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LAXMetrics Postseason: Buffalo’s Championship Run

The Buffalo Bandits are the champions of the National Lacrosse League. Again.

In some ways, nothing is surprising about the Bandits hoisting another trophy. They boast the league’s MVP, Josh Byrne, multiple MVP-winner Dhane Smith, the greatest goaltender in league history, Matt Vinc, and a highly capable supporting cast across all positions. Entering the season, anyone who suggested that the Bandits were a solid bet to repeat as champions would have been entirely justified in thinking so. But what is so fascinating about this run to the league crown is the path that the Bandits followed. Not only did the Bandits enter the playoffs as the fourth seed in the eight-team tournament, they were below .500 on March 1. In 80 days, the Buffalo Bandits went from a 5-6 team to league champs with an overall record of 16-7 across 23 regular-season and playoff games. Not only did the Bandits win the final nine games that they played, including both the regular season and the playoffs, but they lost just once in their final 12 games. 

Statistically speaking, there are two stories to be told about Buffalo’s rapid turnaround and ascendence to the pinnacle of lacrosse. The first is the team’s offensive production and efficiency. The second is their defensive improvement.

As we compare Buffalo’s first 11 games against its final 12 contests, an interesting truth makes itself known fairly quickly. There is virtually no difference in the rate at which the Bandits created scoring chances. Total First Order Chances (TFoCs) is a statistic pioneered by LaxMetrics.com that highlights the number of quality scoring chances a player or team creates as a direct result of good passing. TFoCs do not factor in chances that are the result of excellent ball-handling efforts that come in the form of dodging. Rather, they are intended to illustrate the capacity of a player or team to consistently manufacture chances through ball movement. There is no discernible difference in Buffalo’s TFoC creation during the squad’s first 11 games compared to its final 12. While beginning the season 5-6, Buffalo averaged 28.36 Total First Order Chances per game. That number climbed ever so slightly to 28.41 during the team’s final 11 games.

Offensively, the only change that occurred during the second half of Buffalo’s run to the title was a slight climb in the group’s First Order Conversion Rate. In the simplest terms possible, the First Order Conversion Rate is the percentage of chances created (TFoCs) that culminate in goals. The league average First Order Conversion Rate this season was approximately 25%, meaning that it is reasonable to expect all teams to finish within 1.5% of that mark, a range of 23.5% to 26.5%. The Bandits were an interesting case this year because they defied statistical probability throughout their 23-game campaign. Typically, we expect the Law of Large Numbers to take over during an 18-game season, distributing each team somewhere in that 23.5% to 26.5% range. Interestingly, Buffalo was an outlier in this respect the entire year.

During Buffalo’s 5-6 start, its offense converted chances into goals at a rate of 26.6%, which was right at the outer-most limit for what should be reasonably sustainable throughout an 18-game season. But the Bandits didn’t regress to the average. Instead, they improved their scoring efficiency over their final 12 games, managing a conversion rate of 27.5% during that span. To be as efficient as the Bandits were for a full 23-game run isn’t just incredible, it is almost statistically impossible. That is a testament to the team’s remarkable ability to consistently manufacture good looks, while also shooting at an elite level on a reliable basis. No other team has come close to matching this effort from Buffalo during the three-year existence of LaxMetrics.com and its data collection efforts.

The other aspect of Buffalo’s rapid turnaround is a little bit more pronounced. Last week’s edition of LAXMetrics powered by the NLL dove into the subject of defense pretty intensely. Still, it’s worth revisiting the jaw-dropping improvement that Buffalo’s defense produced in the second half of the season. 

During the team’s 5-6 start, the Bandits struggled defensively to the tune of an 18.7% Defensive Shooting Percentage. That mark is not just high (the league average is 17%), it would have placed the Bandits among the three worst defenses in the NLL had it been sustained to the season’s conclusion. Fortunately for Bandit fans, the defense underwent a start transformation and turned in a Defensive Shooting Percentage of 13.5% during their 11-1 run that included a perfect 5-0 jaunt through the playoffs en route to a second straight title. Buffalo’s defense went from being one of the league’s worst statistically to its best virtually overnight. Give all the credit in the world to the players out of Buffalo’s back door and the team’s remarkable coaching staff for engineering such a turnaround. We likely will not see a statical flip-flop as stark as Buffalo’s for the next decade or more. The Bandits produced a generational effort defensively during their 11-1 stretch from March 1 to May 19.

One key aspect of Buffalo’s defense that has gone severely under-discussed is the function of its offense. In 23 games, the Bandits allowed just 11 breakaway chances, only four of which were converted into goals. Because Buffalo’s offense so consistently prioritized team play and getting off the floor in a hurry, its defense was seldom caught in transition getting on the floor late. But just how good was Buffalo’s transition defense? By surrendering 11 breakaways in 23 games, the Bandits allowed the opposition an average of 0.48 per game, including zero in five playoff games. The next-best number from any team, regardless of the number of games played, was Saskatchewan’s 0.78 breakaways allowed per game. The Bandits allowed three fewer breakaways than the Rush despite playing five more games. A mere 1.5% of the 254 total goals surrendered by the Bandits in 23 games were the product of breakaways. If there is any surefire formula for facilitating defensive success, it is ensuring that virtually every possession results in a five-on-five set as the Bandits proved this season.

Give them all the praise that they deserve and appreciate the Bandits’ 2023-24 season for what it was: an incredible effort. As referenced earlier, the defensive turnaround that Buffalo enjoyed this year was a generational accomplishment. The offense’s efficiency at converting First Order Chances into goals was bordering on the statistically impossible. This Bandits team was every bit as good as they looked on the floor. Cheers to one of the greatest seasons in league history.