Describing Team Styles: Synergy, Rhythm, and the NCAA Elite (e.g. UConn and Stanford)

"This team is focused. We've got great synergy. We've got collective energy. Everybody was feeling good, even though we were tired, we just did things together." - Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom on the team's energy after a 93-81 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, December 20th, 2009.

It might be easy to dismiss the thinking that informs much of Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson's implementation of Tex Winter's triangle offense as a bunch of new age, "flower child", pacifist, peacenik mumbo jumbo.

Like something you might encounter some guy mumbling about on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley or "Berzerkley" as my East Coast parents would refer to it during my childhood.

The following review of Jackson’s 1995 book "Sacred Hoops" captures the dismissive, anti-"Berzerkley" sentiment quite well:

Review of Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops : Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior - BrothersJudd.com
Less interesting are his dissertations on a variety of religious and philosophical practices, mostly Far Eastern and Native American, and his attempts to incorporate them into his coaching techniques. They tend to be either totally laughable or totally empty, but are always dressed up to seem profound. It sounds like Jackson had a pretty harsh and restrictive religious upbringing; hard to blame him for rebelling. But all of that "be in the moment" jazz just seems like pure shtick. If it works to give him an aura of mystery with his players and makes them just marginally more willing to listen to him, then by definition it's working. But the mere thought of Shaquile O'Neal standing at the foul line trying to figure out what is the sound of one hand clapping is just too funny.

Perhaps the concepts of harmony, "mindfulness", "self-awareness", selflessness (is that even possible?) or five-man tai chi that Jackson described in Sacred Hoops are simply too abstract or foreign to Western sensibilities for the average person who watches basketball to put effort into understanding. However, for anyone that has actually been on a court and played competitive basketball successfully, the more spiritual concepts should resonate with what I would consider basic court sense.

I would argue -- and Jackson’s 10 NBA championships as a coach might back me up -- that a lot of Jackson's thinking is based on sound basketball principles that ultimately every good basketball coach is interested in: getting a group of players to commit to playing as a team. As such, it is something worthy of further understanding as I try to learn women’s college basketball better.

The following excerpt from Sacred Hoops (p. 92) articulates that point well:

"Using a comprehensive system of basketball makes it easier for me to detach myself in that way. Once the players have mastered the system, a powerful group intelligence emerges that is greater than the coach’s ideas or those of any individual on the team. When a team reaches that state, the coach can step back and let the game itself motivate the players…you just have to turn them loose and let them immerse themselves in the action." [1]

If we translate Jackson’s "shtick" into basketball meta-terms, Jackson’s philosophy is based on continuity, rhythm and synergy. If we further reduce those seemingly nebulous concepts into the concrete basketball principles that Jackson abides by as described in Sacred Hoops, it’s hard to deny that those concepts are essentially what any successful basketball coach wants of their team: spacing that gives everyone room to operate and fluidly create scoring opportunities (rhythm), passing the ball and moving without the ball to find the best shot for the unit (synergy), and an integrated offensive and defensive strategy that maximizes the team’s strengths (continuity).

One can certainly imagine scenarios in which these principles are not desirable -- as Jackson describes in the book, a team with a powerful post presence or dominant point guard might rely more on power basketball in which one or two players are given room to create while the others stand still. Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon to hear successful coaches at all levels of basketball refer to these principles.

In fact, it was these principles that essentially defined the character of the University of Connecticut’s 80-68 victory over Stanford University last Wednesday.

More than the "sorcerous ways" of an "ancient religion"

Returning to UConn’s big victory over Stanford, rhythm and synergy played a major role in the flow of the game--if we believe that the words of commentators, coaches, and players were more than empty rhetoric.

"I think in the second half we really turned up the defense pressure a little bit, kinda disrupted the flow of their offense," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma in a post-game interview, echoing comments made during the game by Doris Burke about the importance of disrupting Stanford’s rhythm. "Then we got some buckets in transition that's kinda our game and we played it flawlessly in the 2nd half."

In that game, Stanford established a flow in the first half using their "disciplined patterned offensive" system. In the second half, UConn established a flow by both disrupting Stanford’s rhythm and establishing continuity with a ¾ court press that led to transition opportunities.

In other words, neither Jackson nor Winter own the principles that govern the basketball philosophy that led to the Chicago Bulls’ 90s dynasty -- the triangle is one instantiation of those principles that works well for that team. Moreover, those principles aren’t part of some strange ephemeral force that emerge from the self interest within players dying and a new impulse of selflessness allowing them to feel the force and be at one with the universe.


Synergy and rhythm can help teams win games.

Although it’s reasonable to suggest that these principles cannot be measured because they are the result of intangibles that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, I would suggest that there are metrics that actually serve as reasonable proxies for all of these principles. Consistent with the effort to find statistical tools to better understand women’s basketball they might be useful in describing a team’s style.

To advance a framework for understanding them, I’m going to start by sticking with the UConn-Stanford example as the primary case.

Again, it’s worth noting that I’m not making an argument of statistical significance or saying that these principles are correlated with winning – as described above, a team can win by playing stagnant grind-it-out basketball with the right personnel. The intent of these numbers is to help us describe a team’s style in a way that allows for easy comparisons between teams and gives us a better understanding of teams’ strengths and weaknesses.

Synergy

Perhaps the most basic element of Jackson’s (and Odom’s?) philosophy is synergy, so I'm going to start there.

Synergy, as used by Odom, could be described as the extent to which players do things together on the court. It creates a collective energy or group intelligence that minimizes self-interest in favor of what’s best for the whole.

In more specific basketball terms, synergy is a very good descriptor of how well a team moves the ball to create scoring opportunities on offense and how well a team shuts down an opponent's passing lanes defensively. Put simply, it describes a team’s balance between ball movement and shooting percentage.

A team’s synergy rating is determined by simply adding a team's assisted field goal percentage (a/fg%) and their effective field goal percentage (eFg%) (see explanations of those metrics here). A/fg% is a pretty reliable proxy for ball movement and eFg% tells us how well a team shot in terms of the point value of made shots (free throws, 2 point shots, and 3 point shots).

Conceptually, what a synergy rating tells you is not only the extent to which the team is finding quality (high percentage and value) scoring opportunities but over time it can also tell us how dependent a team is on ball movement to capitalize on scoring opportunities.

Generally, a synergy rating under 70 is indicative of a team that relied less on moving the ball to score, a rating of 70-80 is a team that balances individual scoring and ball movement, and a rating of 80+ is indicative of a team that moves the ball well to create scoring opportunities (for more detailed examples, see Jeff Fogle’s analysis at Basketball Intelligence).

So for example, it’s possible for a team to play extremely stagnant or one-on-one basketball, with a low a/fg% and still have a high eFg% because they are taking shots that are good for them or shooting well from the three point line. Conversely, it’s possible for a team to be moving the ball extremely well but have a low field goal percentage because they simply are not finding enough good scoring opportunities on the whole.

Looking at the synergy ratings for the UConn-Stanford game by half is actually quite telling.

Team 1st Half 2nd Half Game
Synergy Stan 1.19 0.59 0.93
UConn 0.63 1.04 0.84

What we see is pretty much the same story most game summaries have described: in the first half, Stanford had really good synergy with an eFg of 62.5% and an aFg% of 56.25%. Conversely, UConn shot the ball well with an eFg of 51.47% but a very low aFg% of 11.76.

In this case, the half by half numbers tells us more about the utility of synergy ratings than the overall numbers.

UConn demonstrated the ability to create scoring opportunities quite well against a very good team without much ball movement -- with a very low aFg%, they were within 2 points of the consensus #2 team in the nation. Although their synergy rating increased dramatically in the second half, their scoring output increased by only 4 points. One could argue from these numbers that UConn is talented enough as a team to score without having to rely on passes from teammates.

