NBA

Pace Makers: Is This the New NBA?

The summer of 2016 will always be remembered for the historic cap spike. If current trends hold, the fall of 2018 will be remembered for the historic pace spike.

Look, we’ve only played about 4% of the NBA regular season thus far, so take all of this with a massive grain of salt, but the fact is, Michael Jordan was a rookie the last time the NBA played this fast. The return to the break-neck pace of yesteryear has combined with an unprecedented level of offensive efficiency — the delta between this year’s average Offensive Rating and the season ranking #2 (2016-17) is as big as the gap between seasons #2 and #19 — to create a scoring explosion the league hasn’t seen since the early days of the Nixon Administration. Stylistic changes in the NBA are normally gradual, slow-boiling frogs, which is what makes the visible, tangible difference in this year’s game so jarring.

In a game where everything occurring on the court is fundamentally interrelated and intertwined, there will always be some “chicken-or-the-egg” questions we can’t definitively answer, but it must be asked nonetheless: how did we get here? And just as importantly, is this new reality here to stay?

First, the raw numbers. [All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.] Pace (defined as an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes) reached its nadir during the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99, at 88.9. [That ’98-’99 season was absolute TRASH in so many ways. The players spent most of the season working their way back into game shape, and the stats reflected it: pace, scoring, shooting, assists, and offensive efficiency all experienced a pronounced single-season dip before rebounding to roughly pre-lockout levels the following year. The less said about that dumpster fire of a season, the better. Let’s move on.]

Pace mostly hovered around the low-90’s throughout the next decade, dipping down again to 91.3 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season — sensing a trend here? — before beginning a steady, inexorable climb to 97.3 last season. Scoring and 3-point volume hewed closely to the pace trend line as the aptly named “pace-and-space” era picked up steam.

And then, this season happened. Again, we’re still dealing with a small sample size (only 48 games have been played through Monday night), but the pace has taken a massive jump, up to 101.8. As I alluded to earlier, offensive efficiency is up by 1.8 points per 100 possessions from last season, and overall scoring is up by an unfathomable 6.6 points per game, per team. Some regression to the mean may be forthcoming, but executives around the league seem to think the turbo-charged version of the game we’ve seen early on this season represents the new normal. So what changed?

We only have reliable possession data going back to the ’73-’74 season (the dawn of the modern statistical era), but outside of the course correction of the ’99-’00 season — after the aforementioned crap-tastic ’98-’99 season — there is simply no precedent for this type of year-over-year leap in scoring and pace. No single factor is going to be solely responsible for the stylistic sea change we’re witnessing, but it is possible to look at several factors individually to get a sense of how much each one is contributing. Let’s start with an obvious one:

THE THREE BALL: As the league is increasingly driven by analytics, teams continue to push the envelope in search of the optimal shot distribution, and it does not appear we’ve reached it just yet. [If you want the ultra-nerd explanation, you can find it here.] The 3-point boom continues unabated, as both the raw number of threes attempted per game and the share of threes as a percentage of total field goals attempted continue their upward trajectories. However, these increases merely represent the continuation of an existing trend, rather than some sort of statistical outlier. On average, teams are converting 0.8 more threes per game than they did last season (10.5 vs. 11.3, on nearly identical percentages), and I’m no mathematician, but an extra 2.4 points per game, per team doesn’t get close to explaining the full bump in scoring. So it’s safe to say the ongoing proliferation of outside shooting is part of the burger, but it is not the secret sauce.

OFFENSIVE REBOUNDING: Rule changes can cause a glitch in the Matrix — more on that to come — so it’s worth examining this one. During the offseason, the league approved a rule change whereby the shot clock only resets to 14 seconds following an offensive rebound. The change was explicitly justified as a way to increase the pace of play, but in practice, does eliminating those last ten seconds of the shot clock in that specific instance actually increase the overall number of possessions in an appreciable way?

There are a couple different factors to consider here. The first is strategic. League-wide, offensive rebounding rates have been falling since the mid-1980’s, with the most pronounced decline taking place this decade. As the dominant style has shifted toward transition play and outside shooting, the strategic counter has been to put more emphasis on transition defense and less on crashing the offensive glass. Critics of the new rule have suggested it will artificially depress offensive boards even more, surmising that having only 14 seconds on the ensuing possession (instead of the full twenty-four) makes it even less valuable, thus tipping the strategic scale further in the direction of getting back on defense.

Problem is, the numbers don’t really support this hypothesis. Small sample caveats apply, but offensive rebounding rates are actually up slightly to start the season, and the G-League (often the proving ground for these types of rule changes) saw a similar bump two years ago when it implemented the change, though the decline resumed again last season. In any case, it doesn’t appear to be driving any additional strategic aversion to the offensive glass beyond what already existed.

