By Alex Koenig and Michael Owen
The Dunk is as elusive as it is tantalizing. It’s been described as the ultimate athletic feat, combining size, speed, agility and strength. And unlike hitting a hole in-one or throwing a tight spiral, most of us will never dunk – no matter how hard we try (unless it’s on a 7-foot hoop or NBA Jam). Steve Nash, a two time NBA MVP, has never dunked in a game. Mikhail Prokhorov, the new 6’7” Russian billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, has made the claim that he will be the first NBA owner to dunk. Ever.
When it comes to the jam, people usually fall into one of two camps:
- “Dunks are awesome!” They get the crowd going, and are high percentage shots.
- “Dunks overshadow fundamentals.” It may be true that the incentive of dunking – making Sportcenter’s top 10, stardom, etc. – might hurt the fundamentals on a certain level.
However, what is rarely addressed is whether or not dunking, as opposed to laying it up, can help your team, both in the standings and on the bottom line. Let’s address the win column first: are teams that dunk more likely to win?
Looking at data from the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons (via CBS SportsLine and 82Games), the answer appears to be yes. In 08/09, the average team dunked the ball 310.4 times in an 82-game season. Of the 13 teams above that mean, 9 of them made it to the playoffs (69.2%). When looking at the 17 teams below that average, only 7 of them made it in (41.1%). Going deeper, the mean winning percentage of those 13 teams (0.550) was nearly 9% better than that of the 18 below (0.462). These numbers are even more drastic in 09/10, with the average number of dunks per team dropping to 292.1. Out of 16 teams above the 292.1 threshold, 12 made the playoffs (75%), with only 4 of the 15 below qualifying (26.67%). The difference in winning percentage is even greater, at a 14% advantage for the dunking teams (0.569 vs. 0.421).
Conventional wisdom would assume that the reason for this disparity is because good teams not only dunk more than bad teams, they score more than other teams as well. However, when factoring in dunking as a percentage of a team’s scoring, the same differences exist: a difference of 69% vs. 41% in 08/09 and 75% vs. 26.67% in 09/10.
These examples hold under more rigorous analysis as well: using data from both seasons, dunks were a significant predictor of winning percentage (P = .033) as well as a significant predictor of whether or not teams made the playoffs (P = .037). Each additional dunk correlates to an extra .05% in winning percentage, and a 1.008 multiplicative increase in playoff odds (although the technique used, logistic regression, tends to overestimate this figure in small sample sizes).
The reasons for this disparity, though often overlooked, are self-evident when viewed through the eyes of a fundamentals-based basketball enthusiast. Though the odd through-traffic, isolation super-dunk does occur, the majority of dunks come as a result of one of three things: fast-breaks, hitting the open man, and posting up.
Dunk totals also represent a general aggressiveness: a willingness to drive through the lane, pick up fouls, and to try for the offensive rebound, as well as athletic ability – all things that a good team should have. Dunks are attributed with a negative stigma from basketball purists because of players like Andre Iguodala: me-first wing players on bad teams whose scoring and dunking has garnered them more media attention and financial compensation than their actual basketball talents merit.
However, this is a fallacy that considers the dunk an individual achievement. Going back to the example of Steve Nash, his 09/10 Phoenix Suns, despite having only one player in the top 40 of individual dunks (Amar’e Stoudemire) and a starter who never dunked (the aforementioned Steve Nash), had the fifth most dunks of any team (380) while registering one of the highest winning percentages (0.659) and, not surprisingly, making the playoffs.
In both years, there exist outliers on either end of the spectrum. The 08/09 San Antonio Spurs dunked an abysmal 73 times, less than half of the next-closest team, but still made the playoffs and won their division. Likewise, the 09/10 Milwaukee Bucks finished dead last in dunks (136) but still qualified for the playoffs. For the Spurs, this is primarily due to their core three players (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan) possessing all the qualities associated with dunking – aggressiveness, post-ability, basketball IQ – but not possessing the eye-popping athleticism that their younger selves once had. The 09/10 Bucks suffered from a similar situation, with their offense being dominated by guards and an elite, but finesse move-based, center, Andrew Bogut (ranked 37th amongst dunkers).
On the opposite end lie the 08/09 Memphis Grizzlies and 09/10 Philadelphia 76ers. These two teams combined to average 399.5 dunks (97.9 above the league average) while having a winning percentage of 0.311 (.189 below the league average). These two teams were led by Rudy Gay and Andre Iguodala, both top-10 dunkers, who will be paid a combined $25 million next year to lead sub-.500 teams.
Given that dunking does appear to correlate with winning, what can we take this to mean? The thing to avoid is seeing dunking and winning as a causal relationship (i.e. dunking more means you will win more). Instead, we should view high dunk totals as a representation of a good team (i.e. good teams will produce more dunks). Dunks are easy points, but they should not be the only points. The threat of the dunk – through posting up or through driving – is almost as important as the act of dunking itself. It opens up the playing field and spreads the defense, lending itself to open shots and open passing lanes. Another, more controversial view in light of the recent Donaghy game-fixing scandal: perhaps the NBA promotes the advancement of “exciting” more marketable teams by fixing games in their favor. In other words, is it possible that the correlation between dunks and victories does not occur by coincidence but by design? We’d need to do a close examination of foul calls to be sure.
These conclusions support the notion that “Dunks are Awesome!” but also that, despite the complaints of the old guard, dunks have become a fundamental. As if NBA fans needed another reason to fear the upcoming season, the only team that will enter the 2010/2011 season with three players in the top 20 for dunks are, you guessed it, the Miami Heat.