Whose Defense Creates the Most Offense


There’s a common saying in football that the best defense is a good offense.  In basketball, it might be more appropriate to say that a good defense can create good offense.  Great ball pressure or playing the passing lanes can often lead to turnovers that can, in turn, lead to fast breaks and easy buckets.

The Spurs have long been known as one of the best defensive teams (of all time), but their style of  physical defensive play doesn’t necessarily lend itself to steals and easy offensive possessions.  In recent years, the trend has gotten worse. The following is a list of the NBA teams in 2009/10 sorted by the number of steals “converted.” (I defined converted as scoring a close basket or free throw within 6 or fewer seconds of the steal.)

Fast Break Points by Team

TeamStealsPts/StlUnastd CloseClose AstFTPtsFB Pts/Stl

“Pts/Stl” include all points and possessions in plays following steals. All other statistics must be converted within six seconds of a steal without a stoppage in play. I assumed one point per possession after a stoppage of play. For a closer look at the underlying details of these statistics, check out my post on basketball-analysis.com.

The Spurs are right near the bottom of this list, but perhaps surprising to some, they have company in the offensive juggernaut known as the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have never been known for their defense, and nor have they collected a significant number of steals since their pre-Nash days.

However, for the steals they did have, their perceived fastbreaking tendencies should lead to a high conversion rate. I know Nash recently said something to the effect that the Suns of 2009/10 were not really a fast break team, but I am nonetheless surprised by this result. Other typical fast break teams such as Golden State, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Memphis and Atlanta all appeared near the top of this list.

Many harp on the perils of gambling in an effort to create steals. If a player over-commits and fails, he often leaves his team at a disadvantage.  However, statistical models estimate that players with more steals tend to be more valuable than the action would reasonably dictate. Most statistical formulas place the value of a steal equal to barely over one point created, but regression models place this value at well over this amount (82games, abpr forum, basketball-reference, Off SPM and Def SPM).

This indicates that defensively, the lost value from taking these gambles is often made up in the havoc they cause. Additionally, from an offensive standpoint, steals can have significant value. Based on my data from the play-by-play from basketballvalue.com, plays in which the player who steals the ball finishes the possession himself result in about 1.5 points per possession.

Despite the fact that the Spurs have been so great defensively, they have rarely excelled in the steals department. One can’t really argue against the success of the Spurs defensive historically, but more steals could help on the offensive end, and perhaps even create a spark defensively.

Another factor to look at is who can finish with efficiency after steals. This shows both ability to finish in transition and how frequently steals were made on the perimeter. Following is a list of the top players sorted by fast break points created.

