Does NBA Playcalling Matter? ATO Analytics Tell a Strange Story

Those who follow me on Twitter (shameless plug) are likely familiar with the affinity I have for X’s and O’s.

Basketball’s set plays are an incredible form of human manipulation: leading an individual to do something they believe is in their best interest when it really isn’t. The best plays both target an individual to be the victim of said manipulation and have perfectly choreographed and rehearsed movement between five players. There’s beauty and brilliance in each play, which is why I began The Daily ATO series last winter.

Timeout situations are where coaches have the largest control over their player’s movements.

Whether it is to start a game or following an intense huddle, after timeout (ATO) plays have become a large part of professional strategy. Great play designs or ideas are heralded in the coaching community, and advance scouts will spend a great deal of time compiling notes on different coaches’ favorite plays to gain a competitive edge.

So what might the numbers tell us about after timeout situations? Do coaches really have that profound of an impact on how teams perform, and which ones are the best? Specifically looking at the 2018-19 season, the results may be surprising.

Synergy Sports Tech keeps track of all team performances out of timeout situations, which are defined as the team’s first offensive possession after a timeout or the start of a period. The way Synergy compiles these are inexact to a certain extent. For example, if the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets are playing, and the Hawks have the ball to start the third quarter but turn it over, the Rockets’ next possession will count in the ATO data, despite the fact the play called by Mike D’Antoni may not have been executed.

Still, the Synergy data does have the best-compiled resource for a look at analytics of after timeout situations.

Below is a screengrab of all the data available on Synergy for ATO situations, sorted in order of efficiency:

There’s a ton of information here, although most of it doesn’t contain much difference. The PPP (points per possession) column is most meaningful, as it encapsulates turnovers, shot selection and scoring ability within it. In essence, a league-average team scored 0.925 PPP after timeouts, and the best teams barely crawl over a point per possession.

If that doesn’t seem like much, that’s because it kind of isn’t.

Apr 5, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) talks with Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

To get a true sense for the value of ATO plays, compare them side-by-side to normal half-court possessions. If a coach’s role in designing the play really has a great deal of value, wouldn’t it lead to a greater yield in terms of efficiency when placed next to regular half-court possessions?

Turns out that hypothesis might be incorrect:

Comparing ATO and half-court side by side, only six teams performed better on offense after timeout situations: the Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks.

What can we take away from all this information?

A few minor details certainly matter. For teams that struggle with their general half-court offense, such as the Cavs and Knicks, ATO situations offered a chance to reset. The fact their teams posted a positive rating is less of an indication of success as it is an indictment on their half-court offense.

The same can be said for teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, whose half-court offense set such a high standard that ATO situations don’t live up to the hype. What could be generally stated is that both teams, who run a more fluid motion-based approach, aren’t philosophically built for coach-meddling, and the beauty of their offenses comes from the lack of a need for coaches to be hands-on in huddles.

The other teams at the top⁠—the Celtics, Bucks, Thunder and Mavs⁠—are all more efficient by such a slight margin that it’s impossible to say whether their coaches and their ATO execution really matters that much.

Jan 12, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens high fives Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) and teammates during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By far the most important takeaway is that ATO situations actually favor defenses.

Twenty-three teams performed worse after timeouts than in the regular flow of half-court play. For many coaches, this serves as a strong data point that, especially in late-game situations, the best practice may be to not call a timeout and rather to just let your players simply execute. Of course, at the NBA level, the auto-advance rule bringing the ball to the front-court has an unquantifiable value which cannot be accounted for.

So instead of looking at the offense of ATO plays, let’s look at the defense. After all, coaches don’t sit in a huddle between quarters and only talk about offense. They plan and set their defense, fix small weaknesses and occasionally change schemes to keep the opponent guessing.

All that scouting and time that goes into identifying opponent sets now comes in handy from a defensive perspective. It’s a human game of chess with a defensive-minded strategy.

So which teams have statistically done the best defending timeout plays?

The numbers here are much more staggering.

As we asserted before, the average team scores 0.925 PPP out of timeouts. To hold them below one-tenth of a point below that number would be a massive swing from the mean. The Utah Jazz were by far the best defensive unit against ATO plays. Interestingly enough, the Cavaliers were the worst⁠—meaning whatever positive impact they made on offense they would cede right back.

Feb 2, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) talks with head coach Quin Snyder during the second half against the Houston Rockets at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Again, compare these ATO stats to regular half-court defense to see if there’s a meaningful impact on certain teams. If the data matches up with the offensive statistics we looked at, an estimated twenty-three teams would fare better defensively in ATOs:

The results are even more skewed towards the defense here, as only four teams surrendered more points defensively in ATO situations than in the half-court. There’s little to no correlation between being a good team and ranking high on this list, as it’s a comparative search between ATO and half-court of the same team.

What is striking, though, is the final column, which looks at a team’s overall usage of zone defense.

Of the four teams to surrender more PPP during ATO situations, two of them⁠—the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets⁠—were the league’s top-two in zone defense frequency. Both would regularly pivot to the zone out of a timeout, taking an old tactic used just to thwart an offense’s play and making it a standard practice.

Here’s where my brain starts to melt. If the Heat and Nets are predictably in a zone, and do so after timeouts, does that return the value of the ATO to the offense? Coaches now get to draw up a set rarely practiced by their offense: a zone-buster. They design where to attack and what type of shot to get, and that can have a greater positive influence over a player or team’s performance than calling “Rip 5” out of a timeout and having their players act like robots and run through the motions trying to anticipate what man-to-man defensive coverages they’ll see.

Basketball is a fluid game where every number tells a story, albeit a usually incomplete one. That story should always be taken with a grain of salt and an understanding that basketball is, at its nature, a game with wild variance. One shot going in can end a season or alter a game, but on the whole, it barely nudges the numbers.

For timeout situations, a coach cannot make the ball go in the basket, no matter how hard they try. For that reason, the data and analytics don’t point to most coaches having a profound impact on offense.

In part two of this look at ATO situations, I’ll show a few examples on film of how coaches have a profound impact on foiling ATO plays and improve their team’s defensive performance in ways that couldn’t be done in the regular flow of play.


Read Part 2 here:


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of stats, basketball-reference, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of September 2, 2019.