Why NBA Game Pace Is Historicically High

Early trends in an NBA season are often overblown as most things tend to even out over time, but there are some things which come along and are more than just an early-season anomaly; they’re real changes. One such notable impact this season is the sharp increase in pace.

Pace, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is the number of possessions a team has per game. Before diving into all this, though, I want to take care of a little accounting issue, just for the sake of the readers.

Two sites, Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, are the primary sources for these numbers, but the formulas they use are slightly different. Ergo, NBA.com’s number reflects a slightly faster estimate of pace.

For the purpose of this article, I am using the Basketball-Reference version because it goes back further and is easier to collate the data.

So, how much is pace up? How do we know it’s not an anomaly? And why is it up? These are all questions I asked myself and are the impetus behind this article, as it serves as a great illustration of how basketball evolves.

How Much Is Pace Up?

This chart shows the league average of pace since the 1973-74 season–the first year we can accurately track pace. That’s because offensive and defensive rebounds, which are necessary to figure pace, were not recorded separately until that season.

Pace by season 1

As you can see, pace has been on the rise for a few years now, which means it’s part of a longer trend. But the jump this year could be one of the biggest in history. Teams are running 4.1 more possessions per game this year than they were last year.

Here you can see the relative year to year changes in pace, and it’s remarkable. The only season that tops that (or is even over 3.0) is the 1990-00 season, which was coming off the ridiculously slow 1998-99 season, slowed all the more by condensed schedule due to the lockout.

season by season

In fact, in the last 45 years, there has only been one other time where pace jumped more than two possessions in a single season.

It’s not just a few teams boosting the average, either. This chart reflects the total number of teams with a pace over 100, by season. Note that this year there are more teams with a pace over 100 than all teams since the 1990-91 season combined.

teams over 100

Such a monumental leap then, even if it is unsustainable at that level, certainly indicates that this is a real change and not just an early season anomaly.

Why Did Pace Go Down?

Before we ask why pace went up, we have to ponder, why did it go down? After all, this is not a new thing. Pace has been this high before–even higher. So what happened to make it fall?

Rule changes would be the easy answer, but there weren’t any. It seems that it has more to do with just a change in culture and playing style, largely, I suspect, because of the greatness of Michael Jordan.

The NBA (like every other major sport) is a copycat league. One team wins and the rest try and duplicate what they’re doing.

Here are the champs from 1988-89 to 2011-12, how fast they played, and where they were in respect to the rest of the league.

Champs and pace

The Detroit Pistons with their slow-down, defensive approach to the game, won two Championships.

Michael Jordan’s Bulls, with his deliberate and effective attack, operating within the confines of the triangle offense won six of the next eight.

Then along came the San Antonio Spurs, with the steady inside pounding and defense of their twin towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

While the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers were a bit above average by league standards, the league had slowed to the point by then that they won all three of their rings without eclipsing 94 possessions per game.

The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons were NBA’s crowning achievement when it came to mucking up the game and won the Larry O’Brien Trophy with an 87.9 pace, the third-slowest season in league history.

In short, teams played methodical and deliberate ball in the 90s and 00s because it won games and titles.

Why Is Pace Up Now?

By the same token, pace is up now, in large part because teams have learned to buck the trend by monopolizing good shots, and through analytics, figure out how to get them. But while it’s in part due to that, it’s also because of rule changes, though, possibly not in the way you’re thinking.

The NBA, in an effort to open up the game, changed the rules around the turn of the century. While many will just refer to a series of a rule changes as “taking away the hand check,” it’s more complicated than that.

Along with those rules, to not make things impossible for defenses, other changes were made too, which allowed teams to utilize defenses. While most teams never really played a true “zone” defense, though, principles of it made their way around the league.

To stop an elite scorer such as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James was more than one man could do, but having “help” defense was more permissible because of the changes in defense. Before the changes, you couldn’t guard an “area” of the court, you had to guard a man, so things like “icing” or “hedging” weren’t really something that was allowed. If you helped, you had to fully commit to the man you were helping on.

