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Fastbreaks: Back to the Future

By Max Levin and Dylan Bothamley

Conventional wisdom holds that the best offense is a patient one. Anyone who has ever played high school or college basketball has heard their coach preach age-old adages about ‘working the ball around on offense,’ or ‘making at least three passes before a shot.’

There is a certain intuitive logic to these arguments. A quick shot is more likely to be a hurried one; a team that shoots too quickly is in poor position to grab offensive rebounds; and to take the first decent shot that comes along is to miss out on taking advantage of more favorable matchups. A pick-and-roll offense, despite its predictability, can be a highly effective offense simply because it is so effective at creating favorable mismatches.

NBA basketball in 2007 has changed a great deal from the basketball of the 1980s, which are often considered to have been ‘the Golden Age.’ As teams like the Bad Boy Pistons, Greg Popovich’s Spurs, and Larry Brown’s Pistons have pushed, shoved, and grinded their way to NBA titles, conventional wisdom has taken the attitude that fast-break basketball is not winning basketball. Coaches and pundits—there often seem to be little difference between the two—have pounded these truths into the consciousness of their successors. Such predictions have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If only a handful of teams dare to even attempt a more up-tempo offense, then the chances of one of them winning a championship become quite slim.

Then, in 2004-05, the juggernaut that is the Phoenix Suns entered the picture, completely re-arranging the landscape. They sprint up the court, take the first decent shot available, ignore offensive rebounds, and then do the exact same thing the next trip up the court. And they win. Conference finals in 2005, their first season together. Conference finals last year, without their only two big men. And best team in the NBA right now, having already put together two win streaks of more than fifteen games. Their success has shaken the foundations of the conventional wisdom and inspired imitation. Smaller, quicker lineups are back in fashion and several teams have turned the pace back up. Many pundits have declared that this style of play is unsustainable in the playoffs, ‘when the game slows down.’ Others claim that Phoenix is able to play this way only because of their exceptionally talented players. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion are unique players, they say. The Phoenix Suns, like the Showtime Lakers before them, are a once-in-a-generation exception.

But is this trend sustainable? The fastbreak trend has reopened the question about which style is more effective. For all the talk of extra passes and ‘playing under control’ does the slower system make better use of offensive possessions? Can fastbreak basketball be just as efficient as a more conservative style? Are the Suns a once-in-a-generation flashback to the glory days or are they the wave of the future?

The simplest way to start examining these questions would be to look at the number of points-per-game that teams are currently scoring and see how it matches up with previous years. Are teams scoring more points-per-game than they scored last year and the year before? Below are the league PPG averages for the last ten years:


As you can see, scoring bounced around the mid 90s for the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s. Then in 2003-04, scoring hit an all-time low (discounting the strike-shortened 1998-99 season when there was no time for training camp and half the players showed up out of shape). Throughout the 70s and 80s, scoring had always been over 100 ppg. As late as the 1992-93 season, teams were averaging 105.3 ppg. Now they were down to 93.4 ppg and no one knew how much further scoring might sink. The slide appears to be over. Whether scoring had simply bottomed out or whether the NBA’s rule changes (lower tolerance on grabbing and hand-checking, in particular) produced the difference is difficult to know. Whatever the case may be, over the last two and a half seasons, the pace of basketball has picked up and scoring has started to climb back upwards.

Still, looking at the overall league PPG averages is a rough estimate. It can tell us what has happened in the past, but it would seem to bear little predictive value for the future. If we want to see what will happen with scoring trends, a better way might be to measure scoring efficiency as it relates to pace factor. In other words, we’ll look at which teams are scoring the most efficiently. If the teams that play at the fastest pace are also scoring the most effectively, then perhaps we can expect more teams to adopt a faster style of play. Conversely, if teams that play at a slower pace are more effective, then we can assume that the Phoenix Suns are an anomaly whose success comes from a collection of exceptional personnel rather than their fast paced style, and that basketball will continue to trend towards a slower pace. To measure this, we will look at how a team’s Offensive Efficiency (number of points scored per 100 possessions) relates to their Pace Factor (number of possessions used per game):

15 Fastest
15 Slowest
10 Fastest
10 Slowest
5 Fastest
5 Slowest
Pace Factor
Offensive Efficiency

So what does this data tell us? The average offensive efficiency in the NBA this season is 103.4. The simplest measurement would be to simply divide up the 15 fastest teams and compare them to the 15 slowest teams in terms of average offensive efficiency. So far this season, the 15 fastest teams average an offensive efficiency of 104.1. The 15 slowest average an offensive efficiency of 102.7. Meaning: on the whole, the faster teams have been the more effective ones. This difference becomes even clearer when we break the league into three groups: the 10 fastest teams, the 10 slowest, and the 10 in the middle. The 10 fastest score at a rate of 104.4; the 10 middle teams score 103.1; and the 10 slowest score 102.8. When one measures the top 5 fastest versus the bottom 5, this difference becomes even more astounding. The 5 fastest score 106.2 points per 100 possessions; the 5 slowest score 102.7. This is a difference of 3.5 points per 100 possessions, an enormous gap! And this is despite the fact that two of the more effective offenses, Dallas’ and Detroit’s, are among the five slowest in the league.

