The Rise of Heliocentrism In NBA Offenses

Kim Klement – USA Today Sports

In the 1500s, Nicolaus Copernicus first developed the heliocentric theory of astronomy. Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the Sun as opposed to the previous widely held belief that the Earth was the center of the universe with all other objects orbiting it. The prefix “helio” refers to the Sun, while “centric” means “centered on.” Thus, the Sun is the center of our solar system.

At some point in time, the word heliocentric began to be used in the context of basketball team-building. In particular, a heliocentric offense refers to one centered around a single player, just as our solar system is centered around the Sun. For whatever reason, this phrase has stuck around in NBA conversation.

To be more specific, I’m choosing to think of a heliocentric star as a player who handles primary scoring and playmaking duties for a team. For example, I would not view the Brooklyn Nets as a heliocentric offense. Despite being led by arguably the league’s best player in Kevin Durant, James Harden clearly dominates the team’s playmaking role as the point guard. Some of the best examples of heliocentric players are guys like prime James Harden, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Oscar Robertson, and Luka Doncic. Everything on offense goes through them.

Let’s start by taking a look at the percentage of teams who had a single player led the squad in points and assists per game.

Since around 2010, the minimum percentage of heliocentric offenses (by an admittedly basic1 definition) has had a relative floor of 30%. From 1980 to 2000, however, a rate above 25% was virtually unheard of.

Instead of just measuring how many teams appear to be heliocentric, we can dig deeper and measure the degree of one-dimensionality. For each player on a team, we can approximate the number of possessions2 they were statistically involved in per 36 minutes. We can then determine the leader in offensive involvement for each team and then determine the average league-wide rate of offensive involvement for a team’s leader.

The trend over time here is even more obvious than before – the past six years have seen heights in league-wide offensive heliocentricity that we haven’t seen over the past 45 years since the merger. The 2000s saw an uptick with ball-dominant stars like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, but it still didn’t reach the level we’re seeing today.

So, what’s the crux here? What exactly is the statistical driving force behind these trends? In fact, it appears that the correlation between player-level points and assists has increased linearly since the merger and is now an at all-time high.

What does this actually indicate? A positive correlation between points and assists means that there’s a relationship between how many points a player scores and how many assists they record. The absolute value of this number corresponds with the strength of the relationship. It makes sense that the correlation would always be positive, but the fact that it’s larger than ever suggests that scoring and playmaking is more linked than ever before – there are less players that specialize in one but not the other.

Consider the 1981-82 San Antonio Spurs. Shooting guard George Gervin led the team & league with 32.3 points per game. However, he averaged just 2.4 assists per game – point guard Johnny Moore controlled playmaking duties with 9.6 assists per game while averaging just 9.4 points. That’s a very stark contrast between scoring and playmaking on the same offense and it’s a dynamic that’s becoming increasingly unlikely.

Of course, this only begs the question: why are NBA teams trending in this direction? Is it better? Should George Gervin have been playmaking instead of Johnny Moore for the ’82 Spurs? Probably not – Gervin averaged more turnovers than Moore despite passing the ball far less. I’d guess that he didn’t fit the mold of guards like Oscar and Harden who could handle both offensively roles.

I’d theorize that a player like Gervin would become more adept at point guard duties if they developed in the basketball scene today. Similar to how prospects focus more on honing their perimeter shooting because of the increased value in the skill, I think that the league today places more importance in stars that can run a heliocentric offense.

Prior to being drafted by the Houston Rockets, Jalen Green was asked if there was any part of his game he’d like to show off to NBA scouts. His response reflects the effect of the evolving image of a prototypical perimeter star on the mindset of a draft prospect.

I wanna prove that I’m more than just a scorer. That I can pass and that I can sit down and play defense, win, and hit shots. I know a lot of people don’t think that I can pass, that I can only score, that I’m too small to play defense […] I just want to go out there and show my all-around game.

Jalen Green

Green looks like one of the best scoring prospects at the guard position in years. Fans certainly wouldn’t be disappointed if he was only one of the better scorers in the league. That’s not enough for him, though. He wants to be a guy like James Harden – a generational offensive talent who can simultaneously be one of the best scorers and playmakers in the game. And every team in the NBA would love a guy who can sustain that level of offensive impact on their own.

I should clarify that it’s not a necessity for a player to be able to handle both lead scoring and playmaking duties. There’s certainly a positional component to it – Jokic is quite unique as a heliocentric center. Just because he can succeed in doing so doesn’t mean you should expect Embiid to do the same. And while some players may be able to, it might not be in their team’s best interests. Once could argue that Giannis has led heliocentric offenses at times, but it’s clear that they operate best with a guard like Jrue Holiday who can ease those playmaking duties from him. And elite scorers like Kevin Durant or playmakers like Chris Paul (and Magic in the past) are still super valuable even if they’re not leading heliocentric offenses. It is definitely not a necessity.

One could argue that the value of heliocentric players comes in their ability to raise a team’s floor. If you have prime Harden or LeBron, you’re not gonna have a bad offense. By running the entire show on offense, more of the game is in their control. And when more of the game is in the control of an all-time great offensive player, they can make up for the deficiencies of other players in a way that Gervin may have struggled to do.

Of course, there’s something to be said about team balance. Heliocentric players carry a greater load and it can be difficult for them to carry that load throughout a postseason and into a championship series. Just look at Luka Doncic: the Mavericks offense has been entirely predicated around him handling the ball throughout the past three seasons. While he continues to perform in the postseason, it becomes clear in the later stages of games that he feels that effect on his body.

The best teams of all-time were led by great players, but they could not be reasonably characterized as heliocentric. Phil Jackson’s Bulls weren’t heliocentric with the triangle offense, and the Curry/Durant Warriors3 certainly didn’t feature an individual dominating every facet of the offense. The 1971 Bucks had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominate the scoring load while Oscar ran the traditional point position. The 2001 Lakers were the epitome of a superstar duo between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Of course, obtaining a single James Harden or LeBron James is more realistic than building a team with a legendary duo like Kareem/Oscar, Shaq/Kobe, or Curry/Durant.

So yes, heliocentric offenses are becoming more and more commonplace in the NBA. Does a great offense have to be heliocentric? Of course not – but the individual offensive value of a heliocentric player has the potential to be massive.

  1. With the advent and release of granular tracking data, we could theoretically measure heliocentricity with metrics like time of possession. However, this data is limited to a short frame of time and would not allow us to explore historic trends.
  2. We calculate this estimate as FGA+0.44*FTA+AST+TOV. This methodology ignores offensive fouls and passes that don’t lead to assists, but it’s the best we can do with the historic data we have.
  3. An interesting question may be whether the Curry-led Warriors should be considered heliocentric. Maybe not with Durant, but what about 2015, 2021, and 2022 where the offensive system is built around Curry’s off-ball movement? I might argue that the reliance on a player like Draymond to pass the ball makes it a different type of offense. On the other hand, the word heliocentric literally refers to a collection of objects revolving around a single object – that would represent the Warriors’ offense well with the team revolving around Curry’s movements. Of course, that’s harder to quantify.

One Reply to “The Rise of Heliocentrism In NBA Offenses”

  1. Great article! I thought I read that the NBA now has chips within their jerseys now (may be wrong on this)? If so, would they eventually be making that information public?

    If not, how was this data collected? + Where can we get more..

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