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Most smart players, coaches and fans have absorbed the first lesson of NBA analytics: Shot efficiency varies tremendously by shot location. (If you need a refresher, watch any Rockets game.) Now new play-by-play data is teaching us that productivity also depends on the kinds of plays that generate shots. Exhibit A: the Warriors' transition offense.
Last season Golden State jumped from third to first in the league in transition plays (18.5 percent of possessions) and from third to second in points per possession off transition (1.21), according to NBA.com. This season the Warriors are off and running even more frequently, on 22.2 percent of plays (through Nov. 12), and scoring an astonishing 1.34 ppp when they do. To put that last number into context, if a team scored as efficiently as Golden State does in transition while playing at the Warriors' pace, it would average more than 135 points a game.
It's easy to assume the Warriors are so prolific simply because of dominant talent, and of course, not every team can zoom, cut and bomb at the level of this all-time great club. Golden State is scoring 1.21 ppp when Steph Curry handles the ball on pick-and-rolls and then shoots, nearly 50 percent better than the NBA average. But the numbers show that whoever is shooting, Golden State maximizes the expected value of the shots too. Since Steve Kerr arrived in 2014-15, the Warriors are hoisting more 3-pointers and more shots within 3 feet of the basket, while taking fewer long 2s. They have also soared from 25th in the league to first in catch-and-shoots (where teams, on average, score better than shooting off the dribble).
Play type is the latest twist. The three most effective kinds of NBA plays are cuts (on which teams are scoring an average of 1.24 ppp this season), pick-and-rolls when the roll man shoots (1.11) and transition offense (1.09). And these plays constitute 37.2 percent of Golden State's possessions, the highest total in the league. The three least productive are pick-and-rolls when the ball handler shoots (0.82 ppp), post-ups (0.85) and handoffs (0.86). Guess who has the fewest of those. Indeed, the Warriors' ratio of best to worst play types is almost 2-to-1, best in the league by far.
So a big part of the reason the Warriors are so great is that they consistently put their players in situations and locations in which they're more likely to score. I estimate the Warriors are gaining .05 ppp this season -- or about 30 percent of their scoring advantage over the league average -- just from their distribution of play types.
Meanwhile, Golden State throws sand in the gears of anyone else looking to take off in transition. The Warriors play at a very quick overall tempo as measured by possessions per game. But in March 2015, Michael Beuoy of Inpredictable.com made a key discovery when studying play-by-play data: Offensive and defensive pace can differ when measured by time per possession. It turns out Golden State had the quickest offense in the NBA that season, running plays in an average of just 13.4 seconds, but forced opponents to hold the ball for 15.4 seconds on average, the third-slowest pace in the league. That pattern has held: With relentless fast breaks on offense and constant harassment on defense, the Warriors have scored almost 200 more points than their opponents in transition this season, while actually getting outscored on all other plays combined.
For most play types, there is very little correlation between how effectively and how often teams run them, which suggests many clubs could learn from Golden State's example despite lacking the Warriors' personnel. For instance, the Clippers have let Patrick Beverley or Austin Rivers keep the rock while running more than 120 pick-and-rolls, with mostly dreadful results. They'd be better off pushing upcourt more often; the Clippers have run a transition offense on just 12.4 percent of possessions but have been the ninth-most efficient team in the NBA when they've tried.
Another example: The Bucks, thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, are the best team in the league at running pick-and-rolls in which the roll man ends up with the ball. But those plays account for only 4.9 percent of Milwaukee's possessions. To make Antetokounmpo even more dominant, let him set a few more picks.
Then there are the Hornets, with the worst ratio of best to worst play types in the NBA, running post-ups on nearly 8 percent of plays (versus a league average of 6.2 percent) despite gaining 0.63 ppp from them. Dwight Howard is scoring on only 30 percent of his chances when posting up! Which means it's time to say: Give us a break!