Teasing the Enemy: Playing Up or Down to an Opponent

Dateline: 05/01/97

As we watch Seattle struggle to get through the first round of the playoffs (again), one has to wonder why. Most of the reasons that have been floated have to do with some psychological letdown, possibly associated with Kemp's unhappiness with his contract. I personally disagree, partly out of instinct, but now I have some research to back me up.

Seattle's offense is unfortunately predictable, especially in this series against Phoenix. With Kemp in the game, they put him in the low post, pass him the ball, wait for the double team, then rotate the ball around the perimeter, either for a three-pointer or for another low post attempt. With Kemp out of the game, someone like Terry Cummings or Sam Perkins will sit in the post, where they often will not draw the double-team and will have to score on their own.

Teams That Play
to Opponents Least
Team Correlation
Golden St. 0.10
Detroit 0.14
Seattle 0.17
Portland 0.22
Toronto 0.22
Phoenix 0.24
Indiana 0.26
Vancouver 0.28
Sacramento 0.31
Orlando 0.33
Washington 0.40
Philadelphia 0.41
Dallas 0.41
Utah 0.41
Atlanta 0.42
LA Lakers 0.43
Miami 0.43
LA Clippers 0.44
New York 0.45
Minnesota 0.46
Boston 0.48
Charlotte 0.48
Houston 0.49
Cleveland 0.50
Chicago 0.51
San Antonio 0.51
New Jersey 0.53
Denver 0.55
Milwaukee 0.59

What this has led to in this series is a large number of three-point attempts, more than Seattle typically takes. This is, of course, a risky strategy. Going with a large number of lower percentage shots, even if they are worth more, is a risk a favorite often should not take.

In addition to this risk, Phoenix is forcing Seattle into another risk in Game 3 by showing them a press. Though Seattle has employed their own pressing defense in the past, they cannot seem to handle this one. A press is another of those risky strategies, a strategy that makes sense for Phoenix as the underdog. It forces Seattle to make tougher passes, ones that can lead to easy baskets, but also ones that can lead to turnovers.

These risks are typical of Seattle's overall game, however. They take them against any opponent, whether it is a relatively tough opponent like Phoenix or a one deserving of mercy, like San Antonio.

Essentially, Seattle did not do what most NBA teams do -- play up or down to their opponents. Even though there were five other teams with as many wins as Seattle had this season, Seattle had the second most number of wins by 10 points or more (second only to Chicago). They blew some bad teams away. They had no mercy. This is not a good thing. Blowouts are a sign of a team that doesn't trust itself. They indicate that the team can't just hold off a weaker opponent. They have to blow them out to feel safe... like Seattle did in Game 2 of their series with Phoenix.

This year, Seattle was one of the worst teams in the league for not playing to the level of their opponents. You can measure this and I have. The results are shown to the right. Teams at the top of the list play to their competition the least. Teams at the bottom of the list play to their competition the most.

(For those interested in the numbers shown, they are just the statistical correlation between how many points a team scored and how many they allowed.)

For teams that are favored, like Seattle, this hurts their chances. That is one reason why they are struggling against Phoenix.

Then again, it could just be that silly offense of theirs.