Why don’t more teams play fast?

The Nuggets system extracts maximum value from players like Corey Brewer.

On TrueHoop today I posted some thoughts on an interview George Karl gave with the Dan Patrick Show.

The gist there was that the Nuggets are playing fast, which is fun, and also smart. As teams become smarter in their preparation, it’s wise to force as many open court situations that these smart teams can’t prepare for. That those scenarios are the most entertaining is a happy side effect for the league and it’s fans.

So an effective style that is also entertaining — shouldn’t that be the goal of every NBA team? Then why don’t most teams play that way?

Some thoughts on this:

  1. It’s hard. Running the floor like the Nuggets, Rockets and Spurs do takes great conditioning and a mental commitment to running. In reporting on the Nuggets and Rockets, I’ve heard the same thing a few different ways: every player says they want to run until they have to run, and then they want to walk. For this style to really work, you can’t run selectively. You have to do it off makes, misses, turnovers — everything. A lot of guys just aren’t about that life.
  2. Veterans and stars don’t want to run. This isn’t to say that players who would rather play in the half court are selfish and lazy. Look at Chris Paul, he purposely depresses the pace of the game to exert maximum control in the half court. Another example: Rajon Rondo. That hit-ahead pass the Celtics are throwing up the right sideline can’t happen if Rondo is to control the possession.
  3. Only good teams should be trying to run because maximizing the number of possessions favors the most talented teams. This is Dean Oliver’s argument.
  4. It makes the coaches look like they aren’t doing anything. I don’t have direct evidence of this, but the Larry Brown style of coaching every possession is just not congruent with the goals of teams like the Nuggets and Rockets. Coaches need to allow for some craziness in these systems, they need to allow players to make decisions. Once players are making decisions, it becomes harder to tell exactly what the coach is doing. It’s a high-risk scenario in a profession that is perversely incented away from such risk.
  5. Championship teams rarely play at a really high tempo. Since all teams want to win a title, it doesn’t make sense to hone a style that isn’t that of a champion.

The corresponding counter-arguments:

  1. These are professional athletes. They should be in shape, and they should want to be in shape.
  2. I agree here. Elite players and old guys often don’t want to run. You know who costs a lot of money? ELITE AND OLD GUYS! Teams that are young and building on the cheap have the most to gain. Look at Houston. They have three guys (four, if you count Garcia) who make more than $5 million. The roster is packed with solid dudes who look a lot better dunking in a 2-on-1 than they do popping to 18 feet and shooting jumpers. There is a scarcity of big, skilled players, so teams can accumulate more and shorter talent for less, then force a style the removes the importance of size. This is what Houston and, to a lesser extent, Denver do. 
  3. I tend to agree that this is true. BUT, so long as so many teams try to play at a slow pace, I think well-coached teams can punch above their weight, especially in the regular season.
  4. As far as coaching is concerned — it’s really dang hard to coach a team to play this way. Look at all the flaming corpses of teams that crash and burn trying to play this way. There are all kinds of coaches with cool plays, but few who can inspire faith in a style that is hard to play. Any coach can call a great set out for an out of timeout situation that gets an open look. And those moments are the ones that are obvious to everyone — look, this coach did some coaching! But getting a team to do the right thing over and over regardless of the situation — that’s the real deal.
  5. Championship/deep playoff teams are usually veteran-laden squads with superstars. They have less to gain from playing this way because they can win more half court battles than your Houstons and Denvers. But there are a ton of mid-level teams that win by holding possessions down and forcing a half court style. Exhibit A: the Chicago Bulls. Does anyone think that the Bulls are going to beat the Heat in the half court? Really? The Bulls are obviously built to play that way, but give me the high volume 3-point shooting team in a 7 game series. That kind of variance might, as it did for Dallas, tilt things in their favor even against a more talented opponent. The way Chicago (especially without Rose) and, to some extent, