There are a lot of opinions out there about the NBA Playoffs. Everyone from sports writers to ex-players to neighborhood barbers has something to add when it comes to deciding basketball's greatest team. You know what there aren't a lot of, though? Facts.
Introducing Charlie Rohlf—your go-to expert on all things NBA stats. Mr. Rohlf works for STATS LLC as Manager of Basketball Products, but more specifically, he's the guy you talk to when you want to understand nuances only the NBA's SportVU cameras can see. As we've written before, SportVU—pronounced sportview—is a six-camera system for NBA games that allows statisticians to collect player and ball data at a rate of 25 times per second.
So before we gear up for the NBA Finals, it’s time to take a deep dive into the data to find out what exactly it took for the Cavaliers and Warriors to advance to the most important stage of the 2014-15 season. Whether you’re wondering how many times James Harden took trips to the free throw line in the midst of the Lil’ B curse, exactly how much of an impact LeBron James has on the Cavs' success, or who’s winning as the best backcourt duo in the league (Hint hint: splish splash), Rohlf and his SportVU cameras have the answers.
Interview conducted May 21, 2015 by Aisha Quinones (@bequinones).
How much more effective are the Splash Brothers in comparison to other backcourt duos in the playoffs?
Yeah, great question. Obviously I’m going to focus on SportVU stats. There’s plenty of publicly available stats, you know, to help you prove [this], too. One thing we jump to is those two players' usage numbers. In terms of the four [Conference Finals] backcourts you got Curry & Thompson for Golden State, Terry & Harden for Houston, Irving & Shumpert in Cleveland, and Teague & Korver in Atlanta. They are leading those four by a pretty wide margin in terms of just touches and possessions of the ball. So they’re averaging just over a 142 combined touches per game. Curry is by far the individual leader with 93.6 touches per game, Houston second, Cleveland third, and Atlanta fourth. Houston is 125 [touches] on average and Harden is second highest with 79 so it’s a pretty good gap between Curry and Harden. So that’s one measure, just in terms of them dominating the ball.
But not only are they running the offense through them and controlling the ball, but they’re being really effective as shooters. [In regards to] three-point field goal percentage, they are leading again by far. They are shooting 44 percent combined, Irving and Shumpert right now are second at 40 percent but in our SportVU measurements is really where [the Splash Bros.] set themselves apart. We look at three-point shooting two different ways. We have catch and shoot attempts—they’re 49 percent on catch and shoots attempts combined. And then they’re also leading in contested three-point shooting—the tougher shots. And despite taking more contested threes than anyone else, they’ve attempted 61 contested threes and are shooting 36 percent, 22 out of 61. And that’s also the best. So not only have they shot the most of those hard shots, but they’re still shooting the best percentage.
Kyle Korver, known for being the Hawks' most ruthless three-point shooter, experienced a slight three-point percentage drop in the playoffs when facing the Nets and Wizards. Is there any data that can explain this?A couple points there. I think the best one—in terms of the postseason right now—is the percentage of threes from pull-ups are up and his catch-and-shoots are down. So in the regular season he [shot] off the dribble on only 12 percent of his threes and that is up to 21 percent now. And then his catch-and-shoots are conversely down, they were 86 percent in the regular season now they’re down to 75 percent. And just as you’d expect that trickles down to the percentage of his shots that are contested and that are uncontested. So regular season 31.8 percent of his three pointers were contested, that has jumped all the way to 45 percent. That’s an easy way to think of how closely his shot is being contested more frequently than it was in the regular season. But then, regardless of all those numbers, you know, his shooting is just down all across the board. Pull-up field goal percentages—down. Catch-and-shoot—down. Contested and uncontested—both down. So you can kind of look at it either way; he’s taking tougher shots but he’s also just in a slump.
You know, the Splash Brothers are great and have been carrying them offensively, but really [the Warriors'] defense has anchored them just as much.
If you could describe LeBron James in the playoffs versus how LeBron James performed in the regular season, how would you put that in a statistical manner?
