Friday, November 2, 2007

Rockets v. Lakers- An early season look

On the first night of the regular season, the LA Lakers played the Houston Rockets. (San Antonio also played Portland, and Utah played Golden State, but let's ignore that for a minute.)

The game turned out to be a nailbiter-- the Lakers staged a furious comeback, tying the game on a Derek Fisher 2-pointer, only to see the Rockets regain the lead seconds later on a contested 3-pointer from Shane Battier. A foul to put Kobe on the line, an intentionally missed free throw, and a scrum for the ball later, the Rockets left LA with a 95-93 victory.

I didn't watch the entire game, but I did get to see a good portion of it. I watched the entire first half at home before leaving to do some errands. After the errands, I headed to the gym and watched most of the fourth quarter while running on the treadmill (well, mostly running--some walking might also have been involved).

The game looked like a defensive struggle from what I could tell, with both teams contesting shots and generally making life miserable for the other side. Ronny Turiaf, playing big minutes with Lamar Odom injured, looked particularly active and energetic on the defensive end. That said, the number of free throws that Kobe took (he was 18-27 from the charity stripe-- actually a bad night for him, percentage-wise) made me think that I might have been confusing good defense with a propensity to foul.

Well, was it good defense? Over the summer, I looked at how forced turnover rate, opponents true shooting percentage, and defensive rebound rate were the main contributors to good team defense (or defensive efficiency, defined as points given up per 100 possession). So I decided to look at the statistics from the game and see what information I could tease out.

I was particularly interested to see what these numbers told me for two contrasting reasons: (1) Last year, the Lakers were a very good offensive team, but a very poor defensive team. A strong defensive showing could give hope for a more successful season. (2) Last year, the Rockets were one of the top defensive teams in the league. They replaced Jeff Van Gundy, a defensive minded coach, with Rick Adelman, an offensive minded coach. A good defensive showing might indicate that they are likely to retain their stellar defensive play while integrating an improved offensive.

Of course, this was just one game, so the results might just as easily tell us nothing of lasting importance (Hey, I'm a blogger. That means I want instant satisfaction. No time for reasoned analysis here...).

First step was to take the information from the box score and convert it into the numbers that I needed.

[pause while I go and do this...]

Before sharing the numbers with you, I just want to put them in some perspective. Last year, the league average defensive efficiency (according to my unofficial numbers) was 103.85, average forced turnover percentage was 15.92%, average opponents TS% was 54.15%, and average defensive rebound rate was 72.91%.

And now the show... (boy, this post has already gotten long)

Last night, Houston (last year's numbers in parentheses) had a defensive efficiency rating of 96.25 (97.64) with a forced TO rate of 12.42% (15.03%), an opponent's TS% of 48.54% (51.16%), and a defensive rebound rate of 77.08% (76.97%). Last year Houston had a great defensive by playing stay at home basketball (i.e. not going for steals), forcing bad shots, and cleaning up the defensive glass. Based on their first game, it sure looks like Houston is going to feature the same sort of defensive again this year. And based on their personnel, I'm not surprised. Yao Ming is so big that his mere presence in the lane alters just about every shot in his vicinity. Obviously the Lakers offense suffered without the presence of Lamar Odom, but such an impressive performance still bodes well for Houston's ability to maintain their defensive efficiency this season under Rick Adelman.

The Lakers (last year's numbers in parentheses) had a defensive efficiency rating of 101.59 (106.22) with a forced TO rate of 19.25% (15.13%), an opponent's TS% of 54.20% (54.78%), and a defensive rebound rate of 68.42% (73.32%). Overall, the Lakers defense seemed to improve, but I think it really was about the same. The high TO rate is a bit of a mirage--it fueled their late comeback the other night, but last season the Warriors had the highest forced TO rate at 18.21%. Only the Warriors and Bulls had DTOR greater than 18% last season, and no other team cracked the 17% barrier. (If you assume the Lakers had slightly above a 15% DTOR, then defensive efficiency goes up to over 106) I was surprised that the Lakers didn't do better on the boards-- Odom is a good rebounder, but I assumed Turiaf and the other subs would fill in ably for him in that department. The Lakers were helped by Houston's inability to hit its free throws (they shot 21-31, last year Lakers' opponents shot 76% from the line), but even an average showing by Houston would only have added about 2 points to the Lakers' defensive efficiency. All in all, the Lakers had a good defensive showing, but I think its dependence on the turnovers makes that result a bit of a mirage. If the Lakers want to be a good defensive team, they're going to need some work (especially on defensive rebounding).

So I wasn't wrong-- the game was a defensive struggle. And the (very) early results are that both Houston and the Lakers are likely to replicate their defensive success (or failure) from a year ago.

[Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the Sixers. I'll try and do a similar analysis for the Sixers after every five games or so. But compiling the stats takes time, so I won't always be able to do it.]

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