Saturday, May 14, 2011

The NBA Playoffs: Does Defense Really Improve? (Part 2 of 3)

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

Part One: The 1980s

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? They didn't for the 1980s...but now we're looking at the 90s. Let's take a look.

The table below compares and contrasts defensive performance in the regular season and the playoffs during the 1990s. The two metrics used in this comparison are Pace (Possessions Per 48 Minutes) and Offensive Rating (Points Per 100 Possessions).

For the 1990’s as a whole, the pace of the game slowed down by 4.0% in the playoffs, and the Offensive Rating decreased by 1.7%.  This result shows that there were fewer points scored in the playoffs, mostly because of the slower pace being compounded by the decrease in offensive rating. Compared to the 1980s, which showed zero actual difference in efficiency, the 1990s do show us some evidence of defenses playing "better," though it's not a big difference.

Notables Facts About The 1990s:
  • Unlike the 1980s, there was evidence of defense becoming better in the playoffs in the 1990s. The pace in the playoffs slowed down by 4% in 1990s, more than the 3.5% in the 1980s. While the 1980s’ playoff offensive efficiency was no different than the regular season, the playoff offensive efficiency during the 1990s decreased by a small, but significant 1.7%
  • The regular season pace decreased in 9 of 10 years in the 1990s. Anyone who watched the NBA in 1990s knows that when the Bad Boy Pistons came to prominence, the league became progressively slower and a great deal of physical play was allowed until the “Derek Harper” rule was instituted.(Unofficially around '97 or '98 and than officially in 2001)
  • Only two years in the 1990s saw an increase in offensive rating during the playoffs; those increases were only .1% and .2%.

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