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U of MN Basketball Research Study--how your Timberwolves are able to defy stat geek goodness.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have completed a study on offensive efficiency as it relates to the optimal time during a possession which to shoot. The researchers scoured through about 5,000 game tapes (really) in completing their study. Their key finding is that teams which shoot the ball earlier in the possession are more successful offensively. In stat geek terms, the amount of time elapsed before shots are taken in a possession is correlated negatively with the efficiency of the shots. The study finds that players score 1.05 PPS when shots are taken with 16 seconds left on the clock, and 0.85 PPS on shots in the final few seconds of the possession.

Based on the findings, the researchers argue that more aggressive offenses should be encouraged. Their belief is that "overconfidence"--not shooting early in the shot clock in belief that a better shot will come along--is the scourge of basketball offenses (yes even the dreaded triangle) everywhere. As Timberwolves fans, we immediately know the problem with this statement, having suffered through watching and attempting to cheer for the 2010-2011 David Kahn and Kurt Rambis-led Minnesota-based professional basketball team.

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See more after the break...

When looking at the study two confounders quickly identify themselves when assessing the validity of its arguments.

A. If a team runs a poor offense, or has a poor possession, it may not be able to find a good shot throughout the entirety of the possession--leading to a force in the final few seconds before the shot clock expires. These "forced" shots are much less likely to go in because of the nature of the shot--many if not most of the "forced" shots are going to be defended. Defended shots=less efficient shots. A team facing a strong defensive opponent (or a poor offensive team or combination of both) is going to undoubtedly have many more of these shots, meaning that, in the long run, they will have many misses on shots taken late in the possession. While at times a player may pass on a good shot early in the possession leading to a forced shot later, either way the presence of possessions where no good shots exist will skew the numbers and show that earlier shots=better shots.

B. A team playing great defense (or playing against a team that is apt to turn the ball over) may be able to generate much more fast break opportunities--highly efficient and often unguarded shots taken early in the possession (the first eight seconds--with 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock), which lead to easy points. Again, given the existence of these "free" baskets early in possessions, in the long run shots taken early in possessions will certainly be more efficient.

Once again, the main assertion of the study is, basically, that teams should look to and choose to shoot earlier in their possessions. I ask, how exactly does this study normalize for the two factors of facing strong defense/running poor offensive sets and easy transition points created by playing strong defense?

This is where our favorite bad basketball team enters the fray, as the 2010-2011 Minnesota Timberwolves are a perfect fit for this discussion. Love, Beasley & Co. rarely played any defense-let alone strong enough defense to force turnovers and generate easy transition baskets. They did not benefit much from confounder B--easy fast break points early in the possession. However, they certainly loved to push the tempo and shoot early in the possession. This can be shown be the fact that, while they led the league in Pace at 99.2 possessions per game, indicating that they took many early shots, they were only 23rd in fast break points at 11.9 per game. They were also, despite shooting early indeed, 27th in the league in FG% at 44.1% .

What's the point of all of this, you ask? Well, it could be either one of two things.

Possibility #1: the study and/or assertions may be flawed. Science (even sport science) has a habit of ignoring pertinent information (such as the two potential confounders I have presented) in hopes of proving a hypothesis-or even just finding something that is not obvious to a casual observer. We all like nerd cred when it comes from sports analysis-and who doesn't want to stand at the top of Stat Geek Mountain?

Possibility #2: Remember the famous video of Gus Frerotte smashing his head into the wall after scoring a touchdown and giving himself a concussion? Well, it is very possible the proper slogan for the 2010-2011 Minnesota Timberwolves should have been "United we Run...our heads into walls while turning the ball over to the other team leading to their fifteenth transition basket of the game and eventually another loss." Was that too wordy? Probably. Nonetheless, stat geeks are stat geeks and many people feel that numbers don't lie (what else do we have to believe in)? Shoot earlier! So, possibility #2 is, in the end, this study simply shows further that Kurt Rambis was a coach so bad, he was able to defy all existing basketball logic and statistical argument in one fell swoop. (I will also include generic blame David Kahn, just for the hell of it).

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Which is it? I'll let you decide...

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