It was just a few short seasons ago when the Golden State Warriors won their first championship in 40 years while racing past their opponents at a league-leading pace of 98.3 possessions per game.
Perhaps the extent to which the pace itself contributed their rise to championship contender is debatable, but the combination of league-leading pace and league-leading efficiency (.540 eFG%) was enough to lead them to the title in 2014-15.
As the Warriors have continued to push the pace during the championship era, so has the rest of the league — to put that in perspective in its simplest terms, the Warriors are knocking on the door of 100 possessions per game this season but currently rank just fifth in the league. This season’s league average (97.2 possessions per game) is not all that far from the Warriors’ league-leading pace in the 2014-15 season.
The evolution of the Warriors’ pace
|2017-18 (34 games)||99.9||5||97.2|
There has been plenty written about the league’s pace and space movement, not to mention the increased 3-point shooting, led by the Warriors and coach Steve Kerr, so what I actually want to turn my attention to now is the other end of the spectrum — the teams that have managed to not necessarily resist the urge to pick up the pace, but are barely playing above the 2013 average.
Over the next four games, the Warriors will play three of the five slowest-paced teams in the league — the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Utah Jazz. The Jazz were actually the slowest team in the league last season, with 91.6 possessions per game (not-so-coincidentally, the Grizzlies and Mavs were not far behind the Jazz, ranking 29th and 30th, respectively). But how have the Jazz managed to compete for a playoff spot this year while the Grizzlies and Mavs are among the five worst in the league?
"Slow and space"
In fairness, most of us probably understand what makes a team like the San Antonio Spurs -- tied with the Sacramento Kings for the second-slowest team at 94.4 possessions per game this season — successful, whether they push the pace or slow it down. Generational talents, elite coaching, and a commitment to team play that inspires questions about whether they could represent a political philosophy.
But the Jazz don’t exactly have what the Spurs have, whether it be an ingrained system or Hall of Fame talents. Gordon Hayward moved on to the Boston Celtics in one of the bigger moves of this past summer; Rudy Gobert has been on and off the court this season with injuries, playing only 18 of Utah’s 34 games thus far this season. What they’re doing is actually pretty interesting given that they’ve largely resisted the trend across the league.
Yet this past summer, Jazz radio announcer David Locke wrote about this very issue by looking at a counter-trend to the “pace and space” revolution that he appropriately called “slow and space” -- teams that slow the game down to focus on half-court execution, but still shoot a high rate of 3-point shots. The Jazz are among those teams and you can read the whole article for all data to go along with his claims, but the conclusion is the most important part for our purposes:
Building an offense that can shoot a high volume of threes in predominately half court sets is not an easy task for a head coach. It takes elite screening, superior passing and great spacing.
The NBA news and discussion is dominated by the Golden State Warriors madness and the James Harden/ Mike D’Antoni combination, however the data would show those are the outliers and the money ball method to offense in the NBA is slow pace with a lot 3 balls.
Although it’s debatable whether this is actually a “money ball” method -- 3-point shooters are hardly an undervalued resource on the NBA market at this point — he is pretty much describing Utah’s style of play this season, which should come as no surprise given that he’s someone with direct access to the team’s decision-makers.
The slow and pace trend over the last decade
In that article, Locke writes that, “Over the last 10 years, 11 teams have been in the bottom 20% in pace of play and in the top 20% of % of fga as 3 point attempts” and notes that “The combined winning percentage of these 11 teams was 62.4% or 51 wins and the average offensive rank was 7.5...The next tier is slow pace and top 10 (or top 33%)of % of fga taken as 3 point shots. This increased the data sample to 16 teams over the past 10 years.”
As much as that is the path less traveled by, the Jazz this season are impressively on track to join that latter group of teams over the last decade. Given that it doesn’t take too many games for a team to establish pace and we’ve crossed the threshold where most other stats are fairly reliable (according to Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus), the Jazz are on pace to be pretty solidly in the bottom 20% in pace and well inside the top 10 in 3-point rate (.364 — ahead of the Warriors at .353).
But here’s an interesting addendum to Locke’s piece that’s relevant to this year’s Jazz: only two of those 16 teams that in the past 10 years have played at a slow pace with high 3-point rate and shot over 38%. Those two teams were the 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers that lost in the Eastern Conference Finals and the 2012-13 Miami Heat that beat the San Antonio Spurs to win the NBA Finals. The Jazz, currently shooting 38.1%, would be just the third team to meet that criteria in the last decade. Drop the standard a little bit to 37.5% 3-point shooting, and the Jazz would be just the seventh team to reach that mark (08-09 Cavs & Spurs, 09-10 Orlando Magic, 11-12 Magic, 12-13 Heat, 12-13 New York Knicks). And thus far, all six previous teams have made the playoffs.
As Ben Ladner of The Step Back wrote two weeks ago, “While the Jazz may lack elite shot creation, they abound with shot makers.”
And that's the problem, even if there is reason to believe the Jazz have adopted a sound strategy: lacking a star playmaker makes putting points on the board extremely difficult.
The need for balance
Returning to what Locke said about “slow and space” requiring “elite screening, superior passing and great spacing”, Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus wrote more recently about how the Jazz have two of the least likely players in the league to shoot off the drive in Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio.
Ingles is just a secondary playmaker but both he and Rubio are driving to initiate a series of ball reversals and accompanying defensive rotations that drain the shot clock (and hopefully defensive energy) before creating an opening on the perimeter.
The problem, as alluded to by Ladner’s statement above, is that the Jazz just rely so heavily on that elite ball and people movement that it’s almost self-defeating. Ladner elaborated on how the Jazz have managed to keep themselves in the playoff race despite a number of injuries. In doing so, he described what separates Utah from the Golden State Warriors.
For a team like the Warriors, who lead the NBA in assists, ball movement is superfluous to overwhelming talent. For the Jazz, it is the very component on which the offense subsists. If the ball stops moving, so too does the offense. Utah ranks second in the NBA in passes per game and just 25th in isolations. Only five teams average less time per touch. Every swing of the ball presents a choice: shoot, pass or dribble. Make that decision quick enough, and the defense gets into scramble mode. String three or four good decisions together, and open shots materialize.
When the Jazz aren’t making threes, it becomes really difficult to win. Moreover, things get worse when they face an opponent that can keep things close and then blow things open with a standout iso talent of their own. And that, at least partially, describes why they’ve lost 8 of their last 10 games.
The last 10 games for the Jazz
In fairness, that’s a rather difficult 10 games to get through, particularly with Gobert being out for some of them — all 10 of those games were against playoff teams and six against teams that are currently top five in the Western Conference (once against the Spurs, twice against the Houston Rockets, and three times against the Oklahoma City Thunder). Tonight, they get the team that really pushed the whole pace movement and currently holds the best record in the league: the Golden State Warriors.
Without an elite playmaker or an elite rim protector like Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have an extremely slim margin of error. The Warriors can go cold for three quarters, throw the ball all over the court, get pounded on the boards, and still manage to find a way to stay close with their defense and finish the game with one of their elite playmakers.
It’s true that the Jazz will have to control the pace to stay in a game with the Warriors, but it’s not nearly enough to win without a whole lot of other things going their way.