Behind the Numbers: Focus and BalancePosted by KCarpenter on March 9th, 2011
Kellen Carpenter is an RTC contributor.
What’s the ideal team look like? Is it five equally skilled players who share the ball and can all defend and score? A super deep team with ten guys who could all start? Does the ideal team have an alpha dog and a clear hierarchy? A dynamic duo? Maybe, a Big Three? If it’s one superstar and role-players, where does the superstar play? Is he a guard or a forward? One of the things that I enjoy most about basketball is that there is no clear consensus on any of these ideas. There is no ideal. Instead, we have a multitude of competing styles on offense and defense, each individual style perfectly capable of winning a championship.
In 2010, the national championship went to a Duke team with a Big Three approach, focused on the perimeter. In 2009, North Carolina won by balancing a primary post option in Tyler Hansbrough with three skilled guards. The Kansas and Florida championship teams leaned heavily on their skilled big men. The point is that there are successful precedents for most styles, independent of focus and number of focal players. Now, despite these precedents, there is a common idea that a limited number of focal players makes a team more vulnerable. Intuitively, this makes sense: it’s easier to stop one player than many. Likewise, if a team has a single focus, like post scoring, it seems intuitively easier to stop that without having to worry about other threats, like perimeter shooting.
These ideas make sense, but I’m not sure they hold up. Teams with a single focal point, a single powerful talent, have been successful. Notably, in 2003, the indisputably Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team won it all. In a similar vein, the 2010 Blue Devils’ lack of reliable post scoring didn’t seem to impede their success. So, at least anecdotally, a lack of balance doesn’t seem to be terribly lethal to a team’s hopes for a championship. But, what about the question of depth? Doesn’t having a deeper team help a team win?
Not necessarily. If we look at bench minutes percentage, a measure of how many total minutes were played by non-starters, we can get at least some measure of a team’s depth. Generally speaking, a deep team will have more minutes played by guys on the bench. Last year, the two teams that played in the final, Duke and Butler, finished 1st and 12th in Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean rankings. Looking at these contenders and the ten teams that finished ranked between them, there was only a single team that was above the median in bench minutes percentage. Every other team was in the bottom half of bench usage, while many, notably Duke and Butler, were in the bottom fifth. Somewhat surprisingly, the one top team that used the bench at an above average rate was Brigham Young, a team that was primarily known for the singular talents of Jimmer Freddette.
This surprise, however, illuminates the paradox of depth. If you have a team that has three very good players, and seven lousy ones, your team will likely start the Big Three and two lousy players. The cost to substitute a lousy player for one of the Big Three is worse overall performance for the team, while the benefits are smaller (rest, a quick coaching adjustment, etc.). Due to the cost of subbing out one of the Big Three, the coach has a strong incentive to keep them on the court as much as possible. Now consider the other two starters. In this simplistic scenario, there is no cost of subbing either of these players out for any other player on the bench. Their talents are fairly replaceable, and if the coach thinks he can gain an advantage by keeping legs fresh (maybe maximizing their usage-efficiency curve) or throwing out confusing match-ups, the team won’t play worse and might in fact play better. Consider the case of a team with one superstar and nine lousy players. In this case, the bench is likely to play more, because there are four replaceable starters. Weirdly, bench minutes percentage actually seems more likely to indicate having a lot of mediocre players than having a lot of really good players. Surely, there is such a thing as a legitimately deep team where the guys coming off the bench are just as good as any of the starters, but when that’s the case, it’s much more often because the starters are pretty mediocre than because the bench players are really good.
Now, obviously, having suitable replacements in the case of non-coach-controlled playing limitations is important. Outside of foul trouble and insurance against injury, depth, like balance and offensive variety, is perhaps not as important to winning as some have made it out to be. This year, for example, there are only seven teams in college basketball who use their bench less than Ohio State, the consensus best team in America. That said, this year there is a team situated to prove me wrong in incredible and dramatic fashion.
Kansas, as you may have heard a time or two, has depth and balance to a ridiculous degree. Bench minutes percentage puts them in the top third of teams in terms of how much the bench plays. The incredible forward tandem of Marcus and Markieff Morris wreaks havoc in the frontcourt, while Kansas boasts a veritable platoon of guards who shoot threes at an impressive and incredibly efficient clip. The offense is about as thoroughly balanced as it gets, and the depth of this team almost seems impossible. Kansas starts four players with offensive effiency ratings well above 115, while the fifth starter is Tyshawn Taylor, who certainly doesn’t hurt the team with his respectable offense and penchant for distributing the ball. Off the bench, Kansas has three more players with offensive efficiency ratings over 115. For reference, suddenly blossoming and potentially deadly North Carolina boasts only a single player with an offensive efficiency rating over 115 (Tyler Zeller), and has only one other player with a rating over 105 (Leslie McDonald). North Carolina’s third most efficient option on offense is Dexter Strickland (104.6). There are nine players on Kansas who are rated higher than Dexter Strickland. That’s not a typo. Now, North Carolina isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but they are ranked as the sixth best team in the country in RTC’s experts poll. Just consider that for a moment and consider how thoroughly, at least on paper, the Jayhawks’ offense outclasses the Tar Heels.
Now, I stand by my assertion and belief that balance is overrated and that a team based around a dominant center can win the championship as well as a team based around three guards with barely any post presence. I think that history has shown that a huge number of styles have been successful in college basketball and that worries about any particular team deficit are probably unnecessary. A team can win without great three point shooters, great big men, or guys who can draw lots of fouls. A team can win with three stars, one star, or five stars. A team can win without depth. Imbalanced and teams that lean on their starters win all the time.
That said, if you are wondering what the platonic ideal team in terms of balance and depth looks like, look no further than Lawrence, Kansas.