Basketball Is a Team Game
of Possessions

In a basketball game, the obvious truth embodied within the title of this section is fundamental to our understanding the game; every possession is precious. The team who more effectively uses its possessions over the course of a full game will nearly always win the game.  FN1 

Players use their offensive skills to maximize their scoring efficiency. Similarly, players use defensive intensity to disrupt their opponent's offensive tactics and reduce the opponent's efficiency. Every basketball game is a war between these competing offensive efficiencies and defensive intensities, and that war is fought through a series of essentially alternating possessions.

Most people concede that every possession is important. However, when a game has a photo finish, some of them will invarably conclude that the possessions during the last two minutes of the basketball game are more precious than the possessions in the first two minutes; indeed the first 38 minutes.  How can it be both ways?

However, it seems intuitively obvious that a team with inferior talent can only extend a team with superior talent to the buzzer when the superior team fails over the course of the first 38 minutes to treat every possession with appropriate respect and intensity. However, when the superior team plays every possession with intensity and focus, the superior team will settle the outcome of the game in its favor before the final two minutes. When each team does treat every possession as if it is the last, close games occur only when two evenly matched teams play.

Make no mistake, treating each possession with high intensity and importance will not produce points on every possession, prevent the opponent from scoring, or eliminate turnovers. However, it will produce fewer turnovers, more points per offensive possession, and fewer points per possession for the opponent over the course of a complete basketball game. In contrast, unforced turnovers and uncontested baskets are lapses in a team's mental focus and sharpness, not a reflection of the innate talent and athleticism that the individual players possess.  In fact, in modern college basketball, the talent pool is so broad and deep that the distinction between the team with great talent and the team with slightly better than average talent is not necessarily the determinative factor in terms of wins and loses.

Basketball is the consummate team sport. The combined performance of all players involved in the game produce the results. Even the “mop up” activities of the deep bench players in the last 1 to 3 minutes of a secured victory factor into the team's average efficiencies. However, rather than consider the overall efficiency that a team achieves, many players, fans, and broadcast personalities tend to focus entirely upon individual statistics. How many points or rebounds do players A, B, and C have tonight? Are these players above or below their season averages? What are individual players' shooting percentages? How many times did Pistol Pete make or exceed his scoring average in a losing effort? FN2

If individual performance matters, it matters in the manner in which the individual impacts the overall team performance. One might learn more by examining a team's overall offensive and defensive efficiencies for each player during the minutes that the particular player is in the lineup. For example, if a team has three players who share a particular position, it is possible to determine which of the three consistently works with his teammates to produce the better results. It matters much less how many actual points, rebounds, assists, steals, or turnovers that particular player achieves.  I have never had access to the data necessary for these player calculations, but I expect such an analysis would produce a ranking of the team players for offensive, defense and Net Game efficiencies. 

If a team has one player who is clearly more talented than his teammates, his mere presence on the floor will draw more defensive attention , perhaps in the form of double or even triple team defensive techniques. His mere presence allows the complimentary players on his team more offensive freedom and opportunities to score. However, when this dominant player must sit down, the remaining players will each receive more defensive attention and they will find it more difficult to score. The impact of this dominant player is obvious even when the double and triple team tactics prevent the “star” from scoring a point or getting a shot.

The central question is, “Does the team have higher Net Game Efficiency with this player in or out of the game?” This concept is often expressed by saying something like, “He makes the other members of his team better."

Even when we focus on such team statistics as shooting percentage or total rebounds, a distortion of the game often occurs that interferes with our understanding of the outcome. How many times have we heard that Kentucky “won ugly” tonight? This means that the team was able to overcome poor shooting or perhaps many turnovers with offensive rebounding or increased defensive intensity to secure a victory. Fans prefer to watch their team play when shooting percentages are above 50%, thus the “win ugly” remarks.

A recent NCAA tournament appearance by Kentucky against Tulsa left the fans with very positive feelings for their Wildcat prospects simply because it scored at will. However, when one closely examines the total game picture, Kentucky played its second worst defensive game of the entire season by allowing over 1 point per possession to Tulsa. Actually, the lax defensive effort against Tulsa was symptomatic of deeper defensive problems on the 2001-02 Kentucky team, and that very laxity against Maryland in the next round of the Tournament ended Kentucky's season just a few days after the fan's optimism peaked following the Tulsa victory.

