Do NBA players try harder in the playoffs?

The stadium scene.
May 5 2009 5:59 PM

Do NBA Players Try Harder in the Playoffs?

The guys from Basketball Prospectus try to quantify the intangibles.

(Continued from Page 1)

The first number, offensive rebound percentage, refers to the number of offensive boards grabbed compared with the number of offensive rebound opportunities available. In theory, offensive rebounding requires increased effort because players have to work to get around opponents that have inside position on the boards. (Maximum-effort players like Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman are remembered for their relentless work on the offensive glass.) Next we considered the number of free throws made per field goal attempted, a common way of measuring a player's foul-drawing ability. This should be higher when guys are forgoing easy jump shots and putting in the extra oomph to drive to the hoop. Third, we looked at the opponents' effective field-goal percentage—that's just like the regular field-goal percentage but tweaked to account for three-point shots. And finally, we tallied up the rate of forced turnovers per possession.

So how do you combine those numbers into a single statistic? We'll omit the hairy math, but we balanced out the four categories to put them on equal footing, added them up, and rounded off the sum. According to this calculation, the hardest-working team in the NBA playoffs (since the merger, at least) would have been the '77 Bulls, with a 231 RAMBIS. That's apropos, because the Bulls in the 1970s, led by Norm Van Lier, were a bunch of bruisers. At the other extreme, the '83 Super Sonics managed a RAMBIS of just 147. (Both teams wiped out in the first round.)

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The real question, of course, is whether a team's RAMBIS rating goes up during the playoffs. This year's Celtics had a regular-season RAMBIS of 188; the Bulls had a 185. During their epic seven-game playoff series, their RAMBIS ratings registered at 185 and 182, respectively. Oh well.

In fact, if RAMBIS really does measure effort, then we might conclude that the average team tries less hard when the stakes are higher. Since 1977, playoff teams have seen their RAMBIS numbers decrease by an average of 4.5 percent from the regular season. Less than a quarter of all teams boosted their RAMBIS on the big stage. This is consistent with at least one of our original observations about the differences between regular-season and playoff basketball: If teams are trying harder, they're also being more careful. Forcing turnovers certainly seems like a function of effort, but so does avoiding turnovers. (If we drop turnovers from the equation, the RAMBIS might be a bit better, with the average score going up very slightly during the playoffs.)

RAMBIS might not give us much information on whether teams try harder in the playoffs, but it's still useful. Teams with high RAMBIS tend to share a style of play—they crash the offensive glass, eschew jump shots in favor of driving the basket, and work a pressure-based defense. They're also consistent in the metric from one season to the next. Curiously enough, many of those teams seem to have been coached by Hubie Brown. Teams with low  RAMBIS are also similar stylistically—and sometimes have great success. The San Antonio Spurs of recent vintage turn out to have an appalling RAMBIS, but that's not from lack of effort. Gregg Popovich's defensive system places little value on creating turnovers and denies perimeter players the opportunity to go for offensive rebounds. As four championships will attest, the anti-RAMBIS approach works.

We also calculated a RAMBIS rating at the player level, using blocks and steals in lieu of opponent effective field-goal percentage and percentage of turnovers forced, but there wasn't any discernible "effort" trend there, either. The players who upped their career  RAMBIS results the most in playoff time include Isiah Thomas (+45.1), Dirk Nowitzki (+39.0), and—listen to this, Joey—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (+36.0). Other noted playoff heroes also fare well, like Michael Jordan (+23.1) and Dennis Rodman (+26.1). But before we get too excited, we have to pay attention to the laggards on our leaderboard. Moses Malone (-87.1) is dead last. Patrick Ewing (-52.8) is next to last. Both players were lunch-pail types who reached Hall of Fame levels based on hard work and consistent effort.

We tried lots of variations on RAMBIS in hopes of putting numbers with our idea that players are working harder in the playoffs. Nothing worked perfectly. Maybe, in the end, it's not that the players are trying that much harder but that we're watching that much more closely. The stakes are higher. The drama is heightened. The action gets chippier. One measurable effect this year is that technical fouls per game have increased from 0.67 in the regular season to 1.27 in the playoffs. So while the players may or may not be trying harder, they certainly seem to be displaying more emotion. Is that the effort effect we've been searching for, or are officials just working harder to keep control of the action? We could go around like this forever, so perhaps the best course of action is just to trust our eyes and appreciate what we see.

Bradford Doolittle is a writer based in Kansas City, Mo., and a contributor to Basketball Prospectus.

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