Do the Spurs play fast, or do they make you play fast?

January, 24, 2011
1/24/11
11:04
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
At the moment, the Spurs have the 13th fastest pace in the NBA. Pretty fast, for a bunch of old guys ... and out of step with how they used to do things. But SBNation's Royan Cruyff has done something fascinating, and cleverly looked at pace a new way.

I have long grumbled about the pace statistic. By counting a possession as the total time a team has the ball before giving it to the other team, it mishandles certain things. Teams that turn the ball over a lot, for instance, may be walking the ball up as slow as anything, but they'll look artificially fast because of those short possessions. Meanwhile, teams that get lots of offensive rebounds look like they are playing slowly. If a team takes a shot every eight seconds, and gets two straight offensive rebounds, they could have a long, 24-second possession. Pace would say that team is playing very slowly, I'd say that, by shooting every eight seconds, that team's incredibly fast.

(My beef with pace may be tied to my being a Blazer fan. Nate McMillan's team turns the ball over very seldom, is near the top of the league in offensive rebounding, and is normally the slowest team in the league, in terms of pace. But watch them play, and they don't look that slow.)

So Cruyff has taken a look at something else: How many seconds are on the shot clock when a team shoots.

And by that measure, a lot of things change. (Portland, for instance, moves into the pack, with the 21st fastest play.)

But much more interestingly, these amazing Spurs demonstrate something fascinating. They have been seen as a team that is playing faster, but they're taking their sweet time when they have the ball. Instead, they're somehow getting opponents to shoot incredibly quickly.

Lots of good NBA defenses -- the Hornets, for instance -- take the opposite approach, and make their hold the ball for ages. The Hornets' opponents play the slowest in the league. But there are some really good defenses that get opponents to rush shots, somehow. The Spurs lead the pack here, but the Lakers and Celtics are not far behind. Miami's close to average.

Cruyff speculates as to why:
The Spurs are a great defensive rebounding team and thus do not give up many put-backs early in new shot clocks. They’re about league average in fast break points allowed. They foul less often than any other team in the NBA and thus aren’t sending opponents to the line in penalty situations. Moreover, the Spurs rank in the top five in lowest field goal percentage allowed on shots taken early in the shot clock.

I suspect there are many factors contributing to this trend, including all of those Cruyff mentions. I also suspect the Spurs' reputation as a great defensive team may be part of it: Against the Spurs, opponents may lack confidence in their normal offense, which could instead lead to impatience, and uncommon willingness to embrace the first decent look.

Henry Abbott | email

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