Measuring the pace at which an NBA team plays has always been a bit tricky, but this number, via this must-read piece on the possibility of the Timberwolves hiring Don Nelson, was still pretty surprising: The stat-tracking service Synergy Sports classified just 10.8 percent of Minnesota’s offensive possessions last season as “transition” trips, the eighth-lowest number in the league.
This was surprising because traditional pace statistics, located here and elsewhere, reveal that no team averaged more possessions per game than the Wolves. In other words: Minnesota played at the league’s fastest pace, but it rarely got out in transition.
This would seem impossible, and there are some caveats that explain some of what is going on here:
• The Wolves turned the ball over a lot — more often than any other team, in fact. When you cough the ball up a lot, possession changes happen fast, and a team’s number of raw possessions increases. This can make it look as if a team is playing Nellie-style, fast-break ball when they are really just dribbling the ball off their feet.
• Synergy logs every play in its video database and then places each play into categories that include “post-up,” “spot-up,” “transition,” “isolation” and others. The line separating one type of play from another can get blurry, and Synergy’s loggers have to make difficult judgment calls.
Those calls might be especially tough with Minnesota, because only three teams — Phoenix, New York and Denver — jacked a greater percentage of their shots within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per 82games.com. So here we have the Wolves, tossing up shots early and still managing to rank near the bottom of the league in the percentage of their possessions devoted to transition opportunities.
For reasons explained above, the numbers might be downplaying their fast-breaking a bit, but even if they are, one conclusion is inescapable: The Wolves are taking a lot of really terrible shots really quickly in their half-court offense. This is another way to “play fast,” and the Wolves were awful at it.
On all of those shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock — a full 40 percent of Minnesota’s attempts – the Wolves put up an effective field-goal percentage of 51 percent, per 82games. (Effective field-goal percentage factors in the extra point you get for a three-pointer.) Only Milwaukee (50.7 percent) was worse, and only two other teams (New Jersey and Cleveland) came in below 52 percent. Most of the league hovers around 55 percent. On the flip side, only 28 percent of Minnesota’s shots came in the last eight seconds of the shot clock, the lowest number in the league and something of an outlier. A few of the league’s slower teams (Miami, Boston, Portland and Detroit, for instance) attempt between 40 and 50 percent of their shots during this eight-second window.
A team’s shooting percentage tends to go down as the clock ticks from 24 to zero, so shooting early is good in theory. But it appears the Wolves are doing it in the worst way possible — by taking irresponsible, quick shots out of their half-court system and failing to work the clock for better ones. You can fix this in a number of ways, and perhaps hiring someone like Nelson could be one such way. Nelson would encourage Ricky Rubio to push the pace even harder, turning some of those wasted half-court possessions into true fast-break chances.
Of course, the Wolves were terrible on their true fast-break chances last season; only two teams scored fewer points per possession in transition, according to Synergy. Experience and new personnel (i.e. Rubio and Derrick Williams) should help, but there might be something to be said for a more judicious offense rather than a faster one.
If you scroll through the league’s pace rankings, you’ll notice that seven of the eight conference semi-finalists last season averaged fewer possessions per game than the league average. Only the Thunder topped that average, and they barely did so, ranking 13th in possessions per game.
But be careful assuming slower is better, because when you dig into the numbers further, you notice something funny: All but one of these “slow” teams devoted a larger percentage of their possessions to “transition” than the Wolves. The Heat, Hawks, Bulls and Celtics all ranked 20th or lower in this traditional measure of pace, and yet all got out on true fast breaks more often than the Wolves or an average NBA team, at least according to Synergy’s numbers.
And seven of those eight teams scored pretty well on transition chances. The Heat and Thunder were the most efficient transition teams in the league, and the Celtics, Bulls and Grizzlies all ranked in the top 10 in points per possession on transition chances.
What in the world is happening here? Perhaps the simplest explanation is best: Better teams have better and smarter players who understand when to run and how to run effectively. Coaching is certainly key here, too. The Grizzlies, for instance, were disciplined in the sense that they ran off turnovers (which they forced at a historic rate) and otherwise pounded the ball inside. Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo have done a pretty good job finding the balance between preserving Boston’s old legs and finding the right times to push for easy buckets.
Winning in the NBA is a complicated business, and running more for the sake of running more won’t get you there if you don’t have the right pieces in place.