As Burke commented, during the UConn game (and perhaps as a rule), Stanford was more dependent on ball movement, though not necessarily heavily dependent compared to other teams. When Stanford’s synergy rating declined, their scoring output did as well. It pretty much mirrors what one might have observed watching the game – Stanford just seemed to fall apart offensively in the second half almost to the point of looking scattered. From this one game sample against a team that is looking almost unstoppable, Stanford depended heavily on synergy to remain effective. [2]

Rhythm

Whereas synergy describes a continuum of ball movement and one-on-one basketball, a team’s rhythm tells us more about how fluid they’re running their offense to get scoring opportunities. It essentially tells us how well a team scores both by attacking the basket and their all-round shooting from the field.

Last year when I tried to work through some of these ideas, a commenter noted that while synergy is perhaps adequate to describe style, eFg% and free throw rate (FTR) are more strongly correlated. However, for women’s basketball two of the strongest indicators of success are FTR and two point percentage (2pt%) or a team’s field goal percentage on 2 point shots only. So I thought I'd try this idea of a rhythm metric. [3]

I’m defining rhythm as a team’s 2pt% and their FTR (free throws attempted per field goals attempted). 2pt% is useful because it tells us how effectively teams are able to convert scoring opportunities inside the three point line. It does not necessarily mean they got high percentage shots, but a high 2pt% is indicative of a team that is able to create high percentage scoring opportunities (lay ups or short jumpers) for themselves.

In strict numerical terms, free throw rate tells us how many free throw attempts a team gets per every field goal attempt. However, it also serves as a reasonable proxy for how well a team puts the type of pressure on the defense that gets them to the line.

If we imagine the ways in which people get to the free throw line (prior to the bonus) it’s mostly on shots that involve aggressive play going toward the basket – either post ups or drives – rather than jump shots. In fact, it’s commonly accepted in the APBRmetrics community that approximately 12% of free throws attempted come from either technical fouls, flagrant fouls, clear path fouls, “and 1's”, or as the third part of a shooting foul from behind the three-point line. That leaves 88% of free throws to come from other events.

Even taking account for the number of intentional fouls that come at the end of the game to stop the clock, it’s a safe assumption to say that the majority of free throw attempts come from aggressive play penetrating the defense. After a team is in the bonus, they usually don’t draw fouls by standing around except for the final minutes of the game when the defense is trying to stop the clock – drawing fouls even in the bonus usually requires a team to put some sort of pressure on the defense either by driving or getting the ball into the post effectively with the defense out of position (in fact, even getting to the bonus could be interpreted partially as a result of a team’s aggression or the inability for the defense to keep up with them).

So the rhythm metric is a proxy the degree to which a team attacks the basket and their ability to convert on scoring opportunities once inside the three point line. A team that drives a lot, gets free throw attempts, and creates high percentage scoring opportunities in the paint is a team that we can say plays with more rhythm on offense that one that stands around shooting long jump shots and not penetrating.

So rhythm and synergy are similar numerically, but the difference is that they tell us something slightly different conceptually.

Team 1st Half 2nd Half Game
Synergy Stan 1.19 0.59 0.93
UConn 0.63 1.04 0.84
Rhythm Stan 0.87 0.65 0.76
UConn 0.88 0.68 0.75



So a team with average rhythm will fall within the 60-70 range, which tells us two things: both teams played a rather fluid offense in the first half and both teams declined in the second half.

In the first half, both teams shot a very good 2pt% -- Stanford shot 61.90% and UConn shot 76.19%. Stanford made up the difference with a strong FTR – they shot 25% to UConn’s 11.8%.

In the second half, both teams had a better FTR – Stanford at 28.6% and UConn at 17.9%. However, although both teams really fell off in 2pt%, UConn still had a strong enough 2pt% to play well – they shot 50% on 2 point shots while Stanford shot 36.36%.

For Stanford, the decrease in rhythm – and 2pt% in particular – reflects UConn’s increased defensive intensity; UConn smothered shots in the paint forcing Jayne Appel to shoot 2-9.

For UConn, while they did not get to the free throw line much or shoot quite as well from the field, by all accounts they played much better in the second half. So what happened? What helped them win the game was not a lot points off turnovers or fast break points as one might assume from post-game recaps – neither of those changed dramatically in the second half.