Fast Break Points by player

PlayerTeamStls`Pts/StlFB Unastd
FB Close
FB FTFB Pts CreatedFB Pts/StlFB Astd CloseFB Pts
Rajon RondoBOS1891.21272251030.54977
CJ WatsonGSW1031.32201719930.9671
Andre IguodalaPHI1411.17191616860.612298
Tyreke EvansSAC1091.27201712860.791582
Monta EllisGSW1431.3181715850.591275
LeBron JamesCLE1251.318928820.661696
Rudy GayMEM1181.152398720.611380
Josh SmithATL1301.232397710.551583
Russell WestbrookOKC1081.2114178700.65750
Dwyane WadeMIA1421.1420613650.461991
Baron DavisLAC1261.0614155630.5543
Kevin DurantOKC1121.2114917630.561371
Andre MillerPOR931.27111413630.68137
Gerald WallaceCHR1171.2114719610.521271
Courtney LeeNJN931.217712600.65760
Rodney StuckeyDET1011.1514125570.561053
Jason TerryDAL941.113912560.6650
Louis WilliamsPHI801.1810148560.7742
Beno UdrihSAC891.3710155550.62433
Mike ConleyMEM1091.3111136540.5538
Trevor ArizaHOU1261.331588540.431364
Kobe BryantLAL1131.19101111530.47643
Brandon JenningsMIL1051.0913713530.5651
Stephen CurryGSW1520.9812114500.33742
OJ MayoMEM981.081658500.511672
Jrue HolidayPHI791.147155490.62427
Jonny FlynnMIN821.127818480.59236
Stephen JacksonCHR1321.147145470.361345
Raymond FeltonCHR1231.157136460.37530
Devin HarrisNJN791.059115450.57431
Manu GinobiliSAS1031.255139450.44121
Darren CollisonNOR781.2171010440.561146
Deron WilliamsUTA961.286127430.45631
Danny GrangerIND941.065816420.45842
Chauncey BillupsDEN821.025144420.51014
Ronnie BrewerUTA911.211453410.45541
Andrei KirilenkoUTA831.221158400.48540
Marcus ThorntonNOR581.49610400.691558
Mario ChalmersMIA911.058103390.43121
James HardenOKC801.238513390.49641
Joe JohnsonATL821.248102380.46630
Thaddeus YoungPHI8111156380.471252
John SalmonsCHI991.087514380.38946
Will BynumDET551.337102360.65220
Maurice WilliamsCLE701.096104360.51118
Carmelo AnthonyDEN881.23958360.411454
Jason KiddDAL1451.064124360.25216
Corey BrewerMIN1171.071424360.311154
Ron ArtestLAL1061.087610360.34738
Eric GordonLAC691.17777350.51633
Marvin WilliamsATL661.179212340.52846
Nene HilarioDEN1151.16873330.29325
George HillSAS691.13849330.48943
Kyle LowryHOU601.123107330.55319
Carlos DelfinoMIL801.165414320.4432
Omri CasspiSAC541.34103310.57929
Derek FisherLAL901.04478300.33118
Ty LawsonDEN481.27764300.63528
Jamal CrawfordATL611.383710300.49628
Delonte WestCLE551.025412300.55022
Toney DouglasNYK421.191222300.71536
JR SmithDEN991.12666300.3834
Chris PaulNOR961.18666300.31120
Sergio RodriguezNYK501.18680280.56318
Quentin RichardsonMIA701.2476280.4320
Jarrett JackTOR601.17492280.47316
Earl WatsonIND1041.021810280.27114
Eric MaynorOKC401.38582280.7216
Aaron BrooksHOU691483270.39623
Damien WilkinsMIN661.11655270.41119
Jared DudleyPHO811.23279270.33115
CJ MilesUTA581.24924260.45430
Kirk HinrichCHI850.91196260.31416
Luol DengCHI661.17392260.39416
Tony AllenBOS591908260.44842
Chris Douglas-RobertsNJN550.98727250.451041
Jason RichardsonPHO661.14645250.38833
Thabo SefoloshaOKC971.06653250.26831
Ronnie PriceUTA401.2293250.63313
Jonas JerebkoDET791.194311250.32937
Derrick RoseCHI571.192510240.421034
DJ AugustinCHR451.24448240.53322
Mike BibbyATL671.07284240.36314
Rudy FernandezPOR621.16292240.3918
Steve BlakePOR581.17472240.41010
Wesley MatthewsUTA641.05546240.38730
Jordan FarmarLAL521.19636240.46528
Elton BrandPHI821.04537230.28425
Sonny WeemsTOR391.28635230.59731
Devin BrownNOR331.214211230.7223
Brandon RoyPOR611.13463230.38521
Keyon DoolingNJN341.41732220.65016
Kevin MartinHOU461618220.48938
Jeff GreenOKC1041.08740220.21320
Shawn MarionDAL691.25642220.321238
Caron ButlerWAS1161.21356220.19114
Sam YoungMEM341.18527210.62017
Ramon SessionsMIN550.89723210.38425
Tyrus ThomasCHI631625210.33221
DeMar DeRozanTOR431.16534200.47626
Ronald MurrayCHR461.15354200.43520
Lamar OdomLAL751.01182200.27514
Corey MaggetteGSW521.13436200.381442
Nate RobinsonNYK491.16443190.39113
Andray BlatcheWAS850.86255190.22213
Goran DragicPHO481.17329190.4525
Matt BarnesORL591353190.321029
Gilbert ArenasWAS411.051212180.44218
Dorell WrightMIA521.17434180.35318
T.J. FordIND441622180.41014
Ben WallaceDET861.1540180.21112
A.J. PriceIND351.23336180.51012