These common team measures are frequently inconsistent with the outcome of the basketball game, and they tend to confuse rather than enlighten the fan about the formula for victory. The offensive and defensive efficiency, e.g. the number of points scored and allowed per possession during the basketball game, are superior statistical measures. Rather than total rebounds and raw shooting percentages, these efficiencies incorporate the raw shooting percentages, turnover rate and bonus possessions from offensive rebounding margins to produce a single, clear, readily comparable, normalized performance measure.

A fan can track the offensive and defensive efficiencies during a game by simply dividing the total number of points a team has scored and allowed by the total number of possessions each team had in scoring those points. FN3  When a team's efficiency is between 0.9 and 1.1 ppp, the fan will know that the team is executing well on offense. However, when a team's efficiency is significantly above this range, the fan will also understand that the team is likely to experience leaner periods later in the game because efficiencies are very difficult to sustain at these levels over the course of a full game. Similarly, if a team has an efficiency of 0.5 to 0.7 ppp, the fan will know that the team is executing poorly on offense. However, if the team's efficiency is significantly lower than this range, the fan can be encouraged that improved performance will occur later because these very low efficiencies rarely occur over the course of a full game. The opposite observations apply to a team's defensive game performance.

Every astute fan of the game knows that during a basketball game, momentum swings back and forth. These momentum swings allow a team to build a lead only to see it eroded or even lost to the other team. Basketball is a game of streaks. However, fans should not fear or dismiss this fact of the game. If it were not so, then every score by the first team to score would be matched by a score by the second team to score. The first team to score would win, or at least reach overtime at which time the two teams would vie to determine which would be the first to score in the extra period. FN4  Scoring streaks are a natural and essential aspect of a basketball game, and both teams will have their own streaks during a game. FN5  Astute basketball fans accept the fact of streaks and don't despair when their opponent enjoys streaks of 4 to 6 points over the course of the game.

Notewithstanding the streaks and the individual performances, basketball is team game of possessions.  The team that uses its possessions more efficiently will win the game.


1. I say nearly always in recognition that on occasion a team with a lower efficiency can win a basketball game when that team enjoys bonus possessions to overcome an efficiency deficit. This phenomenon is discussed is a subsequent section.

2. Pistol Pete Maravich led the LSU Tigers in the late 1960s with a national leading scoring average of more than 40 points per game. However, his LSU teams failed to challenge Kentucky, or Tennessee teams of that era, for conference honors.

3. The efficiencies are measured in points per possession [ppp]. A 50 percent field goal shooting percentage corresponds to a 1.000 ppp for those specific possessions. A 33 1/3 percent 3 point shooting percentage produces a 1.000 ppp. On its face, a 70 percent free throw shooting percentage equals a 1.400 ppp; however, this cannot be as precise as the other scoring methods because some free throw opportunities end with the miss of a single attempt, others may include 3 attempts in a single possession. Of course, turnovers result in 0.000 ppp. As a starting point of our considerations, consider that a target efficiency on offense of 1.000 ppp would be a valid goal. In a game in 2001 between Vanderbilt and Kentucky ,

4. At one point in my study of this game, I counted the number of streaks consisting of 1, 2, 3, 4, …. consecutive points scored by each team in the game. However, this method of game tracking was not productive. Is a single 12-point run good enough to overcome two 6-point runs by the other team? Streaks are simply part of this game, and each team will enjoy some number of streaks of varying lengths in each game.

5. I have examined the streaky nature of a basketball game by tracking the number of consecutive points scored by each team during a game. Typically, both teams will have many “streaks” of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 points, but streaks of 7 or more points are quite rare. One memorable streak of 8 points occurred in a recent Kentucky/Vanderbilt game when Kentucky 's apparently safe lead evaporated in a few seconds with back to back 4 point plays, e.g. a made 3 point shot with a foul, followed by a steal and another 3 point shot with a foul.


Copyright 2004 Richard Cheeks