How is playoff basketball different, and how does it impact the Bulls?

Nylon Calculus had a very cool article breaking down the differences of playoff basketball and regular season basketball using statistical regression to try and prove out which cliches were true and which weren't.

Mika Honkasalo wrote the piece as part of their Freelance Friday section, I'd recommend reading the whole thing in detail because it's really quite good.

It's worth noting that the article is aimed at maximizing playoff wins not just analyzing champions.

However, the quick conclusions of the article are this:

1: Defense is really important, much more so than offense.

In the playoffs, teams who get there via high offensive rating and average defense almost always flame out and disappoint. Teams that get there with average offenses and elite defenses usually get further than expected. While the article doesn't state it, I will, to win it all, you typically need to be great on both ends.

However, a great defensive team is likely to make it a round further than a great offensive team.

2: If you had three teams that were equally good overall, the team with multiple stars would be most likely to win, but the team with no stars would be better than the team with one.

Effectively, the team with multiple stars can't be shut down. The team with no stars can continue to play like they normally do and is close to break even, but the team with one star will have that player swarmed and taken away leaving the rest of the team in an uncomfortable position.

Granted, it's really, really, really hard to build a great team with no stars, so again, this likely projects more towards winning in an early round than winning a title, because the odds of becoming a 60 win team without a superstar aren't very good.

3: Veterans matter (older teams tend to do better)

Because playoff basketball really is played differently than regular season basketball, experience does matter. There's an adjustment players need to make to the pace of the game, the intense scouting of every opponent, the adjustments made from game to game, etc, that is an adjustment for younger teams which can cause them to struggle.

4: Passing matters, but rebounding does not

This is perhaps the biggest shocker of them all. Having a large rebounding advantage in terms of rebound rate isn't a predictor of success, but good ball movement is. This makes sense to me in that better ball movement will get better looks in half court games while teams are running less and protecting the basket more, offensive rebounding probably loses some of its importance.

5: The ability to make baskets matters more than overall scoring rate.

This probably gets down to teams who can score baskets in clutch situations win while teams reliant on getting free throws for their points are in more trouble.

So how does this relate to the Bulls?

The Bulls are great defensively every year which is actually the #1 predictor of playoff success. In that sense, the direction of team building is very good. They've sought out a secondary star each but have failed to get one. For an elite team, they're on the toughest path with the single star route, though Dirk Nowitzki proved it's possible.

Chicago has generally been a great interior passing team and Pau Gasol will only help that trend. On the perimeter, they're more pedestrian as Rose isn't an elite passer as a PG, Butler and Dunleavy aren't anything special out there, and we'll have to see what McDermott can do moving the ball given that he was almost exclusively a scorer in college.

Chicago's strong rebounding won't mean as much as people think it would, and the Bulls lack of ability to get baskets the past few seasons definitely killed them. Will they be a team that reverses that last trend this year with improved offensive players? I'd think so, but we'll have to wait and find out.

Overall though, the article states the far and away biggest contributor to playoff wins is team defense. The Bulls should have that in spades, and interestingly enough, it's quite possible the Cavs won't have that much at all. Cleveland could possibly be set up as a team with a massive offensive rating and an average defense, that's the type of team which typically gets upset in the playoffs.

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  • By the article's definition of superstar (top 12 in win shares), Joakim Noah qualified last year, so the Bulls looks good on that variable as well assuming Rose can return to form.

  • In reply to aaaa:

    Good point. Doug should have pointed that out..if you're going to use the articles analysis its pretty important to note that their basic model used a rating that places the Bulls center at a superstar level. I don't count Noah as a superstar by any means, but he does contribute immensely and the rise in advanced basketball metrics has reinforced this opinion with fact. Never the less interesting read Doug thanks for the find.

  • Agree with Noah potentially be considered within the superstar category per definition. Also, just wait what our European superstar can do for us. If we hit the jackpot, we may have all the treats for a likely title run.