Paul PierceBOS840.94253170.2313
Carlos ArroyoMIA360.94146160.44110
Tayshaun PrinceDET341.41236160.47826
Jameer NelsonORL480.96350160.33210
Danilo GallinariNYK750.95424160.21012
Ray AllenBOS640.91342160.25824
Vince CarterORL531.17326160.3114
Dahntay JonesIND401.3252160.4822
Hedo TurkogluTOR551.18440160.29212
Grant HillPHO601.2244160.27416
Jose CalderonTOR471.02252160.34414
Anthony CarterDEN391.23260160.4128
Anthony ParkerCLE631.19064160.2504
Terrence WilliamsNJN431.05513150.35625
Willie GreenPHI320.91235150.47315
Charlie VillanuevaDET481.1423150.31521
Shannon BrownLAL571423150.26827
Marcus CambyLAC951.02145150.1619
Larry HughesNYK521.31512140.27216
Rafer AlstonNJN501.04062140.2802
Shane BattierHOU531.09152140.2604
David LeeNYK851.11250140.16514
Richard HamiltonDET301.33144140.4718
Luis ScolaHOU630.89152140.22616
DeJuan BlairSAS501.02422140.28112
Zaza PachuliaATL371.22323130.35213
Jeff TeagueATL341.18331130.38211
Marco BelinelliTOR421.19225130.31111
Al HarringtonNYK621.19405130.21217
Zach RandolphMEM801.08037130.16823
Luke RidnourMIL541.09233130.2419
David WestNOR761.17061130.1713
Donte GreeneSAC411.39143130.32923
Paul MillsapUTA641.28323130.2315
Martell WebsterPOR451.04315130.29929
Ryan GomesMIN621.26241130.2117
Ben GordonDET491.1142120.24616
Mickael PietrusORL531.06314120.23418
Jason WilliamsORL531.06420120.23110
JJ HicksonCLE361.33510120.33928
Amare StoudemirePHO521.25240120.2328
Maurice EvansATL341.35330120.35210
Jamaal TinsleyMEM331.09142120.3604
Randy FoyeWAS331.24224120.3608
Amir JohnsonTOR440.91403110.25215
Chris DuhonNYK591.15141110.1903
Anthony MorrowGSW651.25231110.17311
Marcus WilliamsMEM321141110.3415
Roger MasonSAS301.13230100.3316
Anthony TolliverGSW321.34124100.31516
Andres NocioniSAC321.19132100.3128
Dirk NowitzkiDAL701.14050100.14510
Craig SmithLAC330.91312100.3416
James PoseyNOR420.95050100.2400
Ime UdokaSAC341.18140100.2926
Ersan IlyasovaMIL530.85222100.19210
Mike DunleavyIND381.32312100.26212
Antoine WrightTOR301.27304100.33316
Al ThorntonLAC45130390.2927
Peja StojakovicNOR481.3104190.19511
Brook LopezNJN55103390.1639
Eddie HouseBOS400.9802590.2329
Mike MillerWAS390.7921390.23211
Rasual ButlerLAC361.0313190.25513
Jamario MoonCLE341.1840190.26213
Chase BudingerHOU341.522190.26719
Steve NashPHO421.0513080.1914
Michael BeasleyMIA800.8940080.1722
Keith BogansSAS450.9313080.1802
Devean GeorgeGSW411.4610680.208
Pau GasolLAL370.9703280.22920
Chris AndersenDEN421.0503280.1914
Arron AfflaloDEN461.0422080.17718
Jason MaxiellDET360.9730280.22416
Marc GasolMEM691.0413080.1202
Luc Mbah a MouteMIL600.9721280.13210
Taj GibsonCHI501.2213080.1602
Kris HumphriesNJN361.1121280.22210
Jose Juan BareaDAL351.0912280.23514
Charlie BellMIL390.9203170.1801
Darius SongailaNOR621.0603060.124
Rashard LewisORL781.1802260.0802
Chris KamanLAC370.9712060.16410
Chuck HayesHOU731.0803060.0800
Troy MurphyIND720.9212060.08410
Carlos BoozerUTA841.0612060.07410
Anderson VarejaoCLE711.0411260.08310
Richard JeffersonSAS45100660.131026
Carl LandryHOU551.1610460.11312
Jared JeffriesNYK620.9812060.102
Tim DuncanSAS45103060.1324
Kenyon MartinDEN720.9211150.07615
Kevin LoveMIN431.0211150.1215
Dwight HowardORL751.1211150.0703
Drew GoodenDAL41111150.1239
Wilson ChandlerNYK460.8510350.11617
Udonis HaslemMIA301.1302150.1713
Rasheed WallaceBOS80101240.0526
Kevin GarnettBOS681.0411040.0626
Al JeffersonMIN631.2902040.0612
Spencer HawesSAC320.7502040.13510
Al HorfordATL591.202040.0748
Samuel DalembertPHI421.0211040.114
Chris BoshTOR431.1401240.0914
Boris DiawCHR601.1501240.0702
Antawn JamisonWAS711.0101130.0449
Jason ThompsonSAC41101130.07511
Nick CollisonOKC370.9501130.0813
Emeka OkaforNOR541.200220.04410
Channing FryePHO640.9510020.0314
Antonio McDyessSAS431.2110020.0514
Nenad KrsticOKC321.0601020.0624
Yi JianlianNJN370.9500220.0538
LaMarcus AldridgePOR67100220.031124
Joakim NoahCHI320.7501020.0648
Brad MillerCHI440.9101020.0524
Andrew BynumLAL351.1100110.0325
Matt BonnerSAS300.8300110.0301
Josh BooneNJN300.80000012
Brandon RushIND560.960000012
Mehmet OkurUTA380.840000024
Roy HibbertIND300.970000012
Andrew BogutMIL390.790000000

