Are NBA Championship Teams Fat or Skinny? I Discuss Using Math

With the boredom of the NBA offseason coming to a close, I decided to spend the last few weeks of free time I have left before opening night searching for trends in the NBA using my newfound knowledge of web scraping.

We all know of the Golden State small ball revolution that is currently ruining taking the league by storm, and despite what Charles Barkley may think, small jump shooting teams seem to be the new recipe of championship trophies.  But will this trend sustain looking to the future?  Have NBA championship teams always been smaller?

The questions that I wanted to answer is: do NBA championship teams tend to be smaller relative to the league average?

To answer this question, I decided to pull data from from 2004-2017.  I chose to start at the 2003-2004 season because that was the first season where hand checking was banned as a defensive strategy, I figured this type of defensive strategy would elicit teams to be bigger and since the modern NBA does not use these rules, I didn’t think it was necessary to use data from a different age.

At first I calculated the average weight of each player for each team, though that was not the most accurate way of measuring how heavy a team is.  For instance, with the Cavaliers last season, Andrew Bogut and Edy Tavares, both 260 lbs, played a combined total of 25 minutes.  So it didn’t make sense for them to be calculated with the same weight as the other players that played more minutes.  So with the help of a friend (shout out Matt Goldberg), he suggested that for a more accurate measurement of a team’s weight that I multiply the player’s weight by their total minutes played and then divide that by the total amount of team minutes.  I decided to call this weight metric: “fancy_weight” for the sake of clear communication.

The statistics that I gathered from the script were:

  • AVG: the average fancy_weight of all of the teams in the league
  • CHAMP: the fancy_weight of the championship team
  • CHAMP – AVG: the difference in fancy_weight between the championship team and the league average
  • HEAVIEST: the team with the heaviest fancy_weight
  • LIGHTEST: the team with the lightest fancy_weight
  • H – L: the range of the heaviest and lightest fancy_weights
  • SD: the standard deviation of the teams fancy_weights
  • Pace: the average pace of the league

Some fun facts about the data collected:

  • The heaviest team measured was the 03-04 Raptors.
  • The lightest team measured was the 03-04 Pistons
  • Despite being the lightest team measured in the study, the 03-04 Pistons defeated the 3-time reigning champion Lakers in 5 games.
  • The heaviest championship team measured was the 13-14 Spurs
  • The 15-16 Cavaliers were the closest champions to the league average

I didn’t initially measure the average pace of the league into this project, however upon introducing it to the study, I noticed that as the pace of the league increased there was a similar trend in the range between heaviest and lightest teams.

As pace increased, the gap between the heaviest and lightest teams started to decrease.  Teams weren’t necessarily getting smaller, it was that smaller teams began adding size, and heavier teams were shedding their size.

In conclusion, since 2004: 7 championship teams had a fancy_weight at least 1lbs greater than the average fancy_weight of the league, 4 championship teams had a fancy_weight at least 1lbs less than the average fancy_weight of the league, and 3 championship teams had a fancy_weight within [1,-1]lbs of the average fancy_weight of the league.

Therefore, there is no historical precedent to suggest that small ball lineups win championships.  Though looking to the future, will the small ball trend change as more teams try to mimic the Warrior’s 3pt shooting small ball lineups?  Or will future big men evolve with the times and develop a 3 point shot, keeping the trend of championship teams being heavier?

I believe that championship teams will continue to be majority heavier than the average because big men will change with the times and become more versatile by learning how to shoot 3s.

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