Want to Win NBA Games? Make Your Shots. It’s That Simple.

A couple of weeks back, we took a look at the defensive factors that lead to the greatest difference between good NBA teams and bad NBA teams. To the surprise of perhaps nobody, holding the other team’s eFG% down was the single greatest predictor of whether a team was going to be any good.

But the team that at the time—before the Utah Jazz went on a six-game run in which all of their opponents ended up looking like YMCA chuckers and in the process seized a sizeable advantage in the stat—led the league in opponent’s eFG% had a losing record.

Of course, that team—the New York Knicks—cannot themselves shoot for beans. The Knicks are, at this writing, second (behind Utah) in opponents’ eFG%, but they are 26th in eFG% on offense. And while they’ve won three of their last five games, they still stand at just 24-24. The second best defensive team in the league by shooting efficiency is tied for sixth in a godsawful Eastern Conference and has a very real chance of not even getting out of the play-in tournament if they can’t start making shots and winning some games to secure that spot in the top six.

But as I said in that piece about defense, this makes them the exception that proves the rule. Defense wins championships, but if you don’t have at least a competent offense, it doesn’t matter how good your defense is. All it means is that you’re going to lose a lot of low-scoring games.

To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the eight teams that so far have won 30 games in at least 47 tries (the Milwaukee Bucks are 30-17; the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets are both 30-18, establishing .625 as the lowest winning percentage in the sample.)

We’ll rank them by winning percentage, then look at their ranks by eFG% on offense and defense respectively. Ready? Go.

Utah: (36-11): .563 (T-4th), .505 (1st)
Phoenix (33-14): .561 (6th), .520 (T-4th)
Brooklyn (34-15): .576 (1st), .533 (10th)
Philadelphia (33-15): .541 (11th), .518 (3rd)
LA Clippers (32-18): .564 (3rd), .535 (T-11th)
Milwaukee (30-17): .566 (2nd), .532 (9th)
LA Lakers (30-18): .540 (T-13th), .520 (T-4th)
Denver (30-18): .563 (T-4th), .544 (T-22nd)

So what have we learned? Well, for one thing, you’ll notice that all eight teams with .625 or better winning percentages have a substantial spread between their own and their opponents’ eFG%. The Jazz, of course, have the greatest spread, at .058, but even Denver, a team that can’t stop anyone defensively, manage a plus-.019 on this metric.

And except for the Nuggets, the top seven teams occupy seven of the top 11 spots defensively, while dropping the 13th-place Lakers leads to, once again, the top seven teams occupying seven of the top 11 spots offensively.

In ninth place for winning percentage, at 29-18, stand the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that continues to make no sense—seriously, stay tuned, next time I get to sit down and go over the numbers I’m going to do a deep dive on this bad team with a great record. The Blazers have a .537 eFG% on offense, good for 17th in the league. They are, however, steaming hot garbage on defense, allowing a .555 eFG% that is tied with New Orleans for second-worst in the league.

Unsurprisingly, they’ve got a negative Net Rating. Like I said, we’ll get to them later, because they’ve somehow managed to cobble together the fifth-highest Offensive Rating in basketball out of what looks like thin air.

The point of all this, however, is that the true cream of the NBA crop, the actual contenders that aren’t utterly wretched either at offense (the Knicks) or defense (the Blazers), all do it through a metric so simple that it’s easy for all of us stat nerds to forget.

The team that wins a basketball game is—and this might be the dumbest sentence I’ve ever typed—the team that makes more shots than its opponent.

And the best way to ensure that the relatively even number of shots from game to game leads to your team making most of them is—and this might be the second-dumbest thing I’ve ever said on this site—to make the shots you take.

Yeah, it helps—a lot, in fact—if you can prevent the other team from making their shots, but ultimately, as the Knicks helpfully demonstrate, you make your life a lot easier if you can make yours.

Basketball is, sometimes, no more complicated than it was when James Naismith first nailed those peach baskets up in Springfield and the first guy to force the question “great, now how do we get the ball out of the basket?” got his team the W.

But it’s always nice to have numbers to prove it. Make your shots. Get stops on defense. Basketball is simple like that.

Well…except for those gods-damned Portland Trail Blazers. But like I said. We’ll get to them next. Stay tuned.