This gap is not a one year anomaly either. Faster offenses were slightly more efficient than the slower ones in 2004-05 (by only a slight margin: 0.03 points per 100 possessions). In 2005-06, this gap increased to 0.80. This year, the gap is up to 1.4. This means that, rather than shrinking, the benefits to be gained from a faster paced offense are actually increasing.

Another way to examine the problem is to try to look at what kind of tradeoffs a team can expect to reap based on the pace at which it plays. By creating a linear trendline, we can chart the relation of Pace Factor to Offensive Efficiency (albeit at the cost of removing all other factors). So far this season, the average NBA team uses 95.6 possessions per game and scores 103.4 points per 100 possessions. But a team that plays a faster pace can expect to score more than this. All other factors being equal, a team that uses 98 possessions per game can expect to score 104.7 points per 100 possessions. A team that uses 101 possessions sees their expected Offensive Efficiency jump to 105.5. Conversely, a team that uses only 92 possessions per game, all factors being equal, can only expect to score 102.6 points per 100 possessions.

It is important to note here that all factors are not equal. A linear trendline can give us a picture of the general trend between two factors, but it is no more than a rough outline. Some teams—Dallas and Detroit, for instance—defy the logic of this trend, scoring far more efficiently than the average team, despite being near the bottom of the league in Pace Factor. Even so, the results are stunning. All in all, a team can expect to increase their Offensive Efficiency by 0.32 points for every extra possession that they use per game. This means that, so far this year, a team that uses six extra possessions per game might be expected to gain about 2 extra points in Offensive Efficiency.

What implications do these numbers have? Well, first of all, they mean that the mavens—from Charles Barkley to your high school coach—are wrong. In today’s NBA, working the defense for a better shot will not necessarily lead to a better chance. This may seem rather counter-intuitive, but when examined more closely, the logic becomes apparent.

Let’s compare two hypothetical teams: Team A and Team B. Team A prefers to set up their offense and work the ball around, patiently searching for a good shot. Team B runs up the floor and takes the first open shot available. According to the above data, Team B should score more efficiently than Team A.

At first glance, this does not seem logical. Patience is a virtue, after all, and haste normally makes waste. But when you think carefully, Team A—the slow, cautious offense—is actually playing a much riskier game than Team B. For Team A, working the ball around may sometimes result in an open shot; but it might also result in a turnover. With every pass they make and with every second that they spend on offense, Team A’s chance of committing a turnover increases. The data backs this up as the fifteen faster teams turn the ball over at a (slightly) lower rate than the fifteen slower teams. Moreover, their patience in looking for a good shot often damages their ability to find a good shot much more than it helps. Every time they pass up a shot in hopes of a better one, they are increasing the chances of having to heave up a desperation fadeaway as the shotclock expires. NBA Players, on the whole, shoot a far greater Effective Field Goal percentage during the first 10 seconds of the shot clock than during the last 14 seconds. Likewise, by slowing the game down to run specific plays, they are allowing the other team to set its defense. Team B—the loose-cannon run-and-gun offense, is actually playing the safer game. By taking the first available shot, they are assuring themselves a decent shot. In fact there is little reason to think that this shot will be of worse quality than the one which Team A finds later. An open jumpshot is an open jumpshot, after all.

What can we conclude from this data? Well, without entangling ourselves too deeply in the argument over aesthetics, this data would seem to benefit the type of basketball that the NBA itself wishes to see. Some may prefer the old-fashioned beauty of the Princeton offense, with its backdoor cuts and precision passing. But most fans seem to prefer a more fast-paced product, with players streaking up the court and improvising on the fly. Over the last few years, the NBA has pushed hard to restore this sort of basketball, changing rules to encourage smaller, faster players and more open offenses. The strategy would seem to be working. Scoring is up and it continues to climb higher. This trend is unlikely to be permanent. Sports trends tend to move in waves. As one team has success with a certain strategy, others move to adopt it. As more teams tend to adopt it others figure out better ways to defend it. But that’s all in the future. For the moment, the NBA can relax and enjoy the fact that the more aesthetically pleasing style of basketball is also the most pragmatic.

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