Does Pace Matter in the NBA?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2014

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, center, cuts between Indiana Pacers guard George Hill, right, and power forward David West, left, in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Indianapolis, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Does slow and steady really win the race in the NBA, or does speed kill?

Pace, or how many possessions a team uses per 48 minutes, is something we often discuss when referring to specific teams or even specific eras of NBA history. It goes to the core of a team's identity, defines it against its peers.

Fast teams are fun. They run, they score, they entertain.

Slow teams defend. They ugly the game up, are probably big-man oriented and, if we think about it for a second, are either old or lacking in athleticism.

Beyond those generalizations, though, we don't really know much about pace and how it relates to winning. Is playing fast better than playing slow as a general rule? Which pace is more conducive to making the playoffs? To winning a title?

As is so often the case with questions worth asking, the answer is: It depends.

The Method

Anonymous/Associated Press

We start with the 1979-80 season, and not just because the NBA wasn't worth following until Magic and Bird were in it. (Kidding! Sort of.)

We begin there because that was the year the three-point shot was introduced. Maybe that feels like an arbitrary cutoff, but if we're looking for information that'll be helpful in answering prospective questions about the league, we need to analyze the game as it exists now.

Note: There's going to be some noise in our data. That's inevitable. Things like turnovers can affect pace, potentially making a team that actually plays slowly appear to be using more possessions, giving the illusion of speed.

Don't worry, though: We've analyzed nearly 1,000 team seasons in the 35 years of this study, which smooths away outliers and anomalies quite nicely.

To keep everything sensible, we've come up with a handy metric to normalize pace statistics across eras. With an appreciated assist from B/R's Adam Fromal (he's good at math), we'll use "true pace" when discussing how fast or slow a team plays.

It's a basic figure that represents the percentage difference between a team's pace and the league average from that season. For example, the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs used 95 possessions per 48 minutes, but the league average that year was 93.9. The Spurs' figure was 1.2 percent higher than average, so their "true pace" is 1.2—the same as, say, the 1985-86 Utah Jazz, who used 103.3 possessions per 48 minutes.

BOSTON, MA - 1986: John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles during a game circa 1986 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenti
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

That Utah team played faster overall, but it did so in a season in which the league average for possession use was 102.1. Relative to their peers in those respective seasons, the Spurs and Jazz played at the same true pace.

Got it? Super.

Moving on.

So You'd Like to Make the Playoffs

One piece of advice to postseason aspirants: Slow down.

In the 35 seasons we analyzed, there were 544 teams that made the playoffs, 232 of which played at a pace above the league average. That means just 42.7 percent of all playoff teams over the past 35 seasons played "fast."

The 1983-84 Denver Nuggets were the fastest-paced team to ever make the playoffs, with a true pace of 9.0, which means they used nine percent more possessions than the league average. That team was part of a particularly supercharged era in the Mile High City, as the 1981-82 Nuggets were the second-fastest team in our sample to make the postseason, doing so with a true pace of 8.8.

The 1982-83 Nuggets played to a true pace of 8.7 (the third-fastest among playoff teams since 1979-80).

In the past decade, the fastest playoff team was the 2007-08 Nuggets, who posted a true pace of 7.9.

If you note a trend here, congratulations. The Nuggets are the team most historically synonymous with speed. It would seem Denver coaches have always sought to exploit the thin air that makes their home games/track meets hell on opponents.

Those Denver teams are outliers, though. The very fastest team in our entire data pool, the 1990-91 Nuggets, who posted an obscene true pace of 16.3 (the largest deviation from the norm in either direction by a huge amount), went 20-62.

One other interesting note on the history of teams playing fast: Of the 16 highest true-pace seasons in our sample, the Golden State Warriors and Nuggets occupy 15 of them.

The slowest team to ever make the playoffs was the 1995-96 Cleveland Cavaliers, who played 10.3 percent slower than the league's average pace—and that was in an era when the NBA was a plodding, grind-it-out mess as a whole.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 22: Mike Fratello of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to his team against the Sacramento Kings on January 22, 1994 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Cleveland used just 82.3 possessions per game that season, which for context was about 11 percent slower than last year's Memphis Grizzlies, who played at the most deliberate pace in the league.

In the 1994-95 season, the Cavs made the playoffs while posting a true pace of minus-8.7.

Mike Fratello, Cleveland's coach during that unwatchable era, coaxed impressive success out of his team by playing at a crawl.

In a 1995 interview with Bob Ford of The Philadelphia Inquirer, former Fratello player and then-assistant coach for the Orlando Magic Tree Rollins said, "I don't know how many pro players would say, 'Let's go out there and walk the ball.' I know our guys in Orlando would go crazy. It just doesn't happen—except in Cleveland."

Fratello explained to Ford, "We had to make a decision about how we were going to give ourselves the best chance of winning. We were limited on bodies and thought that if we executed and got stops defensively, we could stay in ball games."

It worked. But man, was it ugly.

Does It Pay to Be Extreme?

Only in Mountain Dew commercials, bro.

Actually, that's not completely fair. Of the 10 fastest true-pace seasons in our sample, six made the playoffs. And of the 10 slowest true-pace seasons, seven reached the dance. So falling on the far end of the pace spectrum, whether fast or slow, certainly doesn't preclude a trip to the postseason. Perhaps that's because outliers like those teams are typically doing something different than their peers, which leaves opponents playing catchup.

