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Finding the Most Inefficient NBA Team of the 21st Century

Knowing what we know now about good shots and bad shots, which team is the least modern of the past 17 years?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Welcome to Inefficiency Week. Over the next five days, we’re going to take a look at what we lose when we get lost in the chase for efficiency. We’ll explore the ways it’s changing the games we love to watch. We’ll remember its failures across the pop culture spectrum. And we’ll report on what it’s doing to our lives — romantic, physical, and otherwise.

These days, defining inefficiency in the NBA is easy. Five hundred and six different NBA teams have played in the regular season since 2001; 3,345,919 shots have been attempted in that time and 1,834,367 of them were misses. But as we all know by now, not all misses are created equal. Some shots are inherently worth more than others.

A 3-pointer is worth 1.5 times more than a 2-pointer, which means a player can shoot a lower percentage from behind the arc yet arrive at the same amount of points as a player exclusively shooting 2s at a higher clip. Shots at the rim have the highest chance of going in; 3-point shots have better odds of changing the score than most spots on the floor. Free throws are good, midrange shots — which are significantly more difficult to make than shots at the rim, but carry no extra value like the 3-pointer — are very bad. Before any analytics-driven floor plan took root in the NBA, it was simply a preferred stylistic mode — the 2004–05 Suns were a revelation in that they played the way Mike D’Antoni would have wanted to play himself: space the floor, get as many easy buckets as possible, and take as many 3s as the defense would allow. But by 2007, when Daryl Morey took the reins as GM in Houston, analytics had added a superstructure to the game. Basketball was as much a 10-man ballet in combat gear as it was a collection of data points in a probability model, modified with every shot attempted.

At first, the data changed the way we discussed the game, but soon enough, it seeped into the way it’s been played. The past decade of basketball has essentially altered the very fundamentals of the sport.

So, in celebration of Inefficiency Week here at The Ringer, I set out to find out the most statistically inefficient NBA team of the 21st century.

The turn of the millennium is something of an arbitrary delineation, but it also serves as an ideal survey of trends and the ways in which they manifested in and receded from the league at large. Michael Jordan’s career appeared to be in the rearview in the early days of the new century, but even in his absence, the game — rough, physical, and grinding — was played as though his presence still loomed, as though there was still an idol worthy of being chipped away at, bit by bit. Turned out there were; a cadre of Jordan’s disciples had filled the void.

On December 6, 2000, 24-year-old Antawn Jamison and 22-year-old Kobe Bryant each scored 51 points in a 125–122 Warriors win over the Lakers. It was Bryant’s first career 50-point game; it was Jamison’s second 51-point game in a row. Kobe’s megastar ascendance was approaching fever pitch. He wasn’t just following in Michael Jordan’s footsteps, he was repaving them. "Be Like Mike," a masterwork of branding, was no longer a pipe dream. It was the modus operandi of a post-Jordan landscape. A new generation had begun to believe that he is me. And His Airness, then two years into his second retirement, was not having it.

"I don’t want to sound bitter or old or whatever," he told Michael Leahy, author of When Nothing Else Matters, a chronicle of Michael Jordan’s days with the Washington Wizards, back in 2000. "I’m just saying that when Michael Jordan is not playing. … If a guy — for instance, the other night, Kobe Bryant scores 51 points. Now that is a huge story. And then comparisons start to be made to Michael Jordan. But people tend to forget that Michael Jordan scored 50-plus points three games in a row. You understand my whole point? … People tend to migrate to the [current] player because two years have elapsed from seeing Michael Jordan on the basketball court."

Though retired, Jordan still operated as though he were the center of the basketball universe, as though his magnetism were enough to reverse the flow of time — or at least keep it suspended in an infinite Jordan-centric loop. Of course, Kobe’s first 50-point game was just the tipping point; earlier in the year, he witnessed a fellow Tar Heel follow his blueprint of iconography. During the 2000 NBA All-Star Weekend, Vince Carter cemented the greatest dunk contest performance of all time (the 360 windmill remains the most beautiful dunk I’ve ever seen); then, in Sydney over the summer, Carter would reach the pinnacle of in-game athleticism, dunking over the 7-foot-2 Frenchman Frederic Weis to punch in the greatest USA Basketball moment since the Dream Team.

"I read something about Kobe or Vince Carter and it gets the competitor in me going, you know," Jordan told Leahy. "And you hear things that bother you. Somebody has a big game, Vince, Kobe, and people on television talk about them the way they would’ve talked about Michael Jordan. And that gets the competitor in me going because what they don’t understand is Michael Jordan did all these things and — "

And that was when the comeback seed sprouted.

