By Mikee Salud
If you have followed the NBA over the years, you might have noticed the increase in running. Players are running faster, fast break opportunities are increasing, and points are coming in bunches. In this new age of sport analytics, basketball has seen many changes in the way the game is being played today: "inefficient" mid-range shots are being eschewed for long-range three-point shots, teams are driving to the rim with greater frequency, and the overall pace of play has been dialed to eleven as teams are playing faster than they have in decades. I had a good amount of free time one day, so out of sheer boredom and curiosity, I decided to look specifically at pace statistics and see how the league has changed over the past couple of seasons and see whether or not an increase of pace really does lead to wins.
With the help of NBA.com/STATS, I looked at the past couple seasons and took note of the number of wins for all 30 NBA teams and their pace statistic. I decided to go as far back as the 2014-2015 NBA season because that was the start of the Golden State Warriors Championship era, which led many NBA executives, fans and media members to see the benefit of playing smaller and faster. Pace is a statistic that calculates the number of possessions a team has per game. Essentially, the higher a team's pace is increases a team's chances to score, but it adversely also increases the opponents' chances to score as well.
Then, for each season, I calculated the teams that played the fastest and slowest that season, the league average pace, the median pace, the average pace of the top 15 NBA teams and bottom 15 NBA teams and the correlation coefficient between wins and pace. I also took a look at the playoff teams for each season and found the average playoff pace and compared it to the championship team for that season. For reference, the closer the correlation coefficient is to 1, there is a strong, positive association between wins and pace (ie: a faster pace leads to more wins). The closer it is to -1, the is a negative association between wins and pace (ie: a faster pace leads to less wins). If the coefficient is close to 0, there is no association at all!
Now let's get started.
2014-2015 NBA Season
When Steve Kerr was hired to coach the Warriors, I doubt he had "change the way NBA offenses are being played" as one of his objectives. But, with his hire brought a new mindset for Golden State: play fast, but with control. Out went the heavy doses of Curry-isos with Mark Jackson, and in went playing with (almost) reckless abandon. Golden State had almost 5 more possessions than the league average team, and almost 2 more than the next fastest team. The correlation coefficient is not significant enough for there to be conclusive evidence that a faster pace leads to more wins, but in this copycat-league, NBA front offices started to take note of what Golden State was doing. I also found it interesting that the upper half of the league played a bit faster than the bottom 15 teams, an occurrence we will not see in the following seasons.
2015-2016 NBA Season
This season will forever be known for the Warriors historic dominance in the regular season, and their historic collapse in the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. That being said, Golden State grabbed the league but its throat for the first 82 games, playing with the second fastest pace in the game. Around the league, other teams started to play faster, especially for those in the bottom half of the league; as such, the correlation coefficient tipped to the negative this season. The Sacramento Kings were awarded as the fastest team in the league this season, as George Karl, known for his fast-paced offenses, had his first and only full season as the head coach.
2016-2017 NBA Season
Before anything, I just wanted to give a shout-out to the Utah Jazz for being the slowest team in the league three years in a row...really impressive stuff. Starting with the 2014-2015 season, the Jazz hired Quinn Snyder as their head coach. He has lead a more calculated offensive attack, being one of the only teams in this modern era to focus on having a glacial pace to help amplify their defensive strength in the half-court.
There was a slight increase in the average pace, but the Warriors, now with Kevin Durant, still finished in the top-three in pace. Probably the most interesting thing that I noticed was the gap in pace between the upper half of the league and the lower half of the league, led by the Brooklyn Nets, who owned the league's worst record, but also the league's fastest team. At this point, while the correlation coefficient slowly increased from last season, it's pretty clear that the correlation coefficient between wins and pace will not appear to be significant.
2017-2018 NBA Season
The league's obsession with pace really explodes this year, with 5 teams averaging over 100 possessions per game. An interesting fact about the Warriors' pace statistic is that despite slightly increasing their pace each year, their standing as one of the fastest teams in the league has steadily dropped since their first season with Kerr at the helm. During Kerr's first season, they were the fastest team in the league; now, they were the fifth fastest. Furthermore, the gap between the upper half of the league and the bottom half of the league lessened, which implies that practically the entire league is homogeneously becoming a game with pace. Because everyone is becoming faster, the correlation between wins and pace have become close to zero. The New Orleans Pelicans, coached by Mike D'Antoni stalwart Alvin Gentry and their singular-browed superstar Anthony Davis, get the title of fastest team, while the Sacramento Kings, this time being coached by the Grit-and-Grind disciple Dave Joerger, own the title of the slowest team in the league. That being said, their pace this season would have actually placed them among the top ten fastest teams in the league during the 2014-2015 season.
In this new age of sport analytics, pushing the pace has been one of those interesting facets. To be completely honest, I was a little disappointed to see that there was close to no correlation between wins and pace in every season I researched. However, this lead me to thinking: why are teams playing with pace in the first place?
The logic of playing faster makes sense: the quicker you can get into transition, the easier shots you can get (ie: open layups and open threes). However, the logic of going faster can also be a tad bit counter intuitive. If a team has more possessions to score, so will the other team. A team having a bunch of opportunities to score means nothing if they cannot defend the extra opportunities the opposition has to score. What makes a team like Golden State special is the fact that they can play fast, but also have a stout defensive unit.
We can also see that most teams today with a generally quick pace tend to be at the lower half of the league. A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of talent those teams have, and to compensate this lack of talent, they will try to find as much easy baskets as possible. Teams like the Rockets can employ elite isolation players in James Harden and Chris Paul, so they don't need to worry about plays breaking down or the game slowing down, as those two can get a bucket anytime they want. On the flip side, a team like the Sacramento Kings needs as many easy points as possible since they do not have an elite isolation player when the game slows down. Finding easy baskets whenever possible is a must.
So far this season, about 2/3 of the league is playing with a pace of over 100 possessions per game, with all of those teams with varying degrees of success. What this exercise has proven is that pace is not what necessarily leads to wins, but rather how they perform due to their pace. Does a team playing faster sacrifice their defense? Does stopping the fastbreak cause struggles when a game slows down? And this exercise was only performed for the regular season. The playoffs are typically slowed down. Can teams keep this fast pace past the initial 82 games?
All in all, a faster pace does not lead to wins. This, however, does not seem to be stopping teams today from running. Whatever the case may be, it certainly does not hinder the excitement of the game today.
*Stats courtesy of stats.nba.com*