What actually happened – and what likely helped them maintain a reasonable field goal percentage – was 13 offensive rebounds that led to 21 second chance points. Of course, a number of those second chance points were second chances in transition or early offense, but it’s interesting that their rebounding intensity – not an increased pace – is what helped them win. Although UConn did demonstrate better synergy, their “rhythm” over the course of the half did not necessarily improve. [4]

While this adds to what we know about UConn’s resilience, it also demonstrates that parts of the story as reconstructed by statistics are still missing: defense and the key factors that decided the game.

Defense, continuity, and team strengths

Fogle claims that opponent synergy actually tells us something about a team’s defense in a way that matters. However, since ball movement is not strongly correlated to offensive success, nor aFg% strongly correlated to eFg%, then it’s not a particularly strong indicator of defensive prowess either – useful for offensive style, but not defensive impact. If a team can score effectively without strong synergy, then that’s less of a result of defense than a conscious decision of the offense.

Disrupting a team’s rhythm in terms of both 2pt% and FTR could say something about a team’s defense. [5] An offense that can neither convert scoring opportunities nor get to the line at a high rate is not a strong offense. Moreover, if a defense holds a team to a low free throw rate, it means they are not fouling them on shots either. If they are both forcing a team into low percentage shots and not fouling, that says a lot more about a defense conceptually than merely limiting synergy. However, UConn dominated Stanford in the second half by the account of anyone who actually watched the game.

Fortunately, there are ways in which we can start to estimate defensive impact and continuity in terms of how well teams manage possessions.

More on tomorrow: team factors and strengths.

Notes:

1. The systemic principles that Jackson refers to are essentially the basis of sound basketball, classroom teaching, or organizational management – people have to buy into a vision and distribute responsibility for decision making across the system so that it is the wisdom of the collective, not solely the intelligence of one individual on the sidelines, that respond to challenges. The interpretive mistake that people often make is that it’s a free flowing process without rules.

In fact, it’s probably just the opposite – to accomplish the effective implementation of such a system, players (or students or employees) have to learn a clearly defined set of principles and objectives that scaffold performance (cognitive, physical, or socio-cultural). Ultimately, every moment working together becomes an opportunity to better grasp how the principles of the activity system work in action.

2. In most cases, MEV will rise and fall proportionally to synergy (more assists and higher field goal percentages will result in a higher MEV), so to say teams with high synergy play better is hardly profound. However, since synergy and scoring are not necessarily associated for every team, synergy allows us to make claims about how dependent a team is on ball movement for scoring, giving us a little more insight about a team’s strengths, weaknesses, and versatility over time.

3. Theoretically, this concept of rhythm works. Practically, I'm not sold on it. In the games I've watched and applied it to, the numbers are confounded by so many other things -- 2nd chance points, fast break points, even hot three point shooting -- that it becomes difficult to claim that it represents anything specific. I left it in here because I had the idea written down and have tracked it during this season so far, but it hard to say what it clearly describes and it does not predict or explain victories.

4. It’s worth noting that as a rhythmic sport, looking for rhythm over the course of an entire half is not realistic – a solid 5 minutes of play can completely put a team out of the game and that is essentially what happened in this game. As such, rhythm here is not meant to mean “momentum”, but how well they execute their offense in terms of getting to the basket and converting high percentage scoring opportunities. Again, that does not mean it’s impossible to win with a low rhythm; it just describes the general character of the game.

5. Shooting a good 2pt% is quite important in women's basketball, perhaps moreso in college. However it's not deterministic -- in a number of games, a team with a poor 2pt% will overcome that with a high synergy rating and strong three point shooting. So again, these numbers are essentially index points with which to guide an analysis of what happened and what was important during the course of a game, not necessarily to imply that there is one formula to win a game or to explain victory across matchups.

Previous:

Putting Games in Perspective with Model-Estimated Value: UConn Sets a Standard for Excellence
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/12/24/1218850/putting-games-in-perspective-with

Illuminating the Black Box: Using Statistics to Understand Women's College Basketball
http://www.swishappeal.com/2009/12/23/1210517/illuminating-the-black-box-using

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