Are Fast-Paced NBA Teams Actually at a Severe Disadvantage?

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Are Fast-Paced NBA Teams Actually at a Severe Disadvantage?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Fast and furious doesn't always win the race.

Speed is considered a commodity in today's NBA. Think of how many players founded reputations upon elite-level athleticism and agility. Think of the fast breaks. Think of the high-powered offenses. Think of the ability to get back on defense in transition.

Think of the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers, who ran their way to five championships and nine NBA Finals appearances.

Run-and-gun systems have been everywhere over the course of NBA history, and they still exist today. But there is no cliche that lauds blistering-paced teams and the style they play.

Is that purely an oversight or is it by design? Are floor-pounding teams undervalued? At disadvantages? Or, worse, at severe disadvantages? 

Strap on your seat belts. The answer may surprise you more than you think.

 

Speed on Offense

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Lightening-fast paces are most often associated with offenses. 

The faster you run, the more shots you take; the more shots you take, the more possessions you create; the more possessions you create, the more points you score; and the more points you score, the more games you win.

That's the theory anyway: Score as much as possible, as quickly as possible. 

Last season, though, the best offenses weren't necessarily the most explosive ones. Sure, the Los Angeles Clippers boasted the league's most potent offense while using the seventh-most possessions per 48 minutes, but they didn't prove to be the absolute rule, as you'll see below:

Unclear? That's the point.

If there was a stronger correlation, we'd see it. We wouldn't be able to ignore it. That the Philadelphia 76ers used the most possessions last year while finishing with the league's worst offense means little.

Instead, we're left with a mess of results that don't prove anything definitive. And they don't prove anything more when broken down further.

The average team used 96.3 possessions per 48 minutes in 2013-14, and the average offense scored roughly 104 points per 100 possessions. Only eight clubs with above-average offenses also maintained above-average paces, as shown below:

Those teams did account for a majority of the above-average (+) offenses, but the difference was marginal. Of the 14 squads that fielded above-average offenses, six of them ran at below-average (-) paces. That's almost a 50-50 split.

There were also almost as many below-average offenses (six) running at above-average speeds. Any way it's viewed, the difference remains negligible. 

Looking back over the last five years, nothing changes:

Within this field of 150 total teams—30 per year—74 had above-average offenses. Only 39 of those (52.7 percent) also used more possessions than the league average that year, so faster-paced teams haven't had a dramatic advantage over snail-stepped contingents.

Conversely, only 31 of 76 subpar offenses (40.8 percent) ran at above-standard clips, so it's not like they're at a distinct disadvantage, either.

Does this change when looking at strictly top-flight, top-10 offenses?

Nope:

Most of the NBA's top-10 offenses over the last five years (27) have actually ranked outside the top 10 in possessions used per 48 minutes. It's not a huge difference, but it's telling when 54 percent of the league's best point-totaling machines during that time don't run at exceptionally breakneck speeds.

Swifter squads haven't done themselves a great disservice offensively, no. But for the last half-decade, brisker-stepped teams haven't positively distinguished themselves in the area they're most known for.

 

Pace's Impact on Defense 

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Pace is not considered synonymous with defensive success, and for good reason.

The more possessions you use, the more chances you create for the other team; the more chances you create for the other team, the more offensive sets you have to defend; and the more offensive sets you have to defend, the more points you give up.

That, again, is the theory. And it's a fairly sound one.

Rare was the top-notch defensive team that played at above-average speed last season:

Unlike the relationship between offense and pace, there's a stronger correlation between defense and pace. Typically the faster a squad plays, the worse it is defensively.

This isn't a flawless rule. There are exceptions. But look at the distribution between pace and defensive performance last season, noting that the lower the defensive rating, the better the defense:

Only one-fifth of the league maintained above-average pace and defense in 2013-14. That's not much. Nor does this relationship trend in a different direction when analyzing pace and defensive ratings of the last five years:

Twenty-eight of these 150 teams finished with above-average paces and defenses during this time, or roughly 18.7 percent. Once again, that's nothing.

Meanwhile, of the 72 total squads that played at faster-than-normal speeds, more than 60 percent of them (44) finished with substandard defenses.

Forging unquestionably elite defenses while playing at full tilt for 48 minutes per game is even harder. Over the last five years, it's been nigh impossible:

Seven teams have ranked in the top 10 of both pace and defensive efficiency since 2009. Seven. Out of a possible 50.

Now consider the teams that have done it: The Golden State Warriors (2013-14), Los Angeles Clippers (2013-14), San Antonio Spurs (2012-13), New York Knicks (2011-12) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2011-2014). 

Almost all those teams were championship contenders in their respective seasons. The 2011-12 Knicks are the only exception. They were coached by Mike D'Antoni and Mike Woodson, had a top-five defense and finished only six games over .500 (36-30).

Even with their out-of-place record factored in, the average winning percentage of these seven is roughly 67.9 percent. Being that good makes (most of) them an entirely different exception. And yet none of them went on to win a championship that year. Not even the seconds-away, 2012-13 Spurs. 