The second consideration is mostly about math: if the number of offensive rebounds is roughly similar, are all those extra possessions just the result of having ten less seconds to shoot each time a team gets one? To answer this, we need stats, but we also need ecology. I like to talk about basketball ecosystems, and the ecosystem existing on the court immediately following an offensive rebound is a unique one. The offense is generally in an advantageous position upon securing the board. The defense is out of position and scrambling — both physically and mentally — to find its assignments. The new “possession” normally begins somewhere in the vicinity of the rim (since it’s the result of a rebound), leading to increased opportunity for an easy putback or a kick out for an open 3, essentially the two most valuable shot types possible. A majority of the time, these juicy opportunities present themselves within the first few seconds of the new shot clock, while the defense is still scrambling, rendering those “lost” ten seconds meaningless in a practical sense.

The stats back up this interpretation. Play-by-play data from last season (courtesy of PBPstats.com) provides some real insight into what happens post-offensive board:

Blake Murphy

 A full 63.3% of shots taken after the rebound was secured were released within the first four seconds of the new shot clock, and the vast majority of them occurred either at the rim or from deep. These early-clock shots were also more efficient (in terms of points per possession) than those taking place later in the clock. In total, 94% of the shots were taken within the first 14 seconds of the new clock, so based on the number of offensive rebounds in an average NBA game (and discounting turnovers occurring after offensive boards for the sake of simplicity), this rule change is only likely to influence approximately one possession per game, and a low-value possession at that. It’s a red herring.

“FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT” RULES: Now we’re getting somewhere. First, let’s take a look back — all the way to the year 2004 — to the origin event of grumpy old NBA fans everywhere. Prior to the ’04-’05 season, the league instituted an officiating “Point of Emphasis” intended to abolish hand-checking by on-ball defenders. The league argued the game had become too much of a physical slog, and allowing greater freedom of movement to ball handlers would open things up and make it more exciting. Despite the protestations you still hear from get-off-my-lawners to this day, the league was right: shooting, scoring, and offensive efficiency all made big jumps in ’04-’05. The hand-checking rule, combined with the new Defensive Three Second rule and the inspiring play of Steve Nash’s ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns, provided a road map to the more free-flowing, spaced-out game we see today.

So here’s my hot take for the day: the league’s new point of emphasis on off-ball freedom of movement could well be this decade’s version of the hand-checking ban — the enforcement of an existing rule which throws off the offense/defense equilibrium of the league in ways we may not be able to fully appreciate until much later.

First, it’s important to note it’s only the second week of the season, and in many cases, the league’s ‘points of emphasis’ often become less, ahem, emphasized as the season progresses. The NBA has tried, on several occasions, to rein in palming the ball and illegal screens, both of which remain prevalent despite officials’ “best” efforts. We shall see if “freedom of movement” suffers a similar fate, or if it represents a real paradigm shift in the way defense is to be played going forward.

It’s not hard to draw the parallel to hand-checking; after all, it’s basically the same thing, with the only variable being whether the guy getting grabbed has the ball in his hands or not. And just as the hand-checking ban provided a shot in the arm to the burgeoning dominance of the pick-and-roll game in the mid-aughts, the freedom of movement rule could similarly bolster the effectiveness of the motion-based, ball movement-oriented offensive systems gaining prominence in the league today.

Statistically, it’s hard to suss out exactly how much credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) to assign to the increased enforcement of the rule. Free throw attempts are up by nearly four per game, per team, and while the jump may not be entirely due to the off-ball whistles, from a subjective/’eye test’ standpoint, there do seem to be a lot of them, and teams appear to be ending up in the bonus earlier in quarters. While not necessarily a boon for the entertainment value of the product, more free throws certainly contribute to to the higher scoring totals and increased offensive efficiency numbers (besides dunks/layups, there is no more efficient shot in the game than a free throw). Beyond that, they likely contribute in some way to the faster pace as well, as counter-intuitive as it seems to make the argument about how fast the game is being played by pointing to an action which takes place while everyone stands around. If enough of these fouls take place early in the shot clock (and/or lead to earlier bonus situations where other non-shooting fouls lead to free throws), then possessions are artificially ending sooner than they otherwise would, which means — you guessed it — more total possessions and a faster overall pace. The rate of free throw attempts (relative to field goal attempts) is indeed up, and the increase in the raw number of attempts per game is outstripping the uptick in pace, so there may be something to this theory, but it’s a little early to tell for sure.

Besides the free throw issue, defenders, with one less tool in their toolbox, now have to re-calibrate how to force the best athletes on Earth into tough shots without fouling. Offenses are turning the ball over less, and getting more of the looks they want — the percentages of shots taken from inside the restricted area and beyond the arc have both increased — so the defenses clearly have a ways to go in re-establishing the equilibrium. Perhaps over time, legislating out the grabbing and reaching will lead to defensive units that move their feet, communicate, and rotate more effectively, creating the Platonic ideal of what the rule book says defense “should” look like. Let’s just say I’m not exactly holding my breath, and until such a time (or unless the refs stop enforcing the rule), we’re probably going to continue to see the defenses get torched. Nobody gets paid to play defense anyway, right, Jabari?

