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LAXMetrics Week 19: Vancouver’s Playoff Push

The Vancouver Warriors are in the playoff hunt, which would have seemed like a laughable proposition less than two months ago.

After slipping to 2-8 overall record with their loss to Toronto on February 24, the Warriors looked all but guaranteed to see their season conclude after Week 21. A season that began with optimism – precipitated from the offseason acquisition of star head coach Curt Malawsky and a cast of steady veterans – would end with the same finale as Vancouver fans had become accustomed to: missing the postseason.

The version of the club that fans fantasized about during the offseason suddenly arrived in the middle of Malawsky’s first year in Vancouver. There was little doubt that his success in the NLL would follow from Calgary to Vancouver eventually, but perhaps the timeline of the rebuild would be more drawn out than Warriors fans had hoped. But once the calendar flipped into March, the Warriors became a different team.

After winning five of their next six games, the narrative has morphed considerably. The Warriors are 7-9, winners of four consecutive games, and virtually control their own playoff destiny. Back-to-back wins over New York and San Diego—no small feat—would likely be enough to push the Warriors into the playoffs in Year One of the Malawsky era. But how does a team go from the bottom of the barrel to being the hottest club on the circuit in a matter of six weeks?

In this edition of LAXMetrics powered by the NLL, we’re going to explore the driving forces behind the Warriors’ turnaround and renewed playoff optimism. Using numbers collected by LaxMetrics.com as our support, we’re going to make the case that Vancouver’s 180 degree turn is far simpler than meets the eye.

The best way to examine Vancouver’s season is to split it into two chunks: the first 10 games and last six games. In those two stretches, the Warriors went 2-8 and 5-1 respectively. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Warriors have been better across the board during their late-season surge, but the numbers disagree. In fact, examining the stats tells us that Vancouver’s problems during the team’s first 10 games were nearly all offensive.

Let’s begin by pointing out some items that cannot explain their turnaround. Defensively, the Warriors have actually taken a small step backwards over the last six games. After allowing 11.4 goals per game in the first 10 contests, the Warriors have seen their goals allowed average climb slightly to 11.8 during their six-game surge. From an efficiency perspective, the Warriors have watched their Defensive Shooting Percentage climb from an average-to-solid 17.9% to a below average 20.3%. While they’re now winning games, defense has not been the reason.

Similarly, possession stats don’t reflect any kind of positive change that would explain Vancouver’s sudden pivot. After averaging 68.9 loose balls per game in their first ten games, the Warriors have seen that number dip to 63.8 loose balls per game—one of the worst marks in the league during that stretch. The Warriors are scoring more goals, but not because of consistently winning second and third possessions off missed shots.

The formula for the Warriors during their 5-1 stretch down the final weeks of the season has been purely centered around offensive efficiency. Even more specifically, the Warriors’ surge offensively has been in direct proportion to star forward Keegan Bal’s drastic uptick in production and more consistent finishing on the part of his teammates.

First, consider Vancouver’s chance creation during their 2-8 start. The Warriors averaged 25.5 Total First Order Chances per game. In the last six games, their total chance creation has stayed mostly steady, climbing minimally to 26.8 chances per game. The key difference, however, is that the Warriors converted just 21.1% of those opportunities into goals during the season’s first 10 games, but watched that number lunge to 24.8% during their last six games.

Bal serves as a microcosm of the larger theme governing Vancouver’s offensive success. Over the season’s first 10 games, Bal’s passing statistics faced a startling dip from prior precedent. While his chance creation was roughly on par with the last two seasons, the conversion rates that those chances saw was astoundingly low.

Bal may have been creating 6.9 Total First Order Chances per game, but his teammates were converting them to goals at a rate of just 7.25%—impossibly low. The league average conversion rate is 25%, meaning that a regression to the mean and a climb in Bal’s conversion rate was all but guaranteed. It wasn’t a matter of “if” his teammates would start translating his passes into goals on a more regular basis, it was a matter of “when.” In the six games that have followed, Bal’s conversion rate has surged all the way to 25%, aligning it perfectly with the league average. Just as Bal was assured to see a climb in his conversion rate, so too were the Warriors as a club.

But Bal’s teammates converting chances with greater efficiency only explains a portion of Vancouver’s offensive progress. All players other than Bal averaged 8.0 goals per game during the team’s first 10 games. In the last six, Bal’s supporting cast averages 9.1 goals per game. But while their production has increased by 1.1 goals per game, the Warriors’ overall scoring has increased by 4.1 goals per game. The key driving factor in Vancouver’s scoring surge has actually be a scoring barrage by Bal himself.

During the season’s first 10 games, Bal accounted for just under 16% of the Warriors’ total scoring. His 1.5 goals per game were respectable, but unimpressive in the context of his past performance. During their last six contests, however, Bal’s scoring has exploded to the tune of 4.5 goals per game. His contribution to Vancouver’s scoring has skyrocketed from 16% to just a sliver under 33%. Bal himself is responsible for 3.0 of the 4.1 goal per game increase in the Warriors’ scoring average. Even without the benefit of an improvement on their conversion rate, Bal’s production alone would be enough to explain Vancouver’s new-found offensive firepower. It’s explained the difference between Vancouver being a last-place team and a playoff contender.

The quiet question that rests beneath this explanation of Vancouver’s progress is as follows: does Keegan Bal deserve a place at the table in the MVP conversation? At this point it seems nearly impossible that he could garner the support necessary to win the award in the face of great seasons by other candidates. But when we consider the tangible impact that he’s had on Vancouver’s success, perhaps there is a case to be made that Bal means more to his team than any other forward around the league can claim.

One thing is for certain, if there were an award for the “second-half MVP” honoring the best player during the season’s final nine games, Bal would have to be planted firmly at the center of the debate. His contribution to Vancouver’s turnaround can’t be overstated.