A late-night West Coast game toward the end of the second millennium changed the career trajectory of the GOAT. Less than a year later, Jordan would suit up as the starting small forward of the Washington Wizards and ignite one of the most fascinating (and misguided) experiments in modern NBA history: What if a team was built around the greatest professional basketball player ever, but insisted that he suit up only after two years of inactivity as a 38-year-old with a bad case of tendinitis?

Well, that team would become, by the standard notions of "efficiency" in today’s game, the most inefficient team of the 21st century.

Think back to what you remember about those Jordan-led Wizards. How many of those memories did not involve a post-up and/or a fadeaway?

In Jordan’s first season with Washington, 36 percent of the Wizards’ total field goal attempts were taken by either Jordan or Richard Hamilton, the team’s two best players — and only 4 percent of that came from 3-pointers. Hamilton was Reggie Miller in a tiny hamster cage: a prolific shooter in perpetual motion, but one who only felt comfortable shooting within the imaginary confines of the 3-point arc. Jordan, whose turnaround fadeaway became the iconic symbol of how a player is supposed to age gracefully, almost exclusively functioned out of the post. He played the greatest YMCA game in the NBA, and it showed. To accommodate Jordan’s creaky joints, the Wizards, who had nine young athletes on the roster no older than 26, played at one of the slowest paces in the league. Imagine what the Lakers did for Kobe’s retirement tour in 2016, but chopped and screwed. While every Wizards home game that season was logged as a sell-out crowd, as Leahy notes, hundreds of empty seats became thousands as the season wore on and the thrill of watching an immobile Jordan shoot fadeaways over younger players evaporated.

In the NBA, and elsewhere, building monuments to past glory is not efficient — nor is it particularly fun.

But just how inefficient were these Wizards compared to every other team since the 2000–01 season? Thanks to the work of our resident statheads, Zach Kram and Kevin O’Connor, all 506 teams were tabulated and graded based on their rate of attempts (compared to total field goal attempts minus half-court heaves) in the following categories: midrange, corner 3s, above-the-break 3s, and free throws. We then calculated the Z-score of every team in each category to determine how many standard deviations a team was above or below the average in each category. Lastly, we created a composite figure for each team by adding up the separate Z-scores.

Here are the five most "inefficient" teams of the 21st century:

5. 2001–02 Miami Heat (minus-5.53 composite Z-score)
4. 2002–03 Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-6.30)
3. 2003–04 Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-6.32)
2. 2000–01 Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-6.35)
1. 2001–02 Washington Wizards (minus-6.46)

The purpose of this exercise isn’t necessarily to denigrate the past, it’s to show just how much the league has changed. Over the past 17 years, we’ve seen the end of Jordan’s hegemony over the league, the rise and stratification of the post-Jordan superstars, the end of hand-checking, the rise of run-and-gun and the stretch 4, the end of the first wave of post-Jordan stars, the obsolescence of the stretch 4, and the mutated definitions of positionality in general. Seventy-one days after Jordan played his last NBA game, LeBron James was drafted into the league. We’ve seen so much ideological upheaval since 2000, it’s only fitting that, over the years, the numbers reflect the shifts the league has experienced.

Minnesota’s predominance at the top of the list suggests little more than how difficult it can be to build around a player like Kevin Garnett, who fit no pre-established box for what the power forward position was at the time; the Wolves had a player from the future descend into their laps, but never paired him with a skilled enough big man or enough marksmen on the perimeter. Yet, just because the shooting habits of these old teams would be unrecognizable in today’s game doesn’t mean they weren’t proficient in their time. You’ll note that while there are three Wolves iterations in the top five, all three of those teams made the playoffs, including the 2003–04 season, undoubtedly the greatest in franchise history. (Wow, sorry, that’s a huge backhanded compliment — I guess the point of this is to denigrate the past.)

Of the 50 least efficient teams since the turn of the century, only four of them played in the past five years: Two of them were the Sixers seasons (2011–12 and 2012–13) immediately before Sam Hinkie initiated the Process in Philly; the 2011–12 year, the last time the Sixers made the playoffs, is the only team of the past five years to crack the top 10. The other two top-50 teams were the seven-win 2011–12 Lockout Bobcats and the 2011–12 post-CP3 Hornets. Three of those four teams came from the lockout season, which had evidently transported the league back to the Ice Age.

And in case you’re questioning the methodology: By our metric, the five most statistically efficient seasons of the 21st century are the past five Rockets seasons, almost exactly in chronological order. The 2016–17 Rockets had a composite Z-score of 10.21, a 0.69 advantage over second place, the 2014–15 Rockets. The next year’s squad might be the most potent offense Mike D’Antoni has ever coached, but it seems unlikely to crack the current high score (you can try to take Chris Paul out of the midrange, but you can’t take the midrange out of Chris Paul). However, it wouldn’t be surprising if a new team breaks into Houston’s dominion sooner rather than later.

Again, thanks to Zach Kram and Kevin O’Connor for doing all of the statistical heavy lifting.