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Is the Pistons’ offense or defense better? A lesson in advanced statistics

Patrick and I use a lot of advanced stats on this site, and I think there’s a good reason for it. When used properly, advanced stats can often provide a better assessment of what’s happening on the court than traditional stats.

But we don’t always do the best job of explaining advanced stats to those who don’t otherwise understand them. I’d like to do that more often, and today’s a great excuse to talk about team offensive and defensive rating (sometimes called offensive and defensive efficiency).

Offensive rating is designed to replace team points per game, and defensive rating replaces team points allowed per game.

These advanced stats account for possessions alternating no matter what. When a team scores with 21 seconds left on the shot clock, its opponent gets the ball. When a team scores with three seconds left on the shot clock, its opponent gets the ball.

The team that scores quickly will obviously score more points, but is that really beneficial if it’s just giving its opponent more opportunities to score?

On the flip side, a team that takes more time to score will score fewer points, but it also limits its opponents opportunities to score.

That’s why points per game and point per game allowed are inefficient. Those stats depend too much on a team’s pace.

A fast team might have a poor offense and great defense, but it will still rank well in points per game and poorly in points per game allowed. A slow team might have a great offense and poor defense, but it will still rank poorly in points per game and well in points per game allowed.

Offensive and defensive rating fix those problems because they’re based on points per 100 possessions, not points per game.

If a team scores 12 points in 10 possessions, its offensive rating would be 120. Likewise, if a team allows 12 points 10 possessions, its defensive rating would be 120.

It’s a pretty simple stat that ranks offenses and defenses without the noise of pace.

What this has to do with the Pistons

The Pistons are the league’s 28th-slowest team, averaging just 89.5 possessions per 48 minutes. That means their points per game and points per game allowed will be lower than the quality of their play represents.

Assuming those traditional numbers accurately characterizes the team’s offense and defense leads to misguided articles like this: Pistons have to find ways to score more points, by Perry A. Farrell of the Detroit Free Press.

The Pistons rank 24th in the league in points per game (96.6) and 19th in points allowed per game (101.1), so on face value, Farrell’s decision to focus on offensive shortcomings makes sense.

But a more accurate picture shows the Pistons’ offense is ahead of their defense.

Detroit’s offense rating (105.4) ranks 20th, and its defensive rating (110.2) ranks 25th.

The more you know…

As people who spend a lot of time writing about basketball and reading about basketball, Patrick and I can easily get caught up in advanced stats and assume everyone else is on board. If you ever a have a question about a stat we use, ask in the comments, and we’d be happy to explain.


  • Nov 30, 20104:09 pm
    by Odeh


    The Pistons need to pick up their pace with the talent on this team.  With Stuckey and Bynum being 2 of the faster point guards in the league, it would do us well to run a little more.  This slow half court pace is not working especially when your half court set is isolation offense.

  • Nov 30, 20105:01 pm
    by nuetes


    Great post. O and D ratings take pace out of the equation to put it simply. but the thing you notice is that point differential and efficiency differential are often very close, or correlate. for instance the Pistons have a -4.5 point differential and a -4.8 efficiency differential. so looking at differentials is a better way to assess the team than looking at totals.
    farrell i suppose could have just as easily said that the defense needs to pick it up, because both the offense and the defense can help close the differential gap.
    and Odeh says the Pistons need to pick up the pace, but do they? like Feldman noted picking up the pace gives the opposing team more possessions in a game as well. since our defense is worse than our offense is that something we should be doing? would picking up the pace create enough efficiencies on offense to offset the deficiencies on defense? or would it also make the defense less efficient? instead of the Pistons scoring 96.6 and allowing 101.1 would they start scoring 106.6 and allowing 111.1 by picking up the pace? It doesn’t necessarily change the differential.

  • Nov 30, 20106:24 pm
    by Laser


    man, we’re still that slow? a slow, plodding team that’s still woefully undersized and can’t defend… sigh.
    in the end, i don’t think pace necessarily matters, since possessions alternate, but the real issue at hand here is that we have no flow whatsoever. we can never get anything going, because we might trail the entire league in playmaking ability. we eat up a lot of clock and work our butts off for basically every basket we can manage. but if we were scoring in transition or getting easy buckets, we’d happen to have a quicker pace. but this stagnant offense struggles nearly every possession.
    feldman and hayes, do you think there’s any more significance to these advanced stats rather than, say, W-L and differential? do you think they really tell you that much more? i feel like advanced stats tend to muddy the waters for the most part. still, if the site’s going to use them (and we know it will), better to inform people than leave them in the dark.

  • Nov 30, 20106:40 pm
    by Laser


    the issue with the pace is that different paces play to different teams’ strengths. run-and-gun teams are more athletic, they basically dare you to outscore them, try to run you ragged and make you play to their speed. they’re usually smaller and poor defensively, so a quicker pace makes sense. on the other side, bigger, usually less athletic teams usually have fewer possessions. they play slower and tend to specialize in half-court games. the pistons were like this a few years ago back when they were worth a damn.
    this does bring up a good point about the pistons and why they get criticized for having no “identity.” in my opinion, they’ve got a good half dozen moves to make before “identity” is a legitimate concern. but if we’re talking in terms of pace, i suppose the complaints about identity stem from the fact that we’re small, yet not particularly athletic. so we don’t excel at half-court sets or transition ball. so, in short, we’re awful and irredeemable. a lot of the times, pace is dictated by the speed of the team’s point guard. some guys are better at making plays in transition, some at calling plays. in our case, we don’t have a point guard to speak of, so let’s just say it’s stuckey because that’s what joe dumars would say. in transition, some would say nobody runs with him, but i think that’s basically irrelevant; he wouldn’t pass the ball anyways because he’s a terrible passer and has no playmaking instincts whatsoever. the half court, he sucks so hard it hurts, so we pretty much play point-guard-by-committee. this means there are a lot of passes around the perimeter and the rare good pass (by t-mac, bynum, or tayshaun usually. sometimes gordon. rarely stuckey), but usually we’re just plodding away trying to score a tough basket in transition. advanced stats are fun!

  • Dec 2, 20105:19 am
    by Dan Feldman


    Laser, win-loss record and point difference indicate how good a team is. Defensive and offensive rating can pinpoint how the team plays on each side of the ball. They’re all useful stats that serve different purposes.

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