How Valuable is Creating Open Shots for Teammates?

Since we now have a good way to measure creation historically, I wanted to explore the relationship between creating shots for teammates and performance. Theoretically, we’d expect there to be some positive relationship between creation and the scoreboard — the more a team can breakdown a defense, the more higher-efficiency looks they’ll have. Using Box Creation, we can test this hypothesis.

Sure enough, there is a moderately strong relationship between a team’s creation rate and its offensive rating.* In 2006, the league started moving toward its current pace and space, 3-point centric game. Since then, the correlation between Box Creation and a team’s offensive rating was a healthy 0.66. (It was 0.56 since 1980.) For some perspective, turnovers have about a 0.4 correlation with offensive rating and effective field goal percentage has about a 0.8 correlation.

Remember, a team’s creation rate is not an estimate of the percentage of open shots a team takes — teams will end up with open shots when the defense breaks down, in transition or even just from setting a bunch of screens and forcing the defense to concede a deep jumper. Instead, Box Creation is a pace-adjusted estimation of how often a team created an opportunity (per 100 possessions) that led to an open shot. So why isn’t the relationship super strong?

First, creation is about drawing defensive attention and moving defenders as a reaction to a threat. But the ball still needs to find an open shot for this to be counted as an opportunity created, and that doesn’t always happen. Poor spacing or a slow pass (or ball stoppers!) can terminate the offense’s advantage, failing to capitalize on an opening that the creator provided. In this sense, passing is a separate but related component. While it’s the next step in creation, good passing, in general, is about capitalizing on or exploiting an advantage that already exists. (That advantage can come from creation or some defensive error.) So creation rates are not entirely independent of teammate quality.

Second, teams that excel in isolation, at offensive rebounding or by screening for long shots do not rely as strongly on their creators. This speaks to one of the wonderful parts of basketball; there are many ways to skin the cat! Because of that, we wouldn’t expect the relationship between shots created and offensive performance to be that strong. However, as you can glean from the plot above, the majority of historically great offenses create a lot of shots for each other. Fourteen of the top 15 creating teams since 1978 have finished with offensive ratings at least five points better than league average.

There’s a similar, moderate relationship for individuals between Box Creation and Offensive Adjusted Plus-Minus (ORAPM). Using Jeremias Engelmann’s 2006-2011 single-year prior-informed set, the correlation between creation and ORAPM is 0.52 for individual players. Again, this is expected — being a good creator helps, but it’s not the only way to defeat defenses.

Still, the moderately strong relationship between creation and performance reflects the importance of having centerpieces on the roster who can generate easier shots for players who can’t create for themselves.

*Because of the way basketball-reference data is organized, note that this method underestimates teams that made trades. A team swapping two strong creators will be severely underestimated.