Behind the Numbers: New Duke, Same As the Old Duke?

Posted by KCarpenter on November 17th, 2010

Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.

Last year, as you are probably aware, Duke won it all. They enter this season as the easy top pick in all the national polls and the consensus favorite to cut down the nets in the early spring of 2011. With Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith sticking around for one last hurrah, a sensational recruiting class starring the incredibly skilled Kyrie Irving, and Coach K masterminding things as usual, picking Duke as the best team in the country is pretty easy. Duke is going to be very, very good this year. Here’s the real question, though: Will this year’s incarnation of the Blue Devils be as good as last year’s? The consensus seems to be yes, but there is reason to  lend an ear to dissenting voices crying out from the wilderness.

The reason has to do with offensive efficiency and may need a little explaining. Last year Duke was easily the most efficient team in the land on offense. They did this not by shooting the lights out (though they shot well), but by each player making sure they did other things to help their team on offense. Let me clarify: when I talk about “offensive efficiency,” I am talking very specifically about the Dean Oliver conception of it, which is a simple measure of how well a team scores per possession given a key Four Factors. The Factors are effective field goal percentage, turnovers per possession, offensive rebounding, and free throw rate. So while Duke was only moderately good at shooting the basketball last season (#92 in D-I), they made their opportunities count by rarely turning over the ball (#15 in D-I) and rebounding their misses at an astounding rate (40.3% of misses, good for #7 in D-I). The low turnovers and superb offensive rebounding are what made Duke’s offense so efficient and deadly, despite good-but-not-great shooting and a very average rate of getting to the free throw line (#158 in D-I for those who care).

Duke May Miss This Big Guy More Than Expected This Season

So, here is where we get to the trouble: Duke’s success at preventing turnovers and getting offensive rebounds, which strongly drove Duke’s overall success, depended largely on the efforts of two players. Those players, in case you can’t guess, are the departed Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek, to whom the Blue Devils are probably more indebted to than they realize.

Obviously, while Scheyer was the team’s leading scorer and his scoring contributions will be missed, his value to Duke went far beyond points. Scheyer was the team’s primary ball-handler and play-maker and did this ball-handling and play-making virtually mistake-free, which is astonishing. Despite having the most opportunities for a turnover, Scheyer coughed up the ball less than any other player on the team. Now while Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler should rightfully be credited for their skill at taking care of the ball, let’s be clear: Scheyer’s mistake-free play-making will be missed, and as good as Kyrie Irving is, it’s highly unlikely that a freshman point guard will be able to match Scheyer in this regard. It’s in fact very likely that the Blue Devils will turn the ball over a lot more than last season.

And if it’s very likely that turnovers will go up, it’s almost certain that offensive rebounds will go down. The incredible success of Duke at offensive rebounding is almost entirely owed to Zoubek, who not only led the ACC in having a name that sounds the most like a Pokemon but also was the best offensive rebounder in college basketball. By way of example: Duke had eleven offensive rebounds in the championship game against Butler, and Zoubek had six of those. This type of performance from the 7’1 big man was the norm. Now, Zoubek is gone, and his heirs in the frontcourt have yet to display anywhere near his level of skill at yanking down misses. While Zoubek grabbed 21.4% of the Blue Devils’ misses, the next best rebounder, Miles Plumlee, managed to grab only 11.1%. Mason Plumlee’s 9.1% and Ryan Kelly’s astonishingly poor 2.9% don’t offer much cause for hope either. These numbers considered, it seems very unlikely that Duke will be able to match last year’s incredible effort on the offensive boards.

Turnovers will probably increase and offensive rebounds will probably decrease, which means offensive efficiency is facing a drop, even if Duke somehow manages to keep up its world-class defense and replace all other lost offensive production. Now, am I saying Duke is going to be bad? No, I’m not. Duke will be very good, but unless a couple things happen, they won’t be in the same class as the national champion 2009-10 team. What we are probably looking at is something closer to  the 2007-08, or 2008-09 vintage Duke, which is good for about the same regular season record but with a few more particularly surprising losses and a much shorter postseason. That said, here are some other things that could happen: Duke’s shooting this year could be so good that drops in offensive rebounding and a rise in turnovers could be totally offset. Kyrie Irving and the other rookies could be even better than John Wall and the Kentucky freshmen were last year, making everyone forget  about Scheyer and Zoubek. Either of those things could happen. The conclusion is this, though — lots of things go right for Duke and I never count Coach K out, but the improbable is improbable, the unlikely remains unlikely, and “could” isn’t the same as “will.” That’s as true in Cameron Indoor as anywhere else in America, so let’s pack up our laurel wreaths and anointing oils until 2011.

