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What Wins Basketball Games?

The Four Factors of Basketball Success

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

A true sports fan loves statistics. Stats help differentiate the stars from the superstars. Advances in statistical analysis have given rise to new and improved ways to measure what defines success, and this has changed the way many general managers and coaches run their teams.  They are the driving force behind fantasy sports, which have become a billion dollar industry. So let's face it, stats are important. Stats also decide what wins games and what loses games.

The book Basketball on Paper, by Dean Oliver outlines what he describes as the four factors of basketball success, and why each is important. In order to be good, a team must do at least three out of the four things well. To give perspective, let's compare an elite team, the Duke Blue Devils and reigning national champs, to a not elite team, your Texas Tech Red Raiders.

First Factor: Field Goal Percentage

Field goal percentage is defined as the ratio of field goals made out of field goals attempted, with a field goal being defined as any shot taken other than a free throw. For example, if I shoot three shots and make only one, my field goal percentage would be 33%. This stat is obviously the most important in basketball because if you score more points than the other team, then you win. The team who shoots a higher field goal percentage will win more games than the team that does not shoot as well, with some exceptions of course. But in general, the most efficient offensive team will win a basketball game. The champs, Duke, ranked third in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting at a 50.2% clip. When you make half of the shots you attempt, you then earn the title of offensive juggernaut, or just another Mike Krakdfjdkzwshasheffsky coached team. On the other side of the basketball elitism hierarchical spectrum, Tech comes in at number 298 in the country, shooting a measly 40.5%. If you played a hypothetical game on paper of Tech vs Duke, first to 100 points, using just field goal percentage, Duke would win by a score of 100-80. The seemingly small difference of 10% accounts for a point differential of 20 points. Due to their impressive field goal percentage, Duke finished 4th in the country in points per game, at 80.6. The Red Raiders on the other hand, finished at 317th in the country at 60.9 points per game (Duke wins by 20 again at hypothetical paper stats game). To sum it up, quote me on this, if you are better at scoring points than the other team you will be better at winning than the other team.

Second Factor: Turnovers

The "T" word. A Texas Tech sports tradition.  A delectable dessert. A turnover in basketball means you lose a possession, and the other team gets a possession. As my high school coach, good ole Henry Willis, used to say, "Good gravy, stop turnin over the dadgum basketball!" In college and the NBA, a turnover typically leads to high flying, backboard shattering, arena erupting, dunk-a-thons. Field goal percentage plays off of turnovers, mainly because dunking and layups are a common outcome of turnovers and are the most high percentage shots in basketball. Turnovers are the result of a few different things, such as: A good defense anticipating a pass, or a bulldog defender poking the ball away, or lockdown team defense leading to a shot clock violation, or simply the offense is just inept. Tech falls into all of these categories, as they were 291st in turnovers per game at 13.8. In essence, they gave their opponent, on average, almost 14 extra possessions. Duke was obviously much better, sitting at 56th overall with only 11.2 turnovers per game. While not elite in this category, Duke still won lots of games, primarily due to FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE and POINTS POINTS POINTS.

Third Factor: Offensive Rebound

Offensive rebounds can make up for poor field goal percentage, as most rebounds are close to the basket. Offensive rebounds also are one of the best times for someone to knock down a wide open three pointer. Typically, all 5 defenders crash the paint in order to grab a missed shot, but if the offense is able to grab the rebound and kick it out, you have a wide open shot. In my case, I used missed shots as an opportunity to throw down a mighty jam, totally kidding but it is also a great opportunity for a tip slam. Duke finished 66th in the country in offensive rebounding, averaging 12.2 per game. This ranking is rather misleading, due to the fact that Duke made most of their shots, so there was usually no opportunity to grab a rebound. The Red Raiders came in at 99th in the nation with 11.7 per game. This is not very good, again. In basketball, you want to give yourself as many opportunities as possible to score points, so why not get your own missed shots so you can keep shooting? (I'm talkin to you Tech)

Fourth Factor: FREE Throws

Free throws are supposed to be FREE points. But of course, they are not free, you still have to actually practice them (talkin to you Dwight Howard, Shaq, other tall guys who only dunk). You probably think I am going to say that whoever shoots a higher free throw percentage is probably going to win. Wrong. The fourth factor of basketball success is getting to the foul line more frequently than your opponent. Sounds crazy, but it is more important for teams to shoot a higher volume of free throws than shooting a really high percentage. Exceptions exist of course, but there are a few reasons why shooting more free throws is effective. First, this probably means the other team has players in foul trouble. Second, if you get to the foul line, this means your offense is not turning the ball over, thus giving your team more possessions. Lastly, draining your free throws when your team is in the bonus is quite deflating to the opposition who is intentionally putting you on the line. Duke finished at 49th in the country with 22.9 free throw attempts per game. 49th is solid, but this is also due to the MOST important factor, field goal percentage. Duke did not need to shoot many free throws because they just went and made shots. As Uncle Drew  puts it, they just get buckets. Texas Tech was actually 40th in the country, attempting 23.2 free throws per game. Keep it up guys, you only have a few more things to work on and we will be on the right track.


In order for a team to be successful, they need to excel at at least 3 of the aforementioned categories. Duke is basically just good at everything, which is why they are the champions of the college world. If a team does not shoot the ball at a high percentage, they better do the other three things well or they will struggle. Fortunately, Tech is on the right track with getting to the free throw line. Offensive rebounding and turnovers are fixable. But by golly, we have to get better at shooting the basketball. After all, do I dare say it again: If you score more points than the other team, you will usually (always) win the game.