But the calculus changes dramatically when we shift the conversation to teams that win big—championship big.

Broadly, 12 teams have won titles in the past 35 seasons while playing with a pace above the league average, which means 23 won rings by playing slower than the norm. From the outset, we can say a slower pace is more closely correlated with winning a ring than a faster one is.

Playing at extremes, though, is a very, very bad strategy in a title pursuit.

The fastest champ in our sample wasn't really fast at all. The 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers posted a true pace of 2.8 during the regular season, which ranked 133rd among the 954 team campaigns we cataloged. The next-fastest title winners were the 1981-82 Lakers, whose true pace was 2.2.

For reference, last year's Spurs played at a true pace of just 1.2, barely more than one percent above the league average.

The upshot: No team in the last 35 seasons has won a ring while playing more than three percent faster than the league average during the year.

On the other end, the slowest NBA champions were the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons, whose true pace of minus-5.1, which ranked 936th out of the 954 team seasons we examined, didn't preclude them from winning a ring. The second-slowest trophy-hoisting club was the 1992-93 Chicago Bulls at minus-4.4.

This is actually a gif. The Pistons just move that slowly.
This is actually a gif. The Pistons just move that slowly.DOUG PIZAC/Associated Press/Associated Press

The 1989-90 Pistons rounded out the top three with a minus-4.0.

So if you're looking to pick one extreme in a championship chase, pick slow. But if you can help it, don't pick an extreme at all.

Average, in this sense, really means having the ability to play fast or slow, depending on what the situation dictates. Pace flexibility, like San Antonio showed last season, is the mark of an adaptable, championship-caliber team.

Is There a Sweet Spot?

Forget extremeswe need to know if there's a particular pace title winners should try to establish.

Perhaps it'll help to tackle this graphically:

As you can see, the largest concentration of champions collect toward the middle of the chart, near the x-axis that represents the league-average pace. We could have deduced that after learning how difficult it is to win championships with an extremely fast or extremely slow pace, but this crystallizes the point.

Fifteen of the 35 champions on the graph played within one percent (in either direction) of the league-average pace. Twenty-five were within two percent.

Clearly it pays to be unremarkable in this regard. The closer a team is to a "normal" pace, the better its title odds are. Slower is still better than faster, and playing really, really fast basically eliminates any hope of winning a ring.

Play Fast, Die Early

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

If you think about it, it makes sense that playing especially fast isn't part of the championship recipe.

The playoffs suit slower teams who can maximize the efficiency of every possession—not the ones who deal in volume. You can get there by running past teams during the year, sure. But once the postseason kicks off, it's about execution, defense and grinding things out.

Intuitively, I think we recognize an especially fast pace for what it is: a gimmick.

Trying to induce fatigue by speeding the game up or hoping to prevent opponents from getting set (because they probably execute better than you do) are ploys typically utilized by the undersized, overmatched and less talented.

There's plenty to be said for controlling the tempo of a game. If your team is loaded with guards and young players (and short on bigs or good half-court schemes), a fast pace is probably the best way to approach the regular season. That's a flawed strategy in terms of building a real contender, but it's no less flawed than playing at a slow pace just because that's what champs tend to do.

It's a bad idea to force a pace that doesn't fit personnel.

What Can We Say About the 2014-15 Season?

Dec 13, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) dribbles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The obvious takeaway here is that we should look skeptically at the title chances of teams that play at extreme paces. There's just such a huge precedent of teams nearer the norm winning big.

The Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers played faster than anyone last year, for example, and neither had a chance to even sniff the playoffs as the season wore on. Philly will be happy to sprint toward oblivion again this year, but if the Lakers want to be taken seriously when they talk championship (or even playoffs), they'll have to slow things down.

B/R's Dan Favale painted a hopeful picture of new head coach Byron Scott and his pace history:

Of the 13 seasons Scott has spent as a head coach—two of which were partial years—only five of those teams have finished in the bottom 10 for possessions used per 48 minutes, and only two have finished in the top 10. 

This is in line with what the Lakers need. They aren't built to run—especially if the plan is to milk every last bit of offense out of Kobe Bryant.

Now that we know average is good and extremes are bad, we should feel a bit more hopeful about Scott and the Lakers.

Stop laughing. Why are you laughing?

Let's wrap this up.

If you're the Warriors or Houston Rockets, the two fastest teams to make the playoffs out West last year (with true-pace figures of 2.4 and 2.6, respectively), you might want to slow things down and focus on execution. Those two clubs are right on the outer edge of recommended speed, and if they want to be more than fringe contenders, they'll rein it in a bit this season.

Last year's slowest teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls, are also interesting cases.

Memphis played at a true pace of minus-4.3 in 2013-14, while Chicago played at minus-3.9. Both of those figures fall short of the slow extreme posted by those late-'80s Pistons, but they're also well outside the sweet spot of one-to-two percent away from the average.

The Bulls, in particular, must address this.

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22:  Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 22, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

They're right in the thick of contention these days, trailing only the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs in the preseason championship odds, per Oddsshark.com. But if we make it to January or so and the Bulls are still playing at a pace as slow as last year's, we should be confident in removing them from the list of contenders.

If we've learned anything about pace, it's that teams with the highest aims need to shoot for the middle.

We'll see who hits the mark this year.

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