Rajon Rondo led the league in steals and also led the league in converting steals to buckets. CJ Watson (0.90) and Tyreke Evans (0.79) stood out for their exceptional conversion rates of fast break points per steal. (League average was 0.33). At this point in his career, though Jason Kidd is still able to force turnovers, he seems to have trouble scoring quickly off them. His conversion rate is only 0.25.

Lebron James was perhaps the best finisher, leading the NBA with 28 free throws made within 6 seconds of his own steal. Andre Iguodala was the top beneficiary of setups from another player’s steal, scoring 22 close baskets in that fashion. Monta Ellis, Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade were among the other noteworthy finishers. Points per steal was watered down by non-transition possessions, but some familiar players still managed to make an appearance near the top of this list. Watson, Ellis and Lebron were joined by Beno Udrih, Trevor Ariza and Mike Conley among the leaders in team points per individual steal.

Here is a list of the Spurs with their transition possessions and points per possession, as defined by Synergy .

Fast Break Points for Spurs

PlayerStlsPts/StlFB UclFB ClAstFB FTFB Pts CreatedFB Pts/StlFB AstdCloseFB PtsSyn Trans PossSyn Trans PPP
Manu Ginobili1031.255139450.441231301.27
George Hill691.13849330.489431691.3
Tony Parker291.41323130.452151931.17
Tim Duncan45103060.13210491.04
Keith Bogans450.9313080.1802581.17
Roger Mason301.13230100.3318621.16
DeJuan Blair501.02422140.28118211
Richard Jefferson45100660.1310261401.28
Michael Finley10101020.20060
Antonio McDyess431.2110020.0516181.06
Matt Bonner300.8300110.0301281.21
Garrett Temple131.0820590.69111171.06
Malik Hairston410000036121.58
Ian Mahinmi30.67000000030.67

This list includes players who played most of their 2009/10 minutes with the Spurs. For this reason, the totals might differ slightly from the Spurs actual totals. Synergy transition possessions can be off steals, blocks, defensive rebounds or made shots and do not include assists.

