Friday, May 20, 2011

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

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

Part One: The 1980s
Part Two: The 1990s

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 2000s. The two metrics used in this comparison are Pace (Possessions Per 48 Minutes) and Offensive Rating (Points Per 100 Possessions).

For the 2000s as a whole, the pace of the game slowed down by 2.3% in the playoffs, and the Offensive Rating decreased by 2.7%. 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.

Notables Facts About The 2000s:
  • The drop-off in offensive production from the regular season and playoffs was greater than the 1980s and 1990s.
  • There were no years in the 2000s where the offensive rating or pace increased in the playoffs.
  • The last 5 years, 2007-2011, have been an era of increasingly stingy playoff defense.
  • The playoff pace decreased the least in the 2000s even as the playoff offensive rating decreased the most.
The conclusion that should be reached based on the tables is that playoff defense is better relative to the regular season and has been becoming increasingly better from the 1980s to the present. I originally thought it was analysts not looking deep enough into the stats. Why has playoff defense improved more as time progressed? I can't really explain it. Any ideas?

There's A Stat For That

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