NBA, marking its very low usage rate.
Definition: An off-ball screen is a basketball screen set by a screener on a defender that is not directly guarding the ball.
The number of points scored through off-ball screens is on a decreasing trend, which is surprising because the team dominating this era, the Golden State Warriors, is using it every year at a percentage higher than any other team in the league. The points produced by the entire league through off-ball screens have been significantly low too compared to the other playstyles. The Golden State Warriors itself are responsible for almost 8-10 percent of the league's total points in off-ball screens. They have led the league in points through off-ball screens six years straight, even during the absence of Stephan Curry and Klay Thompson. This shows the coaching style of Steve Kerr, one of the all-time great coaches of the NBA. He has created a culture where all the players move without the ball, giving screens and making cuts. The Golden State Warriors score almost 6.5 ppg more than the 2nd highest producer of points through off-ball screens when Curry and Thompson are playing, showing how well the two fit into the system.
Pick and Roll
Definition: The pick and roll in basketball is an offensive play in which a player sets a screen for a teammate handling the ball and then moves toward the basket to receive a pass.
The pick-and-roll game is one of the most fundamental plays in basketball. All basketball players use it to some extent since it is such an effective play to run. When played with a dominant big man and highly skilled guard, the pick and roll is a nightmare to defend. The pick-and-roll has two ways of producing points; either by the guard who shoots it or the big man who dives to the basket. Due to the decrease in the importance of the big man and the increase in the importance of guards, the pick-and-rolls where the ball handler scores are on an increasing trend while the pick-and-roll game where the roll man scores are on a decreasing trend. The two young stars Trae Young and Luca Doncic have been in the top 5 in points through pick and roll since they have come into the league. Even Damian Lillard also uses the pick-and-roll with high efficiency, especially due to his long-range shooting. Apart from guards, big men that get a lot of points through rolling to the basket are Joel Embiid, Nikola Vucevic, and Marc Gasol to name a few. The pick-and-roll is played by many NBA players and teams and there is no one team dominating the points through pick-and-roll.
Definition: A move in which a player scores a basket immediately after securing an offensive rebound.
The points produced through putbacks have not changed much over the years. Putbacks are usually extra effort rebounds and presence of mind to keep the possession alive and score points by catching the defense off guard. This category is usually dominated by strong rugged players who are usually big men who are proactive on the offensive boards. Players who have dominated the points through putbacks are Andre Drummond from the Detroit Pistons and Hassan Whiteside from the Miami Heat. They have led all players in points through putbacks from 2015 to 2020. They have dominated the offensive glass, scoring 4.5 points per game on average every year.
Definition: This category contains points through every other playstyle other than the ones discussed above.
The points through other playstyles (Miscellaneous) have not changed over the years as shown in the graph above. There is also no particular team that is dominating this category. But players like James Harden, Stephan Curry, and Anthony Davis among many more tend to lead the points produced in this category. There is no definitive way to explain this but players who tend to have the ball in their hand a lot (the star players) dominate the points in this category.
Correlation between playstyles, offensive rating, and winning
The above correlation plot shows how much each playstyle is related to offensive rating and win percentage. From the plot, we can clearly see that spot-up shooting has the highest correlation to offensive rating. From our previous discussions, we could see how points produced through spot-up shooting have increased throughout the years and how it is the playstyle with the most points produced. Hence, this correlation is of no surprise to us. Apart from spot-up shooting, we can see that points through isolation have a strong correlation with the offensive rating and the win percentage. Points through Isolation are produced by star players and from this, we can see how the NBA is a star-dominated league. Transition also has a very high correlation to offensive rating and a fairly high correlation with win percentage. This emphasizes the importance of pushing the pace in the modern NBA as it makes it easier to produce open looks. Points produced through cuts also have a fairly high correlation to winning and offensive ratings, once again stating the importance of off-ball movement. This also explains the fairly high correlation between off-ball screens and winning. Another reason that could explain the correlation between off-ball movement and winning is the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and we have discussed before that this team has dominated the points in this category for all seven years. The pick and roll where the ball is scored by the ball handler also have a fairly high correlation with offensive rating, reinstating the growing importance of guards in the NBA. Lastly, the miscellaneous category also has a surprisingly high correlation with both winning and offensive ratings. This can be explained by the fact that cuts, transition, and off-ball screens are correlated to the miscellaneous category. This shows that these playstyles that are related to winning are producing points not only through the playstyle directly but also indirectly through the miscellaneous category.
Effect of defense on playstyles
Till now we have talked about the relation of different playstyles with offensive rating and winning, but we have not talked about the effect of defense on the effectiveness of certain playstyles. Let’s first talk about isolation. When the star player of the team plays isolation effectively, the team usually hunts for mismatches by setting screens. By doing this, the team increases the chances of the star player making the shot. For example, James Harden hunts for mismatches onto big men to use his speed and skillset to his advantage to make an easy shot. Another offensive playstyle, transition, is ignited usually when the team plays good defense. Good defensive plays lead to the opposition team trailing which leads to an advantage in numbers for the offensive team. Pick and roll and off-ball screens are other playstyles used to create mismatches so that offensive players can easily score. A big man setting a screen to a guard leads to either the guard getting an easy shot or the big man getting an open layup inside. Off-ball screens lead to open cuts toward the basket as seen by the high correlation between the two in the correlation plot. Some of these offensive playstyles do not work as effectively when the defensive team switches to a zone defense. In this case, teams usually switch a drive and kick offense, leading to a lot of open spot-up shots. When the offensive team has a better big man than the opposition team, posting the big man up is a great way to score points. Similarly, when the offensive team has guards with great shooting ability, a handoff creates space from the defender for a fraction of a second so that the shooter can get the shot off quickly. The grit and skillset of the defender in this case dictate how fast he can recover to contest the shot. In this way, based on the defensive capabilities of both teams, offenses are molded, especially in the postseason, to increase the chances of winning.