For the Cavs, it’s been all about LeBron offensively. Love has been out and in that last series, Irving was hobbling around. It’s been all on LeBron’s shoulders. They've gotten some good contributions from J.R. Smith and Shumpert has had a couple big games but, you know, they’re really leaning on LeBron heavily and you can tell that through his isolations. His isolations have been way up in the playoffs—many more per game. But, in terms of what many people have been talking about: His field goal percentage has been down [and] his efficiency has struggled. So when he’s the ball handler in a ball screen…the regular season he shot 45 percent on shots that resulted from the ball screens, that’s fallen all the way to 30 percent in the playoffs. Uncontested three-pointers (open threes) in the regular season he shot 37 percent but in the playoffs he’s only shooting 13 percent.
Which is definitely something a lot of people have pointed out lately and noticed the most throughout the playoffs.
Yup, and he has success—I think the Bulls series illustrated that—in the post. His field goal percentage is actually a tick higher in the playoffs, [jumping] from 45 to 48 [percent]. So he has made up for it a little bit there but, you know, you've got to figure those uncontested threes are going to get better at some point.
It’s definitely something you can’t overlook.
Right! And I bet you find that a number of those uncontested threes come off ball screens. You know, the players are playing under him trying to take away drives, knowing you’re struggling shooting.
The “Hack-A-…” method has caused a huge uproar in the league lately with many saying that it is ruining the game. From a statistical standpoint, for players such as DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, how much have their free throw shooting percentages improved from the regular season to when they were in the first round of the playoffs to the semifinals?
So DeAndre has improved, but unfortunately he’s out [of the playoffs]. Dwight Howard actually went down. DeAndre on the year was a 39 percent free throw shooter, Dwight Howard was 53 percent. Round one, DeAndre was leveled, shot 38 percent...Dwight dropped a little to 46 percent. [In] round two DeAndre got a little better at 46 percent and Dwight continued to drop so he went down to 39 percent. Dwight has been trending in the wrong direction.
Staying on the topic of Dwight Howard, how much of a rim protector was he? Had you noticed any differences of when he’s on the court versus when he’s off?
So Howard, on the regular season, opponents shot 45.7 percent on shots at the rim that he contested so that’s quite good. Playoffs, just as good, 45.1 percent so opponents were 51 for 113. That [was] obviously a key to their defense.
Does James Harden really get contact that much more than other players to get to the line that frequently?
Oh, he was phenomenal in the regular season. Harden is averaging 10.6 drives per 36 minutes. Drives often lead to fouls and he is getting fouled on 17 percent of his drives right now [in] the playoffs. Regular season, he was 10.4 drives per 36, pretty much the same but getting fouled on 20.3 percent of his drives. His free throw rate is down a bit, too—which you’d expect if you’re taking fewer attempts. He is shooting a higher percentage though on drives, so when he does attempt the shot and gets the shot off, he's [making] 48.5 percent in the regular season and that has taken a slight turn up to 51.9 percent in the postseason. So he is making up for it a little bit. Not getting to the line quite as often but he’s converting more of his shots.
If you could, generally talk about the last four teams’ philosophies that you see through the data. What stands out to you most?
I think, as it is almost always…it’s all about LeBron right now. We already talked about his isolation, that number is really jumping out. We just worked with ESPN on something [about] his iso’s and he just had 18 isolations in Game 1 versus the Hawks which is the highest single game total for the playoffs, third highest for the entire season. And the Cavs, in general, had a lot of isolations. It has not just been LeBron—Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith are all trending upward in isolations and it’ll be very interesting to see if they can keep that going.
And then on the other side, Golden State…everyone talks about Golden State as a jump shooting team, whether a jump shooting team can win. They're forgetting that they were a phenomenal defensive team and it’s only improving. Bogut on shots he’s defending at the rim, opponents are shooting 36.1 percent. That would have led the league on the regular season. He was 41.4 percent in the regular season, which was also outstanding amongst other leaders, but the postseason 36.1 percent would [make him] the league leader. So that’s a huge part of Golden State’s success and something that gets overlooked. You know, the Splash Brothers are great and have been carrying them offensively, but really [the Warriors'] defense has anchored them just as much.