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Which NBA Coach Is The Best At Calling Plays?

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Key Highlights:

  • Since teams only really run set plays after timeouts, the best way to evaluate a coach’s play-calling acumen is to analyze how their team performs in after timeout possessions.
  • Coaches with better offensive personnel have an advantage when it comes to raw ATO data. So, we need to adjust for that in order to paint a clearer picture.
  • The best ATO play callers this year are Jason Kidd, Ime Udoka, Tyronn Lue, Adrian Griffin/Doc Rivers, and Joe Mazzulla. And the worst play callers are Billy Donovan, Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Gregg Popovich.

Basketball has come a long way in terms of data. Not only can we tell you how efficient a player is from a particular spot on the floor. But we can also tell you how well they perform in specific play types like pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. 

However, one area where sports data is still lacking is in how we evaluate coaches. One problem is there is so much that happens behind the scenes that we just don’t know. Another issue is there are so many facets of coaching to analyze – rotations, timeout usage, play-calling, etc.

In today’s edition of our “NBA Study” series, we are going to look at that third category: play calling. So, without further ado, let the data games begin.

How We Will Measure Play Calling?

The tricky part about assessing a coach’s play-calling acumen in 2024 is how little of it they actually do. In his book, “Spaced Out: The Tactical Evolution of the Modern NBA,” Mike Prada dedicates a whole chapter to this topic (Chapter Five). 

Most of the time, teams don’t run set plays anymore. They install concepts/principles and let their players free flow and read and react out of that infrastructure. The unpredictability of it all is part of the reason that offenses have become so efficient today.

Nowadays, the only time that coaches get to try their hand at play-calling is in plays immediately following a timeout. You’ve probably heard the phrase “ATO” (after timeout). Well, that’s what they are referring to. 

Anyway, fortunately for us, the good people at PBP Stats track how many possessions and how many points each team has scored on possessions after timeouts. So, we can take a look at how each team performs in these situations. 

A Look At The Data

Here is how all 30 teams look on a points per possession basis in after timeout situations (all this data is as of February 26, 2024):

2023-24 After Timeout (ATO) Points Per Possession*

Team Possessions Points per ATO Possession
Boston Celtics 251 1.28
Dallas Mavericks 272 1.28
Los Angeles Clippers 286 1.27
Milwaukee Bucks  321 1.27
Utah Jazz 265 1.23
New York Knicks 311 1.22
Houston Rockets 298 1.22
Phoenix Suns 351 1.19
Indiana Pacers 326 1.18
Sacramento Kings 265 1.17
Golden State Warriors 334 1.16
Orlando Magic 283 1.13
Oklahoma City Thunder 311 1.13
Washington Wizards  354 1.12
Memphis Grizzlies 343 1.11
Minnesota Timberwolves 310 1.11
Los Angeles Lakers 279 1.11
Brooklyn Nets 290 1.1
Atlanta Hawks 298 1.09
Detroit Pistons 299 1.09
New Orleans Pelicans 280 1.08
Toronto Raptors 331 1.07
Denver Nuggets 286 1.07
Miami Heat 288 1.04
Chicago Bulls 321 1.04
Charlotte Hornets 304 1.02
Portland Trail Blazers 306 1.02
Philadelphia 76ers 259 0.97
San Antonio Spurs 330 0.95
Cleveland Cavaliers  259 0.93

*Data Provided by PBP Stats & NBA.com

As of February 26th, it looks like the Boston Celtics (Joe Mazzulla), Dallas Mavericks (Jason Kidd), Los Angeles Clippers (Tyronn Lue), Milwaukee Bucks (Adrian Griffin/Doc Rivers – man, the irony), and Utah Jazz (Will Hardy) are the leaders in this category. 

Meanwhile, the bottom five are the Charlotte Hornets (Steve Clifford), Portland Trail Blazers (Chauncey Billups), Philadelphia 76ers (Nick Nurse), San Antonio Spurs (Gregg Popovich), and the Cleveland Cavaliers (J.B. Bickerstaff). 