  • Any stats that call Noah a superstar are wrong. He's a great player but not a game changing, dominant player.

    If our European superstar is going to make such an impact, then why did the Bulls sign Gasol when that only crowds the front court and limits Mirotic's playing time?

    I also have high hopes for Mirotic which makes the Gasol signing all the more puzzling.

    Rose, as we've seen, can absolutely be stopped by swarming him. Nowitzki sort of broke the rule but that makes sense because you can't swarm and beat a 7-foot-tall jump shooter unless you have multiple lengthy perimeter defenders which no team does.

    Bulls, if healthy, should be in the ECF and I wouldn't be shocked if they beat the Cavs but this just doesn't set up like a championship team unless M&M turn out to be really good. At this point, it's more about McDermott since the Bulls badly need a wing player, whereas Mirotic probably won't play a whole lot unless there's an injury.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    Noah is a great player but he is definitely not a Superstar you are right. He disappeared when they needed him the most in the playoffs this year. He has consistently failed to take advantage of the Heat the last several years despite a massive talent edge at center. He is good but has been maddeningly inconsistent in the playoffs. Including being outplayed by Omer Asik. Superstars don't get outplayed by their backups in the post season.

    I know what his game is he is a super energy player and when he brings the passion he is awesome and when its not there neither is his game. Great player but not a superstar but definitely one of if not my favorite Bulls player.

  • In reply to Chad:

    He may not be a superstar, but he didn't disappear in the playoffs this year. His stats were no worse than on par with his career best season long stats. Which more or less proves the point, he didn't couldn't elevate his game in the playoffs, as we expect a superstar to do.

    Also, he didn't use it as an excuse, but he was battling a knee injury, which was actually somewhat obvious to many of us, as he wasn't himself even toward the end of the regular season.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    1. Yes, I agree 100% that Noah is no superstar. This is debatable, but like Deng, I do not think Noah should ever make an all-star team. One of my favorite Bulls, although I'd trade him if allowed the Bulls to capture that elusive superstar...

    2. Signing Gasol was a great move. He is aging, but his minutes do not have to be excessive given the talent of the other 3 front court guys - Noah, Gibson and Mirotic. Thus, he could be happy playing 25-30 minutes as long as he's starting and contributing (ie, getting the ball) while he's in the game. Hell, I'd be happy if those 4 guys averaged 24 MPG (96 min at PF and C divided by 4) because then there would be a greater chance that they would stay healthy. And, play harder while they are playing.

    3. Mirotic will get time if he deserves it. Period. I think we should stop worrying about having too many guys because there will be injuries. He is the only stretch 4 on the roster, BTW, so it's not like there's a ton of overlap between Gasol and Mirotic. If Mirotic is as good as advertised, he'll contribute.

  • In reply to Granby:

    Noah is absolutely an all-star, not a fake all-star like Deng. You can't name two better centers in the East. All-stars are not necessarily superstars though. Mostly agree with your other points, not as high on the Gasol signing though.

  • Yeah #2 is kind of a big deal. If the Bulls are going to have a shot at winning it all in the next couple years Mirotic has to become a legit 1B offensive option. I know people are putting a lot of hope in McBuckets but Nikola's the one that absolutely has to turn out because he was brought here, I think, to be the perfect compliment to Rose's game.

  • In reply to Redwhitenblack:

    He can be a perfect compliment without being 1B. He can space the floor by just being in the game. Just so you know and are not disappointed, he is not an alpha guy, so he generally scores off of others. He probably will never average a ton of points. Although a great player, he never dominated the Euro league, so why would he dominate the NBA. There is no way he's Dirk.

  • In reply to Granby:

    Dirk didn't even know that he was Dirk until after his second season in the NBA. While we will all be tempted to jump the gun after every Mirotic sighting this season(good and bad), we won't really know what he is going to be for a year or 2, especially while Gasol and Gibson are both on the roster.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    I think we'll have a good idea what we have pretty soon. The frontcourt minutes aren't going to be that big a deal. Taj has earned a starting role but if Nikola plays well enough to jump him in the rotation I don't think he'll be too hurt coming off the bench again. Especially if it's for a player who's a legit contributor and the team is winning. With this group I don't think it'll be about who is the best individual player but which units work best together. If the answer is, say, Noah - Nikola, Pau - Taj the minutes should work out fine.

