Regular Season vs. Playoffs Isolation Scoring; An Exploration

Regular Season vs. Playoffs Isolation Scoring

Isolation scoring has become a staple of NBA basketball. As fans, we are WOW’ed every single night by the mind-boggling offensive arsenals of an increasingly large number of NBA players. Furthermore, teams have shown a reliance on 1v1 basketball in the most crucial games of the NBA season. Isolation frequency (the percentage of possessions that a team goes isolation on offense) has increased from the regular season to the playoffs for the past 3 seasons, as has score frequency on isolation plays (the percentage of isolation plays that end in a score - this accounts for free throws). In other words, teams not only go to isolation more often in the playoffs, but are more effective with it then as well. 

Iso Frequency

Why does ISO work?

Old school coaches are likely turning over in their grave, but perhaps we have to reconceptualize our understanding of what “good basketball” is. Traditionally, we have understood that the “right way” to play the game includes a lot of ball and player movement; obviously this differs significantly from Isolation basketball. So, why did this transition happen - why do we prefer ISO in the biggest games?

The Inability to hand check: You’ll often hear old-timers reference how soft the current NBA players are. Well, I don’t think the players are soft, but the game has certainly become softer. Hand checking is called so much tighter than it used to be, and it’s allowed offensive players to be far more effective. Defensive players can no longer use their hands at all on D, rather they must slide their feet to beat their man to the spot. Simply put, it’s a lot harder to play defense today. Furthermore, it’s far easier to take advantage of these foul calls in isolation scenarios as opposed to other playtypes, because the defensive player is essentially put on an island with little help in ISO. And if the player has no help, they are more likely to use their hands to try and slow down the player’s path to the rim.

Talent Growth: Coupled with the changes in officiating has been exponential growth in the isolation talent of NBA players. The amount of talent in the NBA these days is truly ridiculous; we have the most 20ppg scorers that we have ever had as a league. There is more of an emphasis put on dribble moves and isolation scoring in younger players, and the rate of skill development has clearly increased. As most things do, players’ skill sets have gotten better as time has gone on - just use your eyes. Players are better ball handlers, shooters, and finishers than they used to be; we have learned new drills and techniques to improve these skills, and these methods of improvement are more widely available than they used to be. We’ve seen this happen with the ability to draw fouls, for example. At first it was KD and James Harden (among others) who figured out how to manipulate their bodies and the ball to draw fouls at ridiculous rates. Now, though, this skill has become ubiquitous; if you are a great scorer in this league, chances are you are excellent at creating contact and drawing fouls. Luka, Trae, Giannis, Jimmy, among MANY others have perfected this skill by watching and learning from the best. Likewise, look at the way that players dribble now as opposed to even the 80’s and 90’s. Isiah Thomas, for example, is known as one of the best ball handlers of all time; all it takes is the eye test, though, to see that Kyrie, Steph, Morant, Kemba - and again - MANY others, take ball handling to a whole new level. 

Turnover Percentage: Last season, and in every season that I’m able to find data for, turnover percentages are lower for isolation plays than other plays (last season: 9.72% in ISO vs. 13.94% in all plays). Intuitively we can understand that a turnover is more likely to happen when 5 players are moving and touching the ball. So, in big games when a team is trying to limit turnovers, isolation basketball is very effective.

Why don’t teams ALWAYS go ISO then?

Clearly teams opt for ISO ball in the biggest moments (at the end of games in the playoffs) because they believe that their best option to score is having their best isolation scorers go one on one. This is proven by the fact that in the final minutes of games - playoffs OR regular season - and especially the final possessions of games, the pace often slows down and it turns into a 1v1 match between the teams’ two best scorers. You might wonder, then, why teams wouldn’t go to isolation scoring more throughout the game if they think it is the most effective way to score. Well, there are a few reasons:

Fatigue: Going 1 on 1 is tiring for the player(s) that are doing so (not so much for the other 4 players), so it’s unrealistic to expect that a player can consistently go 1 on 1 for the whole game or even a high percentage of it. It’s not sustainable to keep up that kind of energy for 4 quarters, let alone an 82+ game season. 

Other players engaged: Teams also want to get the “other guys” involved early in the game so that they are fresh and comfortable during the closing minutes; going strictly isolation risks the other 4 players becoming disengaged and frustrated. If all 5 players have been passing, cutting, and shooting for the whole game, they will be more ready and more likely to hit big shots come winning time.

Keeping the Defense Honest: The ball movement that occurs throughout the game better sets up the offense for isolation towards the end of the game because it stretches out the defense. The defenders become more concerned with other players, and therefore likely shade closer to them in the closing minutes.

So, even though ISO ball might be a team’s preferred game plan towards the closing minutes, that does not mean teams will completely abandon their “good basketball” principles for the rest of the game. 

OK, but why does SCORE FREQUENCY (on ISO plays) go up in the playoffs?

Score Frequency

So we have explored why Isolation Frequency goes up, but why does score frequency also go up? I think there are two interconnected reasons which I will discuss below.

Adjustments, adjustments, adjustments:

Come playoff time, teams operate far differently than they do during the regular season. There is far more scouting and attention to your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. By even the second game of a seven game series, each team already knows the other team’s set plays, as well as each player’s tendencies; these set plays therefore become basically useless. Additionally, teams have a better understanding of the opposing team’s worst defenders, which allows for SWITCHES (the other reason why score frequency goes up).

Switches Galore:

In the playoffs, switching is everything. The entire goal of a team’s offensive strategy is to get your best offensive player matched up with their worst defensive player; teams will do everything in their power to make this switch occur. Likewise, defenses will do everything in their power to rotate and not let their worst defender get head hunted. Of course teams still try to do this during the regular season, but the lack of preparation for one’s opponent due to the limited time and travel before games make it far more difficult to pick out the most effective switch situations. When teams really hone in on this come playoff time, the offensive players are left with better matchups than they are during the 82 game grind of the regular season.

IND and OKC in 2019-2020: A Case Study

Specific Teams Frequency

Exploring these two teams allows us to see that the effectiveness of isolation scoring in the playoffs vs. Reg Season is far more nuanced than we might think at first glance. These two teams increased their isolation percentages from the Reg season to the playoffs by more than any other team; IND went from 4.9% to 15.6%, while OKC went from 8.8% to 17.9%. However, both teams lost in the first round. I think this lack of success is for two reasons. First, neither team is filled with INCREDIBLE isolation scorers; Malcolm Brogden and CP3 do not compare to KD, Luka, Kawhi, etc. Of course CP3, Schroder, Brogden, and Oladipo are excellent offensive talents, but they are not as effective as the league’s best, so obviously their offense should be less based on Isolation than team’s with those players. Second, I think it’s dangerous to alter your team’s game plan THAT much come playoff time. If OKC and IND got to the playoffs by playing team ball with very low isolation percentages, then they shouldn’t drastically increase their isolation percentages in the playoffs just because other teams are doing so. Rather, they should slightly increase it to the point where it doesn’t completely throw off their team. We saw an excellent Indiana team who played great team ball completely change their identity come playoff time, and it resulted in them not looking like themselves. Each team has to adjust accordingly. A team with KD will likely have more success doubling their isolation percentage than a team like Indiana.

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