 

Slow and Steady Wins in Haste?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What do we know at this point? 

Fast-paced teams haven't steamrolled the competition offensively over the last five years, and, for the most part, they've been put at defensive disadvantages.

What does that mean? 

A whole lot.

Winning is all that matters in the NBA—to non-tankers anyway. If high-speed teams aren't winning or performing as well as more modest-paced—or outright slow—teams, that's a problem...for them.

Below you'll see the relationship between where a team has ranked pace-wise over the last five years, pitted against where it's ranked in net rating.

Winning percentage isn't used because of all the confounding variables involved, from what conference a team plays in, to how many times one faction has to face another, to an array of other things. Net rating is a team's point differential per 100 possessions, so it provides a more accurate picture of how good a group actually is in relation to the entire league:

Slower teams outnumber faster top-10 net-rating posters almost two to one, but over the last three years or so, the quicker outfits are gaining ground.

Question is: Will this trend continue? Or rather, will this trend amount to fast-paced teams winning more titles?

History–even recent history—doesn't support an answer of "yes."

ERIC GAY/Associated Press
Few teams have done what Kobe and Shaq's Lakers did in 2001.

Only two of the last 14 champions—dating back to the 2000-01 season—finished the regular season with a top-10 pace rating. Less than half (six) finished in the top 15. This year's Spurs ranked 12th, which ties them with the 2005-06 Miami Heat for the second-highest regular-season pace rating among the last 14 champions. The 2001-02 and 2008-09 Lakers hold the highest mark, having checked in at No. 6. 

Is it possible, then, pace and winning are related? The absence of a top-five speedster is glaring, after all. 

And quite possibly significant.

Defense is imperative when it comes to winning championships. Bad defensive teams don't hoist Larry O'Brien Trophies. It almost never happens, as Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal astutely observes: 

No team since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers has managed to earn a championship without a top-10 defensive rating during the regular season. Those Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, had the No. 21 defensive rating that year, and even then, Basketball-Reference.com shows that they were the league's best point-preventing team during the postseason and looked nothing like the regular-season version of themselves.

Let's recycle a theory from before: The more offensive sets you have to defend, the more points you give up.

Quick teams are indeed putting themselves at a disadvantage by increasing their defensive burden. Guarding against more opportunities leaves them susceptible to poor defensive showings. Prevention in volume is just too freaking hard.

Only a select few have the personnel necessary to maintain an average defense in those situations. Even fewer have the requisite talent to snatch world-class status.

Hurried offenses are a better recipe for tanking than they are for winning. The 2013-14 Sixers were perfect examples, like Grantland's Chris Ryan unpacked in April:

The Sixers played at the league’s fastest pace this season, with the worst offensive efficiency. They forced the most turnovers and gave up the most. If that’s a little abstract for you, let me put it in concrete terms: A garden-variety Sixers play from the game against Boston on Monday would see Tony Wroten, an all-go, no-stop, conscience-free jackrabbit of a guard, getting the ball on one end of the court and taking off down to the other. He would see daylight, and the crowd would swell with excitement; he’d take off for the rim at some insane angle, with too many obstacles in front of him, at too fast a speed, and miss a layup. 1-2-3-4-5-Sixers.

Philadelphia wasn't the lone culprit, either. Four of the top-five paced teams finished in the lottery last year. Three of those four were at least 10 games under .500. Two of those three didn't crack 30 victories.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press
The high-octane Suns never won.

Playing at such high speeds can make for entertaining basketball. In the case of D'Antoni's Suns, it makes for peerless offensive potency. But mistakes also happen when running so fiercely. Turnovers happen. Defense gets lost in the translation.

Relatively good teams lose at some point.

Bad teams lose a lot. 

D'Antoni's Suns—dominant as they were—never won a championship. Their defense was never good enough. And while they aren't the rule or standard for this argument, no one team is.

Data and trends are too often passed off as unflappable fact. But there will always be exceptions and anomalies. One day—perhaps one day soon—an incomprehensibly fast team could win a title. In general, though, we cannot expect them to.

"Showtime is back, baby," Magic Johnson said when Lakers hired Byron Scott, per the Orange County Register's Bill Oram.

Lakers fans can only hope he's wrong. Or at least not right in every sense of the term "Showtime."

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Are fast-paced teams at a disadvantage in today's NBA?

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What happened for the Lakers then isn't happening for other teams now. Slight regular-season change hasn't given way to the more important argument: Championships aren't won with speed. 

Modestly paced team—like last year's Spurs—will be sprinkled in here and there, and eventually might even become the norm. For now, acceleration isn't the prevailing path to contention or championships. Any team that proves or has proven differently is an aberration—one that will have won in spite of what is still a flawed model.

 

*All stats are from Basketball-ReferenceNBA.com and the NBA media database (subscription required) unless otherwise cited.

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