TeamSPACE: How the (South)West was Won

Welcome to the first installment of the TeamSPACE-based NBA season in review. I’ll be covering the leagu,e one division at a time, using a TeamSPACE chart for each team’s most used lineup during the 2013-2014 season. In theory, this approach will highlight relative strengths, weaknesses, commonalities, and anomalies. Some of the aspects examined will include:

  • Crowded space (overlapping Hunting Grounds)
  • Negative space (areas of the court not in use)
  • Precise space (the size of a Hunting Ground)

For a detailed explanation of TeamSPACE and the concept of Hunting Grounds, see my earlier article here. Also, a quick note on “most used.” That term is harder to define than you would think. Sure, the most collective minutes would seem to make sense, but the amount of games that lineup was used should also play a part in the determination. So “most used” is a derived, common sense measure here. Without further ado, we’ll begin in the southwest, home of the champs:

San Antonio Spurs

Record: 62-20

2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs

2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs

In a word: balance. Balance by player, in the sense that no one player is over-dominating on the court. Balance by space, in the sense that a) most of the court is covered, and b) most areas are uniquely attributed to a single player. In areas where this is not the case, they are the obvious/logical/opportunity-based locations, most notably the corner 3s. From a purely shot location perspective, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw are possibly THE perfect compliments to the Big Three. Both avoid the midrange, and each is effective in different 3pt spots (Leonard in the corners, Diaw above the break). If the midrange game is truly dead (spoiler alert: it’s not), good luck convincing Tony Parker.

Until NBA Champs from previous seasons are analyzed (don’t worry it’s coming, eventually), the Spurs are likely the gold standard for TeamSPACE.

Houston Rockets

Record: 54-28

2013-2014 Houston Rockets Most Used Lineup

2013-2014 Houston Rockets

For anyone that has even passively followed the MoreyBall movement,  this chart should come as no surprise. Obviously highlighted by the amount and location of the negative space, the Rockets practice what they preach: the systematic exploitation of the shortest distances to score the most points, the paint and the corners. If you look close enough, there is one incredibly small Terrence Jones Hunting Ground at the top of the key.

What is impressive is the precision of that systematic exploitation. For all of James Harden’s shot attempts, his Hunting Grounds are small and incredibly consistent. The same is true for Parsons. Further, the negative space is not merely limited to the midrange; not all 3pt shots are created equal, and apparently the Rockets have made a conscious effort to avoid the “awkward” areas in between the wing straight away, as well as at-the-break. We are left to eternally imagination if Chris Bosh would have changed the system, or if the system would have changed Chris Bosh. I digress.

Memphis Grizzlies

Record: 50-32

2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies

2013-2014 Memphis Grizzlies

In a way, the Grizzlies represent a hybrid of the Spurs and Rockets. There is a moderate amount of uniquely attributable areas of activity per player. There is also consistent reliance on the midrange, although neither is nearly as Spursian (not even remotely a word). Conley, Lee and Prince have elements of Parker, Ginobli and Leonard, with less consistency and more overlap. Similar to the Rockets, there are indications of avoiding at-the-break 3s and huge swaths of untouchable midrange 2s, although less exaggerated. We should expect no less from a John Hollinger-influenced team. The Grizzlies appear to be able to modify their scheme based on the personnel, rather than forcing pieces into a system.

The Z-Bo/Gasoline pairing is really interesting. Both have midrange tendencies, although very different. Gasoline is deadly from just outside the paints, and Z-Bo is a lefty, which clearly helps spacing. Honest question: has there ever been a better pairing of two big men (neither of which shoot 3s) able to share space offensively and both thrive?

Dallas Mavericks

Record: 49-33

2013-2014 Dallas Mavericks

2013-2014 Dallas Mavericks

This chart is by far my favorite visual experience of the division. How does an opposing team actually defend the Mavs?

First, holy Dirk. Can we stop and appreciate his greatness for a moment? The relative lack of precision in his shot selection is just deadly. If you could redraw Dirk’s activity into a single polygon, it would include the entire midrange and the above-the-break 3s, basically excluding the paint and the corners.

Second, holy Calderon. (New York Knicks fan are quietly and cautiously nodding their heads.) Is there a 3pt shot Jose does not consistently make? There does not appear to be.

Third, holy Matrix. With all that interior space left unused by Dirk’s vicious midrange game and Samuel Dalembert being something less than an offensive force, Shawn Marion is free to operate. Dirk and Marion are the perfect counterbalances; there is virtually no significant overlap between them.

Fourth (!!!), Monta have… what’s left. There’s only so much space to operate in, and Ellis’s least overlapping activity is around the elbows. Not a bad problem to have. The system in place resembles organized spatial chaos, and it’s everything Houston isn’t.

New Orleans Pelicans

Record: 34-48

2013-2014 New Orleans Pelicans

2013-2014 New Orleans Pelicans

Rounding out the division, the chart for the Pelicans is an interesting mix of things that don’t seem to work well together. It begins with likely too much area covered by Jason Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu, and not enough from the Anthony Davis/Eric Gordon/Jrue Holiday trio. There are promising trends here. Though. Davis is obviously most effective in the hoop, and has some tiny Hunting Grounds developing along the baseline, foul line extended, and top of the key. Gordon consistently dominates both 3pt wings. Holiday displays the potential of a balanced attack, with strong activity in the paint and some activity near the foul line/elbow. However, his midrange game is crowded by Smith (and vice versa), and only has one distinctly unique Hunting Ground from deep to his name. In a strictly shot selection/Hunting Ground perspective, this lineup resembles a less disciplined Spurs group.

A few tweaks could go a long way for the Pelicans offense, including:

  • Keep Aminu (or rather, his replacement) in the the corners and out of the elbow
  • More Brow shots on the block and near the foul line
  • Share the elbows between Smith and Holiday; likely giving Holiday more room on the right side (the chart’s left side)

Five teams, each with distinctly different charts, providing insight to coaching and player decision-making processes. Check back soon for the next TeamSPACE division review.

Statistical support for this article is courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.

Matt D'Anna