TEAMS ARE JUST COMMITTED TO PLAYING FASTER: I’ll let Jim Carrey handle this one:

Selfishly, I hope this isn’t a major reason for the bump in pace, since it doesn’t make for a particularly interesting story line, but we certainly can’t dismiss it. If the best conclusion we can draw is “teams said they were going to play faster, they did, and it worked,” it renders a lot of the analysis I love so much pretty meaningless. The ‘eye test,’ FWIW, confirms there is some truth to this narrative, though. Teams genuinely do seem committed to getting out in transition as much as humanly possible, and perhaps more importantly, they look to be operating more briskly in the halfcourt sets as well. There’s very little dilly-dallying happening in the backcourt after a made basket; teams take the ball out of the net and inbound it to a player who is actively moving up the court as he receives the pass. Again, this is anecdotal, but I much more rarely find myself anxiously watching to make sure the ball handler is actually going to cross the time line before the shot clock hits fifteen. In most cases, the clock seems to be around 21 or 22 as he enters the frontcourt. It sounds like a minor thing, but those extra few seconds add up over the course of a game.

What makes this narrative hard to accept is how coordinated it feels. Yes, pace has been gradually rising across the league over the last half-decade or so, but why, in one offseason, would nearly every team consciously decide, “You know what? Screw it. We have the athletes and the skill we need at every position, so we’re just going to run like hell, and not only are we not going to sacrifice any efficiency, we’re actually going to be MORE efficient.” And it’s working! It can’t be that simple, right? RIGHT??

Again, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the pace regresses to the mean as teams settle into the season, suffer injuries, and endure the long slog through winter, but making the argument this isn’t the league’s new normal misses a critical point. Austin Rivers excluded, the NBA is about as pure a meritocracy as exists in our country. Increasingly savvy front offices are always looking for slight edges at the margins, and if something works, not only are they going to keep doing it, but they are going to push it as far as logic dictates it can go. The NBA is a laboratory, forever experimenting in search of the game’s ideal form. That’s not to say this season is it; perhaps this new hyper-efficiency can be maintained or augmented at an even faster pace, but there will certainly be diminishing returns at some point.

The little gremlin in my brain who constantly tells me how we can’t have nice things is still there, but at some point, we have to ask ourselves: what is there not to like about this? And look, I get it. We are going to have to re-orient our thinking on what constitutes “good” defense, and most people are reluctant to alter their perspectives in this way. Inertia is powerful. There are tons of masochistic grumps out there who think the cage matches of the 90’s and early 2000’s were “real” basketball. We probably won’t change their minds, but who cares? What the “nostalgics” don’t understand (among many things) is this: the league’s stylistic changes aren’t some sort of cultural marker. They aren’t about to start handing out participation trophies. It isn’t about a bunch of divas who don’t want to try on defense.

It’s a function of talent.

The rock fights of the 90’s came about as a survival technique: less-talented teams had to find a way to compete with Jordan’s Bulls. It’s simple math — as the sample size gets larger, the delta in ability will increasingly manifest itself on the scoreboard. Making the game slower and uglier helped to mitigate this mathematical reality. Now we’re seeing the pendulum swing the other way. The nostalgia buffs will never admit it, but the truth is, setting aside star power for a moment (which is how eras and teams are usually compared historically), the DEPTH of talent in the league at this moment in history is unprecedented. This early surge in pace may be some sort of reverse canary in the coal mine, indicating an invisible threshold has been crossed into a more vibrant, flourishing league ecosystem.

By and large, to crack an NBA rotation in 2018, a guy needs to either bring one or more elite skills to the table or be tremendously well-rounded. It’s increasingly rare for me to watch a game and think, “Wait — why is THAT guy getting minutes?” [One notable exception being the Spurs, who lack the depth to overcome the litany of injuries they’ve already suffered. Probably not coincidentally, they are the league’s oldest team and have thus far played at the slowest pace.] Even the perennially execrable Kings, with all of the team-building foibles their fans have endured over the years, go at least 11 deep with legitimate NBA-caliber players this season. Their depth of talent allows them to play fast (3rd in pace thus far) without sacrificing much efficiency (8th in Offensive Rating), on a team whose top six players in terms of minutes are all 25-and-under (and hasn’t gotten a single minute yet from Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic, perhaps their most competent all-around player). Sure, they’re still going to be “bad” from a record standpoint, but shouldn’t we celebrate that even the bad teams are kinda good, or at least entertaining? If what happens from May onward is more or less preordained, shouldn’t the journey to that point be fun?

So whether it’s the threes, the rules, the strategy, the talent — or as is usually the case in these matters, some combination of all of the above — count me in on the “new” NBA. Whatever the reasons, the game has gone to a higher, more beautiful place, so as fans, we should embrace it rather than trying to poke holes in it. Curmudgeons who only want to watch packed-in, slow-paced rock fights played by untalented try-hards can still get their fix with the college game. They won’t be missed.

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