(Sidebar: It seems like Griffin was better at drawing up ATO’s than Rivers has been this season. With Griffin, the Bucks were scoring 1.22 points per possession on their ATOs. Now, with Rivers, they are averaging just 1.14 points per possession on ATOs.)

Adding Some Nuance To Our Analysis

While looking at raw ATO data does give us some insight into who excels in this area of coaching. But even the best coaches will tell you that all their brilliance means nothing if the players can’t execute. 

So, when we look at just raw ATO data, we are biasing toward coaches who lead teams with better offensive personnel. After all, it is more likely a coach’s play will succeed when they have great offensive players running it. 

If you look closely, you’ll notice that three of the top-five teams in ATO points per possession are also in the top-five in overall offensive rating (the Celtics, Clippers, and Bucks). And three of the bottom-five teams in ATO points per possession are also in the bottom-five in overall offensive rating (the Hornets, Trail Blazers, and Spurs).

So, in order to add more nuance to our analysis, we are going to look at each team’s ATO points per possession relative to their overall offensive rating. 

2023-24 After Timeout (ATO) Points Per Possession Relative to Offensive Rating*

Team Possessions Points Per ATO Possession Relative to Offensive Rating
Dallas Mavericks 267 0.10
Houston Rockets 279 0.09
Los Angeles Clippers 250 0.08
Milwaukee Bucks 315 0.08
Boston Celtics 335 0.07
Utah Jazz 291 0.07
New York Knicks 336 0.04
Memphis Grizzlies 341 0.03
Phoenix Suns 358 0.01
Washington Wizards 267 0.01
Sacramento Kings 310 0.00
Orlando Magic 289 0.00
Golden State Warriors 287 -0.02
Detroit Pistons 291 -0.02
Indiana Pacers 350 -0.03
Brooklyn Nets 294 -0.03
Minnesota Timberwolves 274 -0.04
Los Angeles Lakers 333 -0.04
Portland Trail Blazers 269 -0.06
Oklahoma City Thunder 289 -0.07
Toronto Raptors 279 -0.07
Charlotte Hornets 321 -0.07
Atlanta Hawks 286 -0.09
New Orleans Pelicans 274 -0.09
Miami Heat 259 -0.09
Chicago Bulls 304 -0.10
Denver Nuggets 309 -0.11
Philadelphia 76ers 333 -0.12
Cleveland Cavaliers 333 -0.13
San Antonio Spurs 248 -0.14

*Data Provided by PBP Stats & NBA.com

Now, our new top-five in ATO wizardry is the Mavericks (Kidd), Houston Rockets (Ime Udoka), Clippers (Lue), Bucks (Griffin/Rivers – still so funny), and Celtics (Mazzulla). And the new bottom-five is the Chicago Bulls (Billy Donovan), Denver Nuggets (Mike Malone), 76ers (Nurse), Cavaliers (Bickerstaff), and Spurs (Popovich). 

What Does All This Mean?

First off, as always is the case when you are looking at a single-season sample size, there may be some noise in these numbers. So, don’t take these current rankings as gospel.

Still, with that in mind, it is interesting to see well-regarded coaches like Malone, Nurse, and Popovich fall at the bottom of this list. Future queries should look to see if this is a common theme for these coaches in past seasons.

On the flip side, seeing controversial coaches like Kidd, Mazzulla, and Griffin succeed in this area should convince naysayers to temper their criticisms of them to a degree.

Arguably the most impressive person on this list is Udoka, who is able to turn his below-average offense (24th in offensive rating) into one of the more efficient offenses (seventh in raw ATO points per possession) in basketball when he’s able to call the shots.

We still have a long way to go in our quest to better understand how good coaches are at their job. But analyzing how good they are at calling plays does bring us one step closer.

A special shoutout to NBA Analytics Analyst @SravanNBA for his help with this article. If you enjoyed this edition of “NBA Study,” be sure to check out our studies on great defenses, combo guards, trading for stars, the return of classical bigs, and championship lineups





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