A saying commonly shared by the detractors of John Calipari is the “he just rolls the ball out there and lets them play” excuse or some other variation of that sentence. While this is likely said out of jealousy or spite because of previous happenings, it’s nonetheless stated frequently on radio programs and message boards. Being the crazy bunch of fans that we are we’ll defend our coach to the death when it comes to rivals badmouthing him, but are they correct? The trademark of a good coach (in my mind) is adaptation to the skill set of your current team and winning at a high level regardless of their skill set. In other words, find the skills and shortcomings of your players and make a system for them rather than finding players who fit your system. So are the rivals correct? Or Does Cal just plug the best talent in and hope for the best? In order to find out, I investigated his advanced statistics since 2006 and tried to find out if his teams played the same system or if they adjusted from year to year depending upon players. In particular, I focused his defense.
Through my research, I found one commonalty for a Calipari team; the defense is always efficient in stopping an opponent from scoring. But, while Cal has had no team ranked outside of the Kenpom.com top-15 in Adjusted Defense since ’06, the arrival at that efficiency has taken a drastic turn in recent years. While all categories shift naturally from year-to-year, Calipari coached teams have not been turning over teams like they once have. In fact, every season since 2007 has seen a decrease in the number of turnovers forced from the previous year. In terms of the “Four Factors” (which are statistician, Dean Oliver’s, four highest correlating factors of basketball success), Turnover Rate is the second most important factor in efficient defense behind effective Field Goal Percentage. The amazing thing; Calipari has taken his team from 64th nationally in Turnover Rate in 2006 to 301st last season and still maintains one of the most efficient defenses nationally every year. Below is a chart containing various changes in his defense over the years including things like Possessions per game, Block Percentage, and Adjusted Defense. (All from Kenpom.com).
As you can see, it’s not only Turnover Rate that has been decreasing, possessions since 2006 have dropped as well (around 6 per game). Even though possessions do not directly affect Turnover Rate (turnovers divided by possessions), it’s my belief that this is one of the reasons for the decline. Reason being; a slower paced game naturally leads to the opponent making fewer mistakes in transition because it’s a more cerebral/half-court style game. So while the number is not directly affected in the calculation it’s indirectly affected because of the make-up of the game. My second theory on the vanishing turnover; Calipari teams have been dwindling in depth over the past number of seasons. In terms of players to logging at least 25% of team minutes, it’s gone from 9 players in 2009, to 9 in 2010, to 6 in 2011, to 7 in 2012, and now 7 so far this year. So, depth too has dropped with the turnovers. This also can explain the fall in opponent miscues because a team with fewer players will have to play more passive due to potential foul trouble.
Over the years Calipari has dealt with his fair share of criticism, some deserved and some undeserved, but for a rival or national talking head to say he cannot adapt to in-game strategies is ridiculous. Over the years he has slowed the tempo, quit forcing a high rate of turnovers, and has had depth issues. But, despite the roster turnover and shift in style he has still found away to remain highly successful on the defensive side.