Photo credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mike Budenholzer
- The most efficient shots in the NBA come at the 3-point line, at the rim and on free throws.
- Using that idea, I've created the "Moreyball Ratings" to measure how optimized an offense's or defense's shot profile is.
We’re in the midst of a basketball analytics revolution, and that’s largely shown by how teams are optimizing their offenses and defenses. The mid-rangers of the 90s are now being traded for 3-pointers — well, sometimes — and thus it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a surge of offense.
The Houston Rockets were the first team to take shot optimization to the extreme: Last season they set the NBA record with a ridiculous 46.7% 3-point rate, which means they took a 3-pointer on nearly half of their possessions. They’re pretty much there again this season with a 45.4% rate.
Thus, the idea of “Moreyball” was born, and I’m defining that as how optimized a offense’s shot profile is. The most efficient ways to finish an offensive possession are 1) a 3-point shot, 2) a shot at the rim or 3) getting to the foul line for free shots. For most teams, a contested mid-ranger just won’t cut it anymore, especially with the offensive explosion we’re seeing.
To take a look at teams that have excelled in this regard, below I’ll post what I’m terming “Moreyball Ratings” — a team’s average percentile rank of the three categories listed above. A 10 is the highest mark and would indicate a team is in the 100th percentile this season in all three categories.
2018-19 Offensive Moreyball Ratings
Unsurprisingly, the team with the highest Moreyball Rating is Daryl Morey’s own team, the Rockets, who continue to dominate the league in 3-point rate, along with sitting at least league-average in the other two categories.
They have a slightly lower number than their mark a season ago, which is mostly due to not getting to the foul line as much. They ranked first in the league with a 23.7% free throw rate; they’re in the 51st percentile this season (although their overall percentage isn’t that much lower).
The Milwaukee Bucks have moved into second place under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, as they’ve really made it a priority to get up more 3-pointers and shots at the rim. It’s worked: The Bucks have the second-highest Offensive Rating this season and lead the league in point differential.
A lot of (rightful) credit has been given to Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Bud is a big part of their jump in contention due to his more optimized schemes.
Two other interesting teams are the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks.
The Jazz are actually third in Moreyball Rating despite being 22nd in Offensive Rating. Their shot profile is encouraging, but they’ve been absolutely killed by turnovers, especially those from Ricky Rubio, who has had a really down season after emerging a bit last season. If the turnovers get under control or if Rubio plays less with the starters, this offense could get much better.
The Mavs have the highest difference in Moreyball Rating from a season ago (just ahead of the upstart Kings). The Mavs were last in the league in shots at the rim last season, and the addition of free agent center DeAndre Jordan plus the passing of stud rookie Luka Doncic has really changed their offensive profile. Good things coming in Dallas it seems.
Why Are the Warriors So Low?
This season is weird, though. Last season, the correlation between a team’s Moreyball Rating and Offensive Rating was 0.5, which means that approximately half the variance of Offensive Rating can be explained by a team’s Moreyball Rating (or overall shot profile).
In general, more optimized offenses have better offensive numbers. But that just hasn’t been the case this season.
The correlation between Moreyball Ratings and Offensive Ratings is just 0.1, which isn’t statistically meaningful. Having an optimized offense has not really meant a team is more likely to have better offensive stats. It’s weird.
What gives? Part of the reason is that the most optimized team, the Rockets, rank just 10th in offensive efficiency this season. That’s mostly all due to not taking care of the ball, as they’re 22nd in turnover rate. They’re top-10ish in all the other offensive four factors. And for what it’s worth, over the last month the Rockets rank second in Offensive Rating, so things are trending back up.
But the bigger reason is because of a team like the Warriors, who broke the NBA because of their spacing with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But this season, they’re just not really taking the most efficient shots: They’re 29th in frequency of shots at the rim and just 15th in 3-point rate. They’re third in mid-range shot frequency and specifically second on long mid-rangers.
I’ll be interested to see what effect this has moving forward for the league, which is very much a copy-cat one.
I wouldn’t expect for general managers to try to be like this version of the Warriors from an offensive scheme angle — they should absolutely try to be like them from a draft angle — but it’s certainly a question mark, especially since perhaps the two most successful, smartest franchises of the last 20 years, the Warriors and Spurs, have arguably the worst offensive schemes in the league. That matters.
The reason why this is important is because the math doesn’t change despite the Warriors having success being mid-range-heavy. In fact, only a team with Curry, Klay and Kevin Durant can realistically still be so good despite being so un-optimized.
I mean, imagine how the Warriors’ offensive numbers would look if they had the offensive shot profile of the Rockets!
Of course, Steve Kerr and Co. have discussed this, saying they’re largely “taking what the defense gives them.” One tangent on this: First, no. Good offense beats good defense, so a good offense shouldn’t be in the business of letting a defense dictate what shots are available. A good system dictates that itself and makes the defense scramble and adjust. If the Warriors wanted to take more efficient shots, they most certainly could — they have the most gravity in the history of NBA teams.
This largely won’t matter for the Warriors this season: Talent will overcome a poor shot profile. But it does make their room for error smaller, and it also makes things more interesting as their players decline with age.
Alright, enough about the Warriors. I did want to share Moreyball Ratings on the defensive side, too.
2018-19 Defensive Moreyball Ratings
The team with the highest Moreyball Rating on this side of the ball is the Jazz, who do an excellent job limiting efficient shots in all three categories. They’re fourth in Defensive Rating this season behind the Celtics, Pacers and Thunder. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Utah contend for first by the end of the season.
The other teams with high ratings are some of the smartest in the league, such as the Raptors, Bucks, Spurs and Nets.
Brooklyn is certainly a team to watch: The Nets have been a laughingstock for years, but they now have excellent management and coaching. They’re doing things the right way, they just haven’t been able to acquire good enough talent to really make noise. That’ll change over the next couple drafts.
But the team with highest jump from last year to this is … the Bucks.
The Bucks are kind of a weird defense, ranking first by a mile in frequency of shots allowed at the rim but dead last in 3-point rate. They’re also first by a mile in opponent free throw rate, so they’re excellent in two of the three but poor in the other. Honestly, it’s a good enough step, and they sit seventh in Defensive Rating.
Offensive and defensive optimization is important in the NBA, especially if you don’t employ Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant to play basketball for you. It will be interesting to monitor these trends the rest of the season as well as into the future given the odd data from this season.