Hot or Cold: A Look at NBA Pacing
By: Wyatt Stone
When looking generally at the NBA, it is commonplace to see the differences between certain offenses, particularly between those of slower offenses versus their faster counterparts. Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs for over two decades, has piloted his teams to an outstanding record of 1333-698, and in doing so, has made a name for himself as the creator of one of the slowest and most methodical offensive schemes to ever exist. Conversely, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, has made his team feared by all due to their high octane, explosive gameplay, putting up some of the most dominant seasons in league history while doing so. With less teams relying on centers in the last decade or so, it would appear that higher speed offenses have become a better system, but is this statistically true? Can centers still dominate the league?
The aim of this study is to examine win-rates of NBA franchises in the new era and compare them to how fast their team plays. Additionally, if there is no direct correlation between win-rate and pacing, we are then able to examine the teams that succeeded or failed, and look at their pacing and players to see if there are similarities in succeeding systems compared to their failing counterparts. This is an essential question for teams to answer as it can be very hard to tell if the team needs to adapt their players to their system or vice versa. Answering this will allow teams to stop running in circles and directly begin to piece together the issues with their team as a whole.
Because the game has drastically moved towards emphasis on outside shooters, the data here will only encapsulate all NBA teams from the 2015-2016 season through the 2020-2021 season, giving us a sample of 180 teams to analyze.
Firstly, it is important to look at general scoring and points per game (PPG), scored by a team, and compare this to their win-rate (win percentages were used instead of win totals due to the league game totals decreasing from 82 to 72 games in the 2019 season). By viewing this, we can see if there is a general correlation between high scoring and winning more games, and while this sounds basic, keep in mind that scoring many baskets also means that the other team can score more as well. Thus, if either team increases the pace of a basketball game, the score ceiling will increase for both teams, not just the one that sped the game up.
Obviously, there is a positive correlation between win percentage and average PPG, and while the rate slowly increases, the range of average PPG for each win percentage stays relatively consistent. There are no egregiously large outliers in one direction, with the most notable one being the 2015 Spurs, hitting the 80% win-rate mark while remaining under 105 PPG, being much lower than it was projected to be for that win-rate. It makes sense that most teams stay pretty consistent as scoring more points allows the other team to get more possessions and inherent chances to score more themselves; however, in general, the teams that score more tend to win more, as to be expected.
Now that we’ve seen that scoring more leads to more wins, we need to look to see if pacing is the factor impacting that increase in scoring. To do so, we will be using the statistic of Pace Factor, which is the estimated number of possessions for a team per 48 minutes by a team (the length of a single game). This will be compared to win-rate, to see if there is a direct correlation between the two, and see if we can get a short answer to the question of if it is better to play faster or slower.
Unlike PPG, Pace Factor does not show a correlation with win percentages, meaning that teams averaging more possessions per game do not necessarily win more games. This makes our analysis much more difficult, as we now need to see why certain teams succeed in slower or faster systems.
High Pace Factor
One of the most successful teams in NBA history is the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Their record of 73-9 was supplemented by 114.9 PPG and a 99.3 Pace Factor, the former being the highest in the league while the latter was the second-highest. With very high pace, and a very high win-rate, this team is an exemplary model of how to run a high pace offense. Shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were supplemented by defensive powerhouses like Draymond Green, and this team was able to get the ball, pass to deep-range threats, score a lot of points, and then repeat until they steamrolled their opponents.
Golden State Warriors 2015-16 Point Differentials
This is a diagram of the Warriors point differentials in the 82 games of the 2015-16 season, and I have annotated the black line to designate games that they won by 10 or more points. The Warriors' high pacing allowed them to score high quantities of points in short spans, and take small mistakes from their opponents, and make the games unwinnable by the end for their slower opponents.
Comparatively to the Warriors’ historic season, the 2016-17 Brooklyn Nets did not come anywhere close to emulating the Warriors success. Posting a record of 20-62 (the worst in the league), they had the highest Pace Factor out of any team, breaking the 100 mark with a 101.3.
Brooklyn Nets 2016-17 Point Differentials
The Nets point differential chart almost looks exactly like an inverse of theWarriors a season prior, with many of their losses coming by more than 10 points. While attempting to play at a high pace, the team threw their head at the wall, and by not converting big on their high attempts, allowed the opposition to slowly put them out of range of a comeback. The main difference between the two teams is the personnel on each of their teams. While the Warriors had Curry and Thompson to put away teams with their lights out shooting, the Nets had no such threat. With Brook Lopez (a center) leading the team, they had no real way of abusing the high pace the way the Warriors did, and as a result, fell behind in games early, and lost many games by substantial margins.
Low Pace Factor
If the Nets failed with a team led by a center, what about a team with an all-star center, and the team plays at a slower pace? The 2019-20 Nuggets went 46-27 while placing 3rd in the competitive Western Conference, and posted the second lowest Pace Factor in the league that season with 97.1. Led by a young Nikola Jokic, the team shot the 4th highest field goal percentage in the NBA, and was able to succeed through this one superstar and many solid supporting players, going all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Denver Nuggets 2019-20 Point Differentials
The Nuggets were a successful team in 2019-20, but not as many of their wins came from blowout victories like the Warriors, and instead mainly won their games by 10 points or less. Being able to score methodically through a center didn’t prove to be as dominant of a strategy as the Warriors’ high octane three point shooters, but instead they just consistently outscored their opponents without going on huge runs.
So with this continued logic, we would expect teams with low pace to also be losing by lower margins, however this is not the case. Taking a look at the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2017-18 season, they posted a low record of 22-60, and the second-lowest Pace Factor in the league with 94.9. To all accounts the team is very similar to the Nuggets team above, with Marc Gasol leading the team with other solid players like Mike Conley backing him up.
Memphis Grizzlies 2017-18 Point Differentials
Many of the Grizzlies’ losses were by over 10, although not nearly to the extent of the Timberwolves, so at least their losses were relatively smaller margins. As a whole, it appears that playing with low pace is generally more consistently leading to lower margins of victory or defeat than their high pace counterparts.
One final statistic that can be used to determine a definitive answer to this question of if higher paced teams have more variance is Net Rating. This is done by taking a team’s offensive rating and subtracting it from their defensive rating (ratings are calculated by taking the points scored/given up per 100 possessions), to see generally by how much teams are either outscoring or getting outscored by their opponents.
This is a chart mapping Pace Factor vs. a team’s +/- Rating, and we are interested in the teams that did well and poorly, with high or low pace. If we block out teams who were less than +/- 5 and in the range of 96-98 Pace Factor (these are arbitrary numbers, but most of the data is concentrated here), we can see if teams tend to have more variance in their +/- at high pace as opposed to low pace.
For the large part, our analysis holds true with our claim that teams tend to perform more consistently at low pace as opposed to high pace. What is especially important is the lack of low-performing, low-pace teams, which is an important takeaway for coaches of struggling teams.
There are many factors that go into making a basketball team good, such as the players on their team, the strategies they execute, and their ability to perform in high pressure situations, just to name a few. Pacing is something that is preached by coaches, for example, when your team gives up three turnovers in a row, and they tell you to “slow it down”. Playing fast or playing slow are two concepts that are used quite a bit at all levels of basketball; however, they are not often analyzed to the fullest. The biggest takeaway from this study is that struggling teams need to play slower, because our data has shown that playing at slower speeds allows you to play with more control over the game, and at the very least, not let your opposition overrun you.
Conversely, it appears that centers can still make it in the league; it’s just that they are less likely to dominate their opposition unless the team is really something special. With players like Jokic still running the league in 2022, there is no reason to think that centers have become completely obsolete.