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NBA 02/10/2018, 18.06

Isolation situations: are they worth it?

In this stat analysis, we will try to figure out why isolations are used

Welcome back to a new stats analysis. During of October, we will focus on the NBA (in particular on some game situations), in order to give the required time to the numbers of the European competitions (that starts these weeks) to assume reliable values for future analysis. Today we will talk about isolations. Isolation is a game situation widely used in NBA: however, it is not well seen by game lovers. Those people state that using isolation, the team play is negatively influenced. But is it really like that? Is it true that isolating a player will, in any case, lead to counterproductive results for the victory? Thanks to the statistics available on the NBA website we can investigate this. Before starting a clarification: isolation refers to those situations in which a player is left 1vs1 with his defender. Post up situations is not counted in these statistics (we'll talk about soon). Let's start looking at the isolation frequency:

Observing the ranking, the value of Houston seems anomalous towards the other teams: the second one is 4% below, in a ranking where the differences between the positions are about 1%. In any case, at the top, we find teams with players like Harden, Lebron and Westbrook, while in the last positions we find teams like Spurs and 76ers, whose players prefer other situations. We begin to understand with this ranking that the isolation is not always positive or always negative, but depends on the roster that is available. So, let's look at the following chart:

The Rockets, once again, confirmed as a unique team: compared to the other 29 teams have really taken advantage of the isolation, also producing a very high number of points made. For many people, D'Antoni will always be related to game styles like "7 second or less" or similar, but, actually, he adapted his play style in this last season to allow his point guards, Harden and Paul, to perform at their best. To do this he lowered the team pace, allowing the two to play their lethal 1vs1: this fact is confirmed by that Houston is 14th in the Pace ranking, when all Mike's previous teams (Phoenix, New York and Lakers) almost always placed in the first 3 positions and never under the 5th place in the ranking of the Pace. This certifies how the former playmaker of Olimpia Milano has adapted his game to obtain the best from Harden and Paul. In the second and third position, we find the Thunders (given the presence of Westbrook, George and Anthony) and Cleveland (it seems superfluous to specify the reason). But let's leave the absolute numbers and move on to the relative ones:

Using isolation frequency and points for possession, the chart becomes definitely more readable and interesting. Houston is confirmed first of the class, both for frequency and points per possession (the distances from the league averages are scary). Using the points for possession we also discover that Cleveland and the Thunders obtained less than it seemed from the previous chart. OKC is even below the league average in terms of points per possession. Moving to the left on the abscissas we find teams with fewer points per possession; this tendency (also confirmed by the trend curve) is probably dictated by the fact that teams like the 76ers or the Spurs, not having good  players in ISO situations, tend to use it only in emergency situations, increasing the overall difficulty of managing the isolation. Let's now compare the isolation frequency with the Offensive Rating.

The chart, once again, shows a similar trend. This confirms that those who use the isolation assiduously get benefits: Houston, Cleveland or Thunders have averaged good Offensive Ratings. Pay attention: with this chart, I do not want to state that you must always use the isolation to get high Offensive Rating. Rather, I wanted to show that teams with high isolation frequency have obtained benefits. For example, Golden State has averaged the same Offensive Rating of Houston, even if it played the isolations in a totally different way. This is because if Houston players are more comfortable in isolation situations, the GS players produce more in Kerr's game system, made of cuts and movements withouta  ball. Therefore, do not consider a priori the isolation because "aesthetically" ugly or because it harms the spirit of teamwork is not a wise choice. You need to evaluate everything according to the players available. Lastly, let's look at the chart for the players:

If we make a comparison between team and player charts, Harden resides in the same position of his team. First by frequency, second in points per possession (only because Jokic has obtained imperceptibly greater points for possession but, in any case, with a much lower frequency). The Beard and Paul together played more than 50% of the Houston isolations. I think this is the best chart to explain why D'Antoni wanted to focus on their isolation. Harden is such a unique player in ISO, almost deadly, and not using his ability it’s quite a shame. The Rockets are built around these two and are perfect for these situations. The OKC trio cannot reach the Houston duo either by frequency or by points per possession, for example. In conclusion, the answer to the question at the beginning of the article can never be a yes or a no, because, as we have seen, the functionality of the isolations depends on the players available. If there are the conditions to obtain the best from the ISOs, it is at least necessary to explore these situations.

Article by Luca Cappelletti
E. Carchia

E. Carchia

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