Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The NBA Playoffs: Does Defense Really Improve? (Part 1 of 3)

(This is the first part of a three-part series on defense in the NBA Playoffs)

We often hear from NBA analysts that defense improves, or at least intensifies between game 82 of the regular season and Game 1 of the playoffs. It seems intuitive enough, the playoffs start and there’s a lot to play for: pride, fame, and winning the ‘ship. All that tends to lead to more aggressive play. The LeBron James's drive harder to the basket while the Andrew Bynum's go up for the block harder. It's human nature-- the more that's on the line, the harder they play. But does that aggression lead to better defense during the playoffs? Play-by-play guys and experts like to say it does. Coaches and players like to say it does. But do the stats agree? Let's take a look.

The table below compares and contrasts defensive performance in the regular season and the playoffs during the 1980s. The two metrics used in this comparison are Pace (Possessions Per 48 Minutes) and Offensive Rating (Points Per 100 Possessions).

For the 1980s as a whole, the pace of the game slowed down by 3.5% in the playoffs, but the Offensive Rating remained the same. This result shows that there were fewer points scored in the playoffs, but the sole reason was that the pace of the game slowed down; playoff offense operated with the same efficiency as that of regular season.

This leads to two conclusions. Either the pace of the games slow by their own accord because of the increased concentration in the playoffs or tougher defense forces offenses to slow down and make better shots. More than likely it's the former.

While the intensity gets ratcheted to a new level in the playoffs it doesn't appear to change offensive efficiency. Team's are still scoring just as much per 100 possessions, despite scoring less per game because of fewer possessions. That's not a likely definition of better defense.

Some Notable Facts About The 1980s:
  • At least in the 1980s, there was little evidence of correlation between the change in pace during the playoffs and the change in offensive efficiency.
  • In 1981, the playoffs were played at a 7% slower the pace than the regular season; the largest drop-off in the 80s.
  • In 1985, both the pace of the game increased and offensive efficiency improved, by 1.2% and .8%, respectively.
  • In 1987, playoff pace decreased by 2.6%, but was almost made up for with the 2.1% increase in offensive efficiency.
So despite the theory, it appears that, at least in the 1980s, defense is not marginally better in the playoffs than in the regular season. Scoring goes down, but offensive efficiency doesn't change.

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