More than anyone, Tom Thibodeau perfected a new kind of team defense where “five men on a string” would slide together to keep a player from penetrating the lane. They’d push him to the baseline and force him into mid-range, contested jumpers.

While he was with the Celtics and then the Bulls, his defenses dominated the league, and other teams started copying it.

Teams started to figure out, though, that the way to break down those defenses were to shoot the 3. If you couldn’t go forward, go back. Forget the midrange.

People started to do the literal math on things. If you were a really good mid-range shooter, you might make 48-50 percent of the shots between the semi-circles. If you were a below average 3-point shooter, and only made 33.3 percent of your deep balls, that was better than the best mid-range shooters.

So teams stopped trying to go forward and started going backward. Thibodeau’s defensive schemes were exposed. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, teams averaged around 18 3s per game. Then in 2011-12, it went up from 18 to 20.

I point this out because a lot of people mistakenly attribute the jump in 3s to the success of the Golden State Warriors. However, while they certainly play into things, the numbers were going up before they won any rings.

As the number of 3s went up, the pace went up. As you can see, the correlation is undeniable.

3s and pace

In 2013-14 (the first season tracking data is available) 16.3 percent of 3s were attempted in Mike D’Antoni’s legendary “seven seconds or less.” This year, that number is up to 21.3 percent. The reason for that is that early 3s are more likely to go in. In 2018-19, players are making early 3s at a 37.3 percent rate, whereas the more patient variety splash home at a 35.5 percent rate.

That’s why it’s called “space and pace.”

Getting Back on Defense

Furthermore, while pushing the pace has been the emphasis on offense, “getting back” has been the name of the game on defense. Transition points are more efficient than second-chance points because defenses aren’t back and therefore, not set up. When a club gets an offensive board and resets the clock, the defense hasn’t gone anywhere.

Ergo, teams are opting to run back in lieu of crashing the glass. Fewer offensive rebounds mean more possession changes, which means a faster pace. The following chart illustrates how offensive rebounding has gone down as pace has gone up.

orb and pace

While it’s up slightly this season over last, it’s still substantially lower than it has been historically, and even that nominal difference is offset by the fact that the clock only resets to 14 seconds this year, as opposed to the 24 it has historically.

Off-Ball Foul Increase Effect

Finally, one more factor comes into play this year, which might be why the incremental increase over the last few years suddenly became monumental. One of the rules the refs are emphasizing this year is off-ball fouls.

This has two effects. First, it makes it easier for players to come off screens and get behind the 3-point line or to the basket on cut plays. It opens up the offense, and the more open an offense it is, the more freedom of movement there is, the easier it is to score. And the easier it is to score, the faster you score.

Anmean faster you score, the more you accelerate pace.

The other way it speeds up the game (ironically) is by slowing it down. More fouls mean more free throws. Free throws means the clock stopping. That means (you see where this going, right?) a faster pace.

While charity shots aren’t at anything close to historic highs, they were at a historic low last season, when teams just shot 21.7 per game, the fewest of any season in history. This year, it’s all the way up to 24.4.

That’s not a gargantuan number, but the 2.7 more attempts this year than last account for roughly 1.2 possessions, which is about a third of the jump in pace. So it’s not the most critical factor, but it is a significant factor.

There is no singular reason for the spike it pace. It’s a combination of factors, including changes in rules and strategies, none of which are going to change. There is one thing that could, though.

There is a chance for fatigue to set in.

Five years ago, the average team ran an aggregate of 16.9 miles per game. This year, that’s up to 18.1 miles. All those extra possessions mean a lot of extra running, which could mean that players start wearing down a little more as the season progresses.

The other end of that, though is that players and coaches are already taking extra steps to account for fatigue. There isn’t much discernible difference on the individual level, though, as it seems coaches are dispersing that extra mileage by playing stars fewer minutes. Still, extra miles are being run by someone and it will be interesting to see if that overall wear and tear takes a toll as the season goes on.

Kelly Scaletta has been writing about the NBA for over a decade now. His work has been published by Bleacher Report, FanRag, The Step Back, Fansided, Hoops Habit, SportsNet and others. He also makes terrible puns.

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