Thursday, January 26, 2006

Scoring Droughts

One of the reasons I'm grateful for having discovered Dean Oliver's work is that his concepts have allowed me to understand and appreciate what NC State does offensively. I've learned that PPG, by itself, isn't very revealing, and that what truly matters is how efficient you are on a per-possession basis.

Not everyone is familiar with possession-based statisics, though. Because of what is sometimes hidden by more standard statistics, the NC State offense is doomed to eternal underappreciation. Criticism flares up after every subpar performance, and I don't know that it's a stretch to say the majority of fans would rather dump Sendek's scheme for something a little more typical. Losses tend to be blamed on the scheme rather than the (lack of) execution, which I think is unfortunate.

But don't get me wrong--I think there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that you can lob at the Wolfpack's offense. For instance, NC State is likely never going to be a good rebounding team because of the types of players it must recruit to run its offense. Rebounding is partially related to a coach's strategy (Do we crash the boards or lay back to avoid giving up transition buckets?), but it is also related to the skill sets of the players.

On the other hand, a common criticism that is (in my opinion) of questionable legitimacy concerns scoring doughts. While I recognize that scoring droughts occur, I also recognize that the idea that they are an inherent weakness of the NC State offense in particular is pretty suspect. The problems with this assertion? For one thing, no one that I know of has taken the time to delve into play-by-play data and actually record how often scoring droughts occur. There are no official numbers on droughts, unless you count those slick graphics that JP or ESPN throw onto the screen as droughts happen. We have no idea how often they happen to the best and worst teams in college basketball. The issue is not just that we don't know how frequently droughts happen to NC State, but also that we have no basis of comparison against which to stack the NCSU offense. That leaves us to justify our feelings with our eyes, and if I've learned one thing since being turned on to sabermetrics and other areas of statistical analysis, it's that our eyes--and our perceptions--can deceive us.

We can all agree that droughts are simply a fact of life on the basketball court. Every team endures them. Regardless of how good your offense is, regardless of how well you move the ball and generate good looks, there are going to be stretches of possessions where you don't score. This is why it's important to have a basis of comparison. When NC State becomes ineffective and we collectively roll our eyes and say "here we go again," are we being fair? What if NC State suffers fewer scoring droughts than most college basketball teams (fn. 1)? Before we point the finger, we need to know.

With any luck, it won't be long before we do know, or at least have a clearer picture. I'm going to look at historical play-by-play data and finally put some numbers up against our feelings. It is going to be important to (among other things) examine not just how often droughts happen, but also how long they last. I probably will not have time to do this during the season (I've got an increasingly-burdensome ACC stats spreadsheet to maintain), but it's something I definitely want to look at in the near future--to satisfy my own curiousity, if nothing else.

There is one critical question that needs to be addressed: how do you define a scoring drought? At what point do a string of scoreless possessions become a drought? I'm leaning toward defining a drought as going scoreless for at least 4:00 of game time, but I'm open to arguments/suggestions.


1.) And since NC State has one of the most efficient offenses in the country, I think it's likely that NC State doesn't suffer a concern-worthy number of droughts. If droughts were a big detriment to the offense, you'd think our efficiency would be more adversely affected. (fn. 2)

2.) Wow, footnotes. I always wanted to do this.