These past two seasons, there has been so much talk of teams playing “small-ball” basketball; a term used to describe a style of play that traditionally involves substituting perimiter oriented players in for interior players. A big part of small-ball is how quickly the game moves, and that small-ball teams will generally sacrifice what could be a higher quality shot for a quick one in the name of getting more shots up. This phenomenon, contrary to popular belief, is not new.
In fact, in terms of highest single season pace, no team from the 21st century is even in the top 222. 223rd is not even the Golden State Warriors of this year or last year, but it is actually the 2015-2016 Washington Wizards in their seven games thus far. Of course, relative to the previous NBA era where teams wanted the best big man, teams now are seeking perimeter shooting barrages. While perimeter shooting has worked wonders for the Golden State Warriors, is it really that essential for teams that don’t have Stephen Curry?
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Above is are all of the NBA teams in 2015 – 2016 sorted by descending pace (1 is the most and 30 is the least.) While there are great teams scattered throughout the rankings, the top five teams in pace, excluding the Warriors, have a combined record of 11-25. The Wizards, Suns, Kings, and Pelicans, have played with pace, but they have not done so effectively.
What the Warriors have realized, and also the 6th highest paced Oklahoma City Thunder, is that high pace doesn’t excuse a team from playing bad defense. Golden State has the third highest defensive rating in the NBA, Oklahoma City has the fourteenth, but they score so efficiently that the point differential of an elite team is still there. Meanwhile, the Wizards, Kings, and Pelicans are 27th, 22nd, and 30th in defensive rating.
Then there is the myth that slower paced teams can not win games anymore in the fast paced NBA. Well 28th paced Miami, 26th paced Cleveland, 23rd ranked Toronto, and 21st ranked Detroit have all looked very good thus far, and a lot of the teams they have beaten are fast paced teams.
The NBA is an ever-changing league, it goes through fast paced eras, slow eras, three point shooting eras, and slashing eras. The reason that teams like Golden State and last year’s Rockets thrived on pace was not because faster pace guarantees success, but because it suited the personel 0f both teams better. It is the same reason that slower paced teams play slow. There simply isn’t utility with having big men like Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol, and Brook Lopez not play in half court schemes both offensively and defensively. For front court players like Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, who all play for top ten highest paced teams, having them on fast breaks makes all the sense in the world.
If there is something to takeaway, it is that playing with one style over another guarantees nothing. Utilize every player’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Play big if one’s team has all stars in their front court, and play fast if one has an all-star back court. There is no one right way to play, but there is definitely a wrong way.