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What dunks tell us about the quality of NBA teams

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Is a team that dunks more necessarily better than others?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

A dunk is the ultimate declaration of dominance as a basketball play.

A dunk tells us that the offensive player and his team have done something right. A dunk can result from a great move to the hoop, a perfect pass from a teammate, or a steal leading to a break-away before the defense can get back.

The flip side is also true. The team which gives up the dunk has normally done something wrong. A defensive breakdown will lead to the uncontested drive down the lane, or force the big man to leave his man to help, leading to the lob to the dunker. A failure to box out will lead to the tip dunk. And a sloppy turnover will convert the defender into an offensive player in the open court looking to throw one down, big fella!

Logically, since dunks arise from doing good things, or avoiding bad things, the number of dunks a given team has in a season should be a reflection on the quality of the team. And if we look at the team with the most dunks thus far this season, that would seem to be true. The Los Angeles Lakers, with the best record in the West, and second best record overall, lead the league in dunks with 480 (as of March 3). On the other hand, our San Antonio Spurs, who are barely in the playoff race, are dead last in total number of dunks, with 162, barely a third of the Lakers. Though a good argument can be made that this Lonnie Walker IV dunk should count for more than one:

However, a closer look at the Dunk Standings tests our initial premise. While an excellent Lakers team lead the NBA in total dunks, second and third on the list are the woeful Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. The Knicks are 7th, and the Warriors 8th. To put it mildly, neither team is any good. At the other end of the scale, the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers (39 – 26) are second to last, while the strong Boston Celtics (43 – 21) are 25th.

To try to give this a bit more structure, I divided the Dunk Standings into three sections – top ten, middle ten and bottom ten. I then added up the total number of wins (as of March 11) for the teams in each section. This is what I found:

Top Ten teams in Dunks: 310 wins

Second Ten in Dunks: 333 wins

Bottom Ten in Dunks: 305 wins

These numbers seem to be, and probably are, about as random as numbers could be. Put another way, it appears as if the number of dunks a team has seems to have little or no correlation to the quality of the team. Just a bit counter-intuitive, yes?

By the way, I got this numbers from a recent article from our very smart friends at fivethirtyeight.com. Here is the list, which they got from Second Spectrum:

Total dunks for 2019-20 NBA teams*

*Thriugh games on March 3
Second Spectrum