Manu Ginobili seemed to be the best thief and fast break distributor for the Spurs. Tony Parker creates few steals, but had reasonable success in the transition despite his injury woes. George Hill was possibly the Spurs’ best overall finisher on the break.

Perhaps the most important information from this table is that, despite being a significant factor in the Spurs’ fast break, Richard Jefferson saw his transition possessions decrease for the second consecutive year. Jefferson’s transition possessions, as defined by Synergy, decreased from 285 in 2007/08 to 208 in 2008/09 and to 126 in last year’s regular season. Perhaps the Spurs could bring in someone to better spark the break and increase his value.

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  • The Beat Counselor

    Can’t disagree with the conclusion that RJ wasn’t fully utilized in transition last year.

    On the other hand, I believe that the traditional Spurs attitude towards steals is that it is a gambling style of defense that causes the on-ball defender to often be out of place defensively which results in the defense having to rotate to compensate.

    I do however appreciate the defensive prowess of a player like Rondo who not only can get steals by reaching in but also by recovering from his overgambling, not giving up on the play and being able to break up the play from behind the ball handler (which is especially effective against PGs that are good 3pt shooters).

    Perhaps it would be smart to investigate such a strategy when guarding PGs just because the hand-check rule has made defending todays quicker PGs so difficult. This maybe more of an option now that we have another big anchoring the paint. That being said the defender would have to be tenacious after a failed first attempt. I could see hill being more effective at this than TP because he seems to have longer arms.

    As for the other type of steal, reading the passing lanes and intercepting the pass (ala Trevor Ariza), this may be where RJ can create more fastbreak opportunities for himself.
    Again, having Splitter allows us to gamble more defensively on the perimeter.

  • Greyberger

    I was surprised to see how highly steals are valued in regression analysis. In the cited examples a steal is worth more than the change of possession AND the extra likelyhoood of scoring on the ensuing offensive possession. In other words a steal appears more valuable than we can easily explain.

    Sometimes regression analysis puts us in the position of explaining a result that seems counter-intuitive. For example according to some models built on regressions, offensive rebounds are more correlated with wins and more valuable than defensive boards. How can this be, when the value of an defensive rebound is denying your opponent the value of an offensive one? The numbers sometimes come into conflict with what you know to be true about basketball.

    You can either conclude that what we assume about possession and efficiency and basketball in theory is wrong (few people do this) or you can conclude your measurement is capturing more than intended. Maybe individual offensive rebounding numbers illustrate team strength in rebounding or some other area in a way we don’t fully understand. Steals almost certainly ‘capture’ strong defense in regressions in a way that would make their value seem inflated in other contexts.

    This isn’t really a problem as long as you’re convinced what is being captured is the individual’s skill. Back to the Rondo example – it’s not just about what Rajon Rondo can do with his unique skillset. His steals come in a defense that is constantly applying pressure, doesn’t allow a good fg% or many good looks, and has great defenders in the paint for when Rondo gambles and gets beat. It’s not just Rondo those steals are describing but the Celtics as well.

    Another snag that contributes to how difficult it is to properly estimate the value of player steals is the missing input problem. Since stats for the most important part of defense (shooting defense) aren’t available at an individual level, the defensive stats that we DO have end up with exaggerated value. The heavy weight of a ‘fg% allowed’ input (or proxy like Drtg does) would put steals and blocks in their proper context.

    Then there’s the puzzle of the Spurs, who historically aren’t just bad at steals, they’re apathetic! Under Popovich the Spurs don’t seem to care at all about forcing TOs, fouls or getting offensive rebounds and focus instead on keeping team TO down and denying offensive boards and free throws to the opponent. In 2009 for example, the Spurs were best-in-league at opponent free throw rate, opponent ORB%, and team TO… and worst-in-league or second worst in the flipside of those factors. This trend is so prominent that you have to figure it’s coming from the top. How can we assess a player’s ability at something if the coach is explicitly telling him to not even attempt it?