KCarpenter (269 Posts)

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14 responses to “Behind the Numbers: New Duke, Same As the Old Duke?”

  1. RG says:

    I think everyone at Duke realizes just how much Scheyer and Zoobs will be missed, as evidenced by pretty much every interview any of them has done since last season. Where have you been all this time?

  2. garik16 says:

    So Wait, you mean that without two players from last year who made meaningful contributions, things will be worse for Duke? GENIUS! *rolls eyes* It’s not like everyone hasn’t been saying that the question has been how to replace Zoubek or if they could live without him for months…..

    Seriously, yes the team is likely to be worse on the offensive boards. Yes it may have more turnovers, although with Irving they might have more assists to counter it out as he’s a true point guard. BUT IF YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED, Duke is not playing the same way and has different players this year! They’re speeding up (Kenpom, factoring in it’s predictions and 2 games this year, has them getting 3 more possessions per game) and are more deep at guard with shooters. Oh yeah, and players can improve on the boards! Or shooting! ETC.
    Listen, I don’t know if Duke will win the NC. The odds are against them, clearly. But this team is clearly more talented than the 07-08, and 08-09 teams, (Senior versions of Singler/Smith, Irving instead of Scheyer or Henderson, and better big men then Zou and Lance were in those years (they really only blossomed senior year). That comparison is ludicrous.

    The comparison to 00-01, 01-02, or the Duke of old may not fit either…it’s hard to tell yet, Duke’s offense has been really raw, while the D has been tremendous. But your analysis is just plain silly….you talk only about what was removed, without mentioning what was added. Which is just plain terrible. You’re using the statistics correctly, but ignoring a wealth of evidence, which really is poor form.

    PS: “6’10 big man” Zoubek was 7’1″. There’s a big difference between 6’10 and 7’1 in the game of basketball.

  3. KCarpenter says:

    Hey Garik and RG: strong points.

    Duke fans know what’s up, but I just wanted to emphasize to the world, at large how important Zoubek was, and how honestly and historically great his play was last season.

    In terms of looking at the additions of the team, I spent a little time modeling the additions of Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry. Even assuming that Kyrie Irving plays as well as John Wall, there would be a marked decline in offensive efficiency. Seth Curry’s time at Davidson showcased his ability to put points on the board, but he didn’t do so in a very efficient manner (though obviously a decline in usage will bump this up).

    It’s hard to say what the team will look like this year (except for faster) and I have no doubt that Duke will put together a very successful season. My point is that offensive success is likely to take a different shape than last years team.

  4. Matt B. says:

    I think you’re being a little pessimistic on the odds of Duke’s shooting being better. Duke was actually a horrid 2 point shooting team last year. The only reason that they had even a mediocre eFG% was their very good 3pt%. They lose Scheyer, but add Curry and Irving, so in terms of 3pt shooting, I expect a wash, with Curry being a little better than Scheyer, and Irving being a little worse.

    This team WILL get to the rim much much better than last year’s team. Scheyer did a lot of great things, but the main reason that he isn’t in the NBA right now is that he couldn’t beat college players off the dribble, let alone NBA players. Last year, only Smith could consistently beat perimeter defenders. With Irving on board, and the increased chanced of seeing some three guard lineups, Duke will suddenly have 3 or 4 guys on the floor who can get to the rim off of the dribble (with Singler being guarded by a 4). This will do two things. First, the proportion of layups and dunks compared to mid-range jumpers will go way up, which will improve shooting by default, with more high percentage opportunities. Second, Duke should end up with a much better free throw rate than last year’s, which was actually below the D-1 average, in spite of having a bunch of close wins in which teams fouled at the end. Even though FT rate is the least important factor, but it will likely have the biggest changes of the four simply because Duke was so bad at it. even if eFG% has only a marginal increase, it is by far the most important. It is, in fact, about as important as turnovers and offensive rebounds combined. At the end of the day, overall offensive efficiency will be AT LEAST a wash for Duke as a team.

  5. Eric says:

    KC – Thanks for the analysis.

