What if I told you the Clemson basketball team was scoring points at a significantly higher rate than they were last season? What would the response be?
For some, it would be shock that Clemson has a basketball team. For others, it might be to postulate about playing at a higher tempo, thus creating more shots. For others, the extra year of experience might explain it, or the increased reliance on guards for scoring.
Some might express skepticism over the numbers, attributing the uptick to playing the non-conference portion of the schedule. The assumption might be that it means nothing until ACC play begins, which is a fair caveat to throw into the conversation.
Either way, the Tigers have shown drastic improvement over the course of a few months on the offensive end of the floor in terms of production—even if we assume statistical regression to the mean, which is likely to come about as the schedule heats up in the 2014 portion. Comparing apples to apples with the rest of the ACC, this change is easy to see.
Offensive efficiency isn’t the same as offensive output. Output is measured strictly in easy-to-understand ways—like points—that can be skewed based on the pace of play. Meanwhile, efficiency is measured on a level playing field for all teams, regardless of how fast or slow a team plays. This allows us to measure each team based on how it can be expected to perform over a certain period of time based on per-possession averages.
Sometimes, offensive efficiency is written as “points per 100 possessions”. The NBA’s official website does this, and that’s really all “efficiency” means as a number. If that makes it easier to understand, then think about it in those terms.
As a gauge, let’s take a look at the top and bottom of the ACC in this category. Pittsburgh leads the league with an average of 122.7 points per 100 possessions. Duke isn’t far behind at 122.5, with Notre Dame and Syracuse also ranking inside the top 20 nationally in the category. On the flip side, Miami (FL) is by far the worst team in the conference in efficiency, scoring only 98.4 points per 100 possessions. Keep in mind there are new rules emphases in place that have led to the highest scoring average in two decades around college basketball.
Currently, Clemson’s offense is scoring 109.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranks smack in the middle (eighth) of the ACC. Compare that to last season, when the Tigers scored 98.9 points per 100 possessions, a difference of 10.3 points per 100 possessions. In terms of a per-possession average, Clemson’s scoring is up to 1.09 PPP from 0.99 PPP a season ago.
Only Wake Forest has seen a more drastic increase from last year to this year. Even assuming natural regression, Clemson has been significantly more efficient on the offensive end.
In searching for an explanation, my first inclination was to look at possessions per game. Brad Brownell has expressed a desire to push the pace more this season, so maybe a greater number of high-percentage possessions in transition could help boost this number.
But Clemson is controlling the basketball at an almost-identical rate this season, seeing a slight increase in possessions per game from 62.2 to 62.6. This renders my initial hypothesis void.
When you start looking deeper into the numbers, it becomes clear there are multiple reasons for Clemson’s offensive improvement. The team’s effective field goal percentage, which weighs three-pointers slightly above two-pointers, is 48.7 percent— a 1.5 percent increase from last season. The Tigers’ floor percentage, which measures the number of possessions in which a point is scored, is up almost four points from last season (to 55.2% from 51.4%).
Perhaps the biggest difference has come at the free throw line. The Tigers are eighth in the country from the charity stripe, converting 78.2 percent of the time. Last season, the rate was 65.4%. Clemson is getting to the line on 34.3 percent of its possessions, up more than a point from last year’s total. These numbers can largely explain the floor percentage increase, eliminating potentially empty trips caused by missed free throws last season.
It remains to be seen whether Clemson can continue producing with such improved efficiency as the schedule wears onward. For stat nerds like me, it will certainly be fun to watch.