  • nba fan 83

    With the Nba becoming an increasingly offensive league, we can’t assume playing sound defense will result in a favorable outcome (no score) more than 50% of the time. Teams nowadays score in excess of 50% all the time, which means more drastic measures are needed to break up plays and risks have to be taken. It might be time for the spurs to revisit their conservative approach to defense.

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    Spurs actually like breaking a lot more than people think, but I think with Timmy’s age it’s harder for the bigs to keep up. While steals are a big part of it, I think the philosophy is generally the same in previous years of shot alteration and quick outlets from the defensive board, which I believe is where Tony Parker had a lot of success. It is still a gamble, when to help and when to leak, but hopefully with the interior defense there, we have more of those opportunities.

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    Spurs defense has been all about floor spacing and shot alteration, forcing wings to the baseline where a big alters (or blocks) the shot and gets the board. This leads to quick outlets as the wings can then leak out in transition. While this isn’t as statistically flashy as the steal, it’s equally as effective, and won’t often show up in the box scores.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Scott Sereday

    Good observations Greyberger,

    A couple notes: Steals are almost certainly capturing some tendencies that the other data in the models miss. Since such little information is readily available defensively, a player who averages an extra steal per 100 possessions seems to also simply have better defensive abilities since they are usually more athletic than average. There could also be random oddities that screw the results.
    As for rebounds: a rebound is a rebound and is worth a possession…from a team’s standpoint, anyway. The one missing piece of information is that gathering a rebound that a teammate would have otherwise grabbed adds no value. That is why the accepted value of an individual defensive rebound is around .3 (since the opposing team has a 30% offensive rebounding rate) and offensive rebounding value is accepted at 70%.

    From what I can tell, Parker’s rather high number of transition possessions seem to be from quick strikes from outlet passes, when the defense is largely back but not set. This is defined as a fast break, but probably not as easy of a shot as other transition plays (although certainly much easier to create).
    And clearly the Spurs have done tons of things right defensively. I’m sure spicing things up with a few more defensive gambles might make things even better, but clearly they should be careful not to mess up what has been a very good thing.

  • rj

    so…..no one has said much about james anderson in camp. how about gist, gee, or jerrils? it would be great if one of these spurs blog could highlight the performers of training camp. been hearing good things about blair and the HEB commercials

  • http://48minutesofhell.com/2010/09/02/death-of-tradition anonymous

    The staff writer for Bleach Report is at this minute. name calling and insulting many Spurs fans on his Blog. Google this,(Bleacher Report-Spurs have a rough road) and help those other Spurs fans out. Instead of us taking on other Spurs fan Bloggers here, go over there and take care of that staff writing Laker fan.

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  • dae

    Anyone else notice how as a whole, the top “points per steal” teams aren’t what you call title contenders?

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is. On the one hand, they’re saying it’s worth gambling on steals but as we can see by the list provided, most of the steal converting teams are pretty crappy.

  • rob

    One of the problems that encompasses gambling on steals from a Spurs defensive perspective is the fact that the defense relys on generous spacing and rotational help.

    If player x gambles on a steal…it breaks down the system of rotating to cover. There’s not many times an individual player on this team is defending man on man unless they happen to be the on ball defender. It’s more like a motion/man defense where everybody else except the on ball defender is jockying for rotational position in anticipation that if the on ball defender does his job directing the opponent to a certain spot…they’re able to cover the seams on the court.

  • Greyberger

    Yeah Pop is certainly no-nonsense about players whose ‘initiative’ hurts the team defense. He’s publicly said the most important thing for his teams is to force bad shots and not foul… as opposed to forcing turnovers or rebounding every miss, I guess.

    Re: Scott, you’re right and right about the mistake being the difference from team level to individual level. Offense and defensive rebounding might be equally important to a team, but 10 offensive boards in a game is obviously a greater contribution than just 10 defensive rebounds. If you were to remove that player and those 10 d. rebounds from the reckoning, any (sane) model would assume your teammates to pick up most of the slack.

    Reason number 92 why Kobe’s game 7 looks so bad on paper.