Anyone watching the 2015 NBA Finals with a keen eye immediately realized the approach a banged up Cleveland Cavaliers team had chosen to take against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Minus two elite offensive players from what was already a top-heavy roster, the Cavs knew getting into a track meet with the Warriors would mean certain demise – they simply didn’t have the talent to trade haymakers in an up-and-down game with a team that thrives in that ecosystem.
They went in the opposite direction instead, dragging every possession out with tactics that both muted Golden State’s advantages in the open court and allowed guys like LeBron James and Matthew Dellavedova to rest between moments of exertion even while on the court. They succumbed to a more talented group in the end, but left the impression that they were much more competitive in the series than most had expected.
Seeing it was one thing, but a few less publicized numbers illustrate the near-insane degree to which the Cavs went to muck the game up. Most would look to standard pace statistics for guidance – simply, number of possessions per-48-minutes. This metric is a double-edged sword, though; there are two teams on the floor every game, and one may have very different goals and tendencies regarding the speed of their possessions. Instead, the discrepancy here can best be illustrated by isolated offensive and defensive time-of-possession statistics, generously housed on inpredictable.com.
The Cavaliers could do all they wanted to slow things down while they had the ball, but nothing could stop the Warriors from their usual ways once they were in control of the rock. Golden State’s average time of offensive possession was 13.5 seconds in the regular season, per inpredictable.com, fastest in the league – the Cavs only managed to get that down to 13.7 seconds in the Finals.
The other end of the spectrum, though, showed the big difference: Cleveland’s average time of possession on offense was a remarkable 17.2 seconds, a mark that would have led the NBA by a full second in the regular season (the entire league is separated by less than three seconds total, meaning this Cleveland number in the Finals was fantastically slow). The Cavs were taking decimals short of 20 seconds before their average shot on all possessions following made shots by the Warriors. Think about that. They took their average shot with four seconds left on the shot clock anytime their possession began following a make from the Dubs.
Personnel and circumstances beyond Golden State played a role, of course. The Cavs were similarly slow to initiate their offense for most of the postseason, especially their sweep of the Atlanta Hawks that featured some of the same lineup deficiencies. The playoffs also naturally slow things down a bit for many non-Warriors teams – take the Memphis Grizzlies, who initiated offense over a second slower than their regular season pace against the Portland Trail Blazers in round one and maintained this same rate in their eventual loss to the Dubs.
A previous year’s playoffs can often be a harbinger of things to come, though. The Cavaliers may not have triumphed through their tactics, but they appeared to at least marginally tighten what most figured was a pretty wide talent gap. And with a new season underway and the Warriors only looking more unbeatable, whispers have begun to spread around the league: Have conceptions regarding pace been slightly misplaced? And, more importantly, might zigging where Golden State has zagged be the best shot certain teams have at stalling a multi-year run of dominance from the Bay?
NBA strategy is a constant evolution. The game has changed an incredible amount over the last half decade in large part because the league as a whole has gotten hip to the smart inroads a select few teams were making. With tactical prowess at the highest premium we’ve ever seen, the holy grail is the next new innovation. The Warriors in their current form are the furthest we’ve seen that line of thinking applied in reality, a team that plays guys at positions general managers would have laughed at 10 years ago while using their unique personnel to exploit simple math (three is more than two!) on a historically large scale, something ESPN’s Zach Lowe discussed at length recently.
In the league’s rush to emulate what makes Golden State so special, though, many may have quite literally raced past the limits of their talent while simultaneously playing into the Warriors’ hands.
Some elements of “pace” have merits regardless of team context, of course, and were items of conversation long before this Warriors’ iteration came along. The Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns of the mid-2000s were among the pioneers of the modern game, illustrating how advantageous it can be to attack a defense still in the process of setting itself. These principles begat a collective understanding of the importance of transition play; regardless of personnel, it’s common knowledge in today’s game that pursuing obvious chances on the break for more efficient looks than nearly any halfcourt set could yield is a requirement for winning basketball.
This doesn’t necessarily equate to “the faster the better” in every circumstance, though. There are trade-offs inherent to this line of thinking that simply don’t benefit everyone. Every team should pursue obvious transition chances, but the trickle-down to faster shots and a near obsession in some circles with speed on offense isn’t so clear-cut.
“It’d be a mistake for us to try and emulate Golden State,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “In the sense that they’re unselfish, I think that’s the lesson [to take]… [But] we’re a very different team.