    I think DBD fans know they’ll really miss Scheyer and BZ. Nationally, though, the perception is that the DBD weren’t all that dominant last year and they’re more talented this year. I think KC is merely trying to statistically prove or disprove this notion. I really like Irving, but I think the addition of Curry is more hype and b/c of his brother, won’t necessarily help all that much (I think Dawkins is better all-around).

    Man, after watching Ohio State and Michigan State simply dominate last night, I think we could have 10 really, really good teams this year, making it even tougher to win a NC.

  6. garik16 says:


    “It’s hard to say what the team will look like this year (except for faster) and I have no doubt that Duke will put together a very successful season. My point is that offensive success is likely to take a different shape than last years team.”

    That is a reasonable conclusion. This:

    “What we are probably looking at is something closer to the 2007-08, or 2008-09 vintage Duke, which is good for about the same regular season record but with a few more particularly surprising losses and a much shorter postseason.”

    is not that same conclusion. It looks like you had a reasonable conclusion (fine) and then spiced up to be more sensationalist. Which is poor form. It’s that poor form (and the reason you get so many responses btw is because this article was hotlinked to DBR, so good job with the sensationalism getting hits! It works!) that I and others here take offense to.

  7. KCarpenter says:

    Hey Matt B.: Duke will almost certainly shoot way better than last year and that will make up a lot of offensive ground. Better overall shooting is likely to be the hallmark of offensive success for this Duke team.

    The question that remains is whether it will offset hits in offensive rebounding and turnovers and here’s where I am skeptical. In the first two games, Duke has shot the lights out, but the drop in OR and rise in TOs has the offensive efficiency lower than last year’s average. This is small sample-size theater, but it’s illustrative. We’ll see what these rates level to as the season wears on, but I think it will be a challenge to match last year’s offensive prowess.

  8. WakeFan says:

    Play for Duke always makes offensive rebounding easier…

  9. KCarpenter says:

    Hey Garik,

    2007-2008 and 2008-2009 Duke were good teams. 2008-2009 Duke lost once more than last year’s team during the regular season and then lost in the NCAA. 2007-2008 actually lost one less than last year’s team during the regular season. Predicting one extra regular season loss at worst and a tournament loss isn’t really that sensational.

    The teams look different, but I don’t think the overall success is that far off the mark.

  10. garik16 says:

    “2007-2008 and 2008-2009 Duke were good teams. 2008-2009 Duke lost once more than last year’s team during the regular season and then lost in the NCAA. 2007-2008 actually lost one less than last year’s team during the regular season. Predicting one extra regular season loss at worst and a tournament loss isn’t really that sensational. ”

    Comparing the years by W-L is a bad method. Looking at efficiency:
    2010: #1 OPPP, #4 DPPP
    2009: #10 OPPP, #20 DPPP
    2008: #11 OPPP, #9 DPPP

    That’s more than slightly worse (The 09 team for example, wasn’t an elite defensive team. But you ignored defense in this analysis.) There’s a large gap there.

  11. KCarpenter says:

    Hey Garik,

    You are totally right. In that prediction, I wasn’t trying to gauge the ranking of efficiencies, but just provide a quick guess at what this meant in terms of team success for people who wanted something beyond the abstraction of efficiencies. A quick view of what the season might look like from overhead, or rather, from the couch. I wasn’t trying to specifically say that I thought Duke would have an offensive efficiency around 10th or 11th best.

  12. Matt B. says:

    KC: I wanted to thank you for responding to everyone’s comments. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t do that and it is much appreciated, regardless of different opinions.

  13. KCarpenter says:

    Hey Matt,

    You read what I wrote, so it’s only fair if I read what you wrote, right? Seriously, thanks for reading. I’m not here to grind any axes. I just like talking about basketball. Thanks for discussing it with me this week and I hope you’ll read and comment next week.

  14. DMoore says:

    Obviously it’s too early for this to be meaningful (not a large enough sample, and not enough matchups against strong teams), but so far Duke is leading the country in offensive efficiency. It breaks down to 31st in effective field goal percentage, 32nd in turnovers per possession, 151st in offensive rebounding, and 196th in free throw rate.

    We’ll know in two weeks how good Duke really is. They’re likely going to face Marquette, Kansas State (Away — maybe Gonzaga), Oregon (Away), Michigan State, and Butler (Neutral) by Dec. 4th. That should be as strong a series of games as it will take to make it through the NCAAs to get to the finals.

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