  • As I think about it, no player embodies this era Bulls team like Noah: Brings heart and hustle and grit and defense every night, which few NBA players do, so it makes him stand out. Capable offensively during the regular season. All of this leads to regular season wins. He's a regular season superstar.

    Then you get to the playoffs, where everyone brings hustle and defense, and he suddenly looks more ordinary and his decent offensive game disappears. In the playoffs, he's nothing more than a solid player.

    I love the guy -- how can you not? -- but let's not overrate him.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    Yes, although he dominated game 7 of the Brooklyn series 2 years ago. He just does not look at the basket enough offensively. He needs to be more aggressive. He is a tremendous passer and good decision maker and can set guys up. However, sometimes he just disappears.

  • The question is not whether or not subjectively Noah is a superstar. The regression was run on something very specific (number of players in top 12 of win shares regressed against team playoff performance). By that definition Noah qualified last year.

  • In reply to aaaa:

    I get that, but I'm sure the regression doesn't line up 1 for 1. It's an average of factors influencing wins. I'd guess Noah to be an outlier in that regression because while he might fit the statistical definition of superstar, we know for sure it doesn't translate to playoff wins. It might have worked out statistically since the Bulls beat the Nets a year ago when they weren't expected to do so, but we know Noah's play does not translate into the playoffs against good teams.

    In other words: If you project the Bulls based on two superstars, you will be disappointed. We don't have two, not when it matters at least. The article even cited the Heat swarming Rose with no mention of Noah being another superstar.

  • Well, there is no question the Bulls have had a major dip in quality play in the playoffs, even when Rose was "healthy." He was actually run down by the start of the playoffs. And we know the reasons - 1) Thibs gets the intensity level up from his players in the regular season, but they have no higher notch left for the playoffs; and 2) they do not go into the playoffs rested! With the talent the Bulls have now, that should be fixable this season.

    If it does turn out that shutting down Rose shuts down the Bulls on O, then the FO will need to trade for the SG this winter. Unfortunately, that might also mean that M & M and Snell and Butler are not hitting it like we hoped.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    Yes, not having Rose is huge. It's like the Heat without LeBron last year - and we'll see it in action this year, but with Deng on Miami instead.

    I think Thibs needed to get a bit more creative without Rose and he didn't get creative. He didn't try new things. Pop and Spo will start a guy that's been buried on the bench in a key playoff game. Belichick will completely game plan a certain way depending on who they are playing.

    On the other hand, Thibs is just so predictable and easy to game plan against in the playoffs, I think. Guys play the same minutes at the same point in the game. But, in fairness, it's not like he's had a lot of options given the talent minus Rose. The Bulls just couldn't score.

  • We've had this offense vs defense debate for many years on this site. Does this mean that you've finally switched sides? from offense to defense.

    This appears to be another case where advanced statistical analysis verifies what most astute observers already know. Elite defense is relatively more important than elite offense to winning in the playoffs and ultimately championships.

    I have always contended that the Bulls elite defense was the determining factor in the repeat 3 peats of the Jordan years. The Bulls seldom looked like an elite offense in the playoffs, but their defense kept them in every game and Jordan found a way to score just enough points to win at the end. Most if not all of the game 6 series clinching victories felt like we couldn't score a point(especially in the 4rth quarter) if our lives depended on it, but the defense was relentless, always coming up with a huge play just when all seemed lost and then Michael found a way to create a miracle at the end to pull out a victory.

    In fact it always felt like we were going to lose game 6 and had no hope in a game 7. If it wasn't for our world class D we wouldn't have made it to 6 finals, and even if we had we would have been 0-6 instead of 6-0.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    Well, as Doug puts it, you really have to be very good at both offense and defense, and this is true to be a champion in any sport. The better you are at one, the more you can get away with not being great at the other. But this analysis does suggest that of the two, defense is more important. Offensively, it's clear that you need a team that can generate a basket when it needs it, something the Bulls haven't been up to now.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    If I recall the best predictor of champions remains avg margin of victory. And it's difficult to push that number very high without defense near the top of the league. Then that translates better in the play offs because offense changes so radically feel in the playoffs.

    That's the theory at least. This past year might have been the opposite though. The Spurs didn't win because their defense was so stifling to Miami (even though it was) but because Miami couldn't stop San Antonio's half court offense. That kept Miami kept out of transition and exposed the fact that Miami's half court offense isn't a threat. They can be stopped with a pretty average defense.

  • The D of the Bulls should be great -- Noah and butler are top defenders, Taj and Gasol and Rose should all be decent, above average. And most of the rest can do fairly well.

    But can the O move into the top ten? I think so, if only 2 of the group of M, M, Butler, and Snell really pick their game up a couple of notches. That seems very doable.

  • Noah is a good player. He is not a great player.
    I like Noah, but let's stop overusing that word, great.

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    IMO having a top defense is overrated. It's needed if your team has players who can score on the offensive end, but as we've seen a few mts ago in the Bulls vs Wiz series a top tier defense spends most of their energy chasing their opponents, while not having the endurance or leg strength to hit a jump shot. It helps if your team plays defense at the right time. The Wizards weren't considered a defensively strong team, but they stepped it up during the Bulls vs Wiz series.

    IMO in order to have a championship team you need that perfect balance of defense and offense. If you're team is able to score 110 pts one night, and the next night hold their opponents to under 80 pts, chances are you have a championship contending team. Point differential is also a good indicator of a team's ability to score points, its' team depth, and ability to hold their opponents under their team scoring avg.

    I like the Bulls chances to win it all, or at least get to the finals because they seem to have a better offensive and defensive balance than last season's top ranked defense, and last ranked offense. The additions of Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, and an improved Tony Snell should help raise the team offensively, while maintaining their defensive ranking may dip some. If the team could finish top 10 in offense and top 5 in defense they'll be fine.

  • I categorize players in these areas.....

    Legends.........Jordan, Jabber, Wilt, Bird, Russell, Magic.....

    Great.........LeBron, Pippin, Karl Malone, Erving, Roberetson, Bryant

    Good.......Carmelo, Wilkens, Durant, Reggie Miller

    Okay........Wade, McGrady, Maravich, Noah

  • In reply to CubsTalk:

    I would move OscarRobertson into the Legend catagory. Heck, he averaged 30+ pts, 10+ rbs, and 10+ assists for years! Unbelieveable!

    But this sruff is subjective, that is, in the eyes of the beholders.

  • I have some concerns about the article.

    1. What is a star? Does Rose qualify as a star? Is noah a star? Was Dwayne wade a star last year? It seems like a muddled concept. But I guess what you can look to is how a team reacts on offense. A star is merely high usage by necessity/convenience. In essence, the article proves that, no matter how convenient it may be to use Derrick Rose to bail out the offense, the bulls will require Dunleavy, snell, butler, and mcderommett to play initiate and finish offensive possessions, so the offensive doesn't become predictable. Obviously the addition of gasol and will help mold the bulls offense.

    Does it matter if your offense has two perimeter stars or if It has a big/perimeter player combo?

    To use familiar words, this roster HAS MORE THAN ENOUGH TO WIN, but the real worry is whether Thibs can implement a diverse and efficient offense. I don't think you need to make a move, but you need to convince you coach to mix things up, stengthen his bench players, and not utilize keith bogans like players ever again. Guys like bogans who just don't play that well make your offense predictable and sluggish. I don't think Dunleavy will be as nearly as bad Bogans. However, Kirk Hinrich DEFINITELY has the possibility to do so.

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