“In a philosophical sense, yes. But the way that we have to go about doing that is very, very different.”
Snyder’s Jazz are among the poster boys for a growing contrary line of thinking. They’re currently in their second straight year as the league’s slowest team by offensive time per possession (stats exclude Wednesday’s games), mostly by design. Utah’s best players don’t necessarily fit with a full-speed-ahead philosophy, and Snyder isn’t about to pigeonhole them into a style just to conform to a league trend.
The idea that slower teams are less efficient (and vice versa) may have been born of positive intentions, but doesn’t reflect reality. Three of the league’s 10 slowest groups by traditional pace statistics (Cleveland, New Orleans, Chicago) were also top-10 per-possession offenses last season – the same number of top-10 teams by pace that were nonetheless bottom-10 offenses. Some teams are stretching themselves thin trying to copy a speedier model, where others have realized that doing so could compromise their identity on both ends of the court.
To some reading tea leaves, this is more than push back against a trend: it’s a basis around which to build a roster that can neuter a Warriors team many fear won’t have a true peer to keep things competitive. Smart front offices haven’t forgotten the way the Cavs leveled the playing field last June, even if they didn’t have enough talent to get them over the top.
Monday night’s wild finish in Salt Lake City was another near miss, but was the latest example of the way a disciplined team can lower the sample over which the Warriors’ talent gap begins to show through. Their win over the Jazz was by far the fewest possessions played in a game featuring the Warriors this year, per basketball-reference.com, and it’s not a coincidence that it was also the closest the Dubs have come to actually losing. That Golden State won while shooting nearly 50 percent from deep and winning the rebounding battle handily (neither of which are certainties on a nightly basis, particularly the latter against a huge group like Utah) further showcased the effectiveness of the approach.
Just like the other end of the spectrum, not everyone has the personnel to play this way. Utah’s length and defensive prowess on the perimeter is relatively unique, at least among teams for whom those same guys can play viable and efficient offensive roles simultaneously. They’re one of the best rebounding teams in the league, a true necessity within this sort of grinding approach. Their discipline defensively, something Snyder has worked incredibly hard to institute, also isn’t commonplace.
They aren’t the only ones choosing the road less traveled, though. The San Antonio Spurs, long the innovator whom the rest of the pack follows, are moving in the same direction. They got bigger over the summer by pairing LaMarcus Aldridge with Tim Duncan (along with adding David West to their frontcourt), and have gone from middle of the pack last year to the league’s fourth-slowest team for isolated offensive pace as they’ve leaned more heavily on the post game offensively. They’ve long been known for punting the offensive glass in favor of transition defense, ranking bottom-10 for offensive rebound “chase percentage” each of the last two years the data was available, per Nylon Calculus. A combination of these factors and personnel has them first overall in the league defensively as they transition yet again into a new identity.
Others are in the same ballpark. The Cavs are sticking with what worked last year, again among the 10 slowest teams for offensive initiation. The Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Miami HEAT are all in a similar boat and finding success. Each of these five team, with the exception of Memphis, currently sits in the league’s top 10 for per-possession net rating.
The ideology may be even more logical as a head-on strategy if and when these teams encounter the defending champs. There’s rampant speculation that San Antonio’s seeming reversion back to the post-heavy days of old is aimed directly at countering the Dubs come playoff time, and while Utah’s own development is largely personnel-driven (much of which is from a previous regime), many consider their template the only one with a real shot to dethrone the Warriors even if their skill level isn’t where it needs to be yet.
It makes sense, right? Buster Douglas didn’t become a poster boy for upsets in all sports by going toe-to-toe and trading haymakers with Mike Tyson; he did it by dragging things out and putting Iron Mike in a situation in which he wasn’t comfortable. The Warriors have the personnel to virtually guarantee they’ll be the best at their brand of run-and-gun basketball for years to come, so why should teams with other strengths be in a rush to play them at their game? Why not slow things down, up the variance within a given game and shorten the field as much as possible?
There’s only so far this can go, of course. The shooting revolution in the NBA is very real, and supported by some very simple arithmetic that other factors can only bend so far. Reality might simply be that while an opposing style can close the gap, a good shooting night from the Dubs has no counter that’s strong enough to overcome it consistently in the current league. Teams have to try, though, and pace of play could be the next frontier.
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