Is there a way to measure the optimal NBA roster construction and playing strategy? Nima Shaahinfar has proposed one of the more convincing arguments that there is.
Shaahinfar did regressions and looked at the standard deviation of specific statistical categories (e.g. assists or rebounds) among the players on a team. Then he looked at what type of standard deviation produced the highest offensive efficiencies (so it's rate-adjusted).
What Shaahinfar found was that the job of initiating the offense should be limited to a few players, with the role of each narrowly defined, but that three point shooting should be more evenly distributed among the team. The mid-range jumpshot should be a last resort behind getting a shot at the rim or shooting the three-pointer, a philosophy often dubbed "3 or key".
My research, interpreted here with regard to half-court offense, makes two primary arguments: (1) teams should take more threes and evenly distribute them among the players in each lineup (e.g. teams should spread the floor with multiple shooters) and (2) the role of initiating the offense should be narrowly defined, limited to few players.
Ultimately, the evidence is compelling that teams should follow one overarching principle for maximizing offensive efficiency: narrowly focus the role of initiating the offense where they can create the greatest advantage and threat to score (whether at the rim off penetration or through the post), and surround that facilitator/ball-handler with capable three-point shooters with the athleticism to rebound as well as attack and finish strong at the rim with the space created through ball movement.
In a presentation given at the NCSSORS (that stands for the Northern California Symposium on Statistics and Operations Research in Sports. I'm not sure what's more wonderous: that something like that exists or the awfulness of the name and acronym), Shaahinfar went further to note that teams perform better when rebounding is a job everyone takes seriously, as opposed to shooting and passing.
Based on all this, Shaahinfar proposes an ideal roster.
The ideal lineup might include one, two if possible, of the best possible facilitators, who can defend, rebound, and hit the three well (or some combination of those skills if all three are not possible) and surround him/them with high-character, high-effort unselfish athletes whose strengths include defending, shooting the three reliably and consistently, and the athleticism and skill to rebound well and, with space created through ball movement, get the ball to the rim to finish or get to the line.
Shaahinfar holds the dribble drive motion offense to be the closest to the ideal prescribed by his analysis.
Based on this, one can see how the San Antonio Spurs have been so successful for so long, and why players like James Harden and Manu Ginobili are so rare and precious, not to mention the obvious example of LeBron James. Look at the Heat roster this year and it seems close to an ideal, with three point shooters Ray Allen, Shane Battier, James Jones, Mike Miller, and and Rashard Lewis surrounding offense initiators like James, Wade, and Chalmers. The Heat lead the NBA in 3 point shooting % right now at 43.2%. The only thing standing between them and the NBA title this year is health.
SAD FOOTNOTE: Meanwhile, as applied to my hometown Chicago Bulls, one can see why this season will be a long and ugly one. Gone are three point shooters Kyle Korver and CJ Watson and staunch defenders Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer. In their effort to go cheap, the Bulls now have a roster without a single player who is shooting 3-pointers above 37.5%. Last year's Bulls second team was the best in the NBA: Watson, Brewer, Korver, Gibson, Asik dominated the opposition. As good as it was last year, that's how bad it is this year. If Tom Thibodeau can shape a winner from this assemblage, he deserves all the honors headed his way. This Bulls roster will struggle hard to put the ball in the basket.
Recall the Bulls championship teams of old. It helped, of course, to have a Jordan and Pippen, but a key to many of those teams were the three point shooters who could make teams pay for doubling Jordan: John Paxson, Craig Hodges, B.J. Armstrong, Trent Tucker, Toni Kukoc, Jud Buechler, and Steve Kerr, to name the most prominent. The first three Bulls championship teams didn't attempt a ton of 3-point shots (424, 454, and 669 for those 91, 92, and 93 championship teams), but as Jordan and Pippen grew older and relied less on their pure athleticism, they began to alter their offensive attack to be more efficient, and that meant incorporating the 3-point shot in greater volume. The 96, 97, and 98 championship teams attempted 1,349, 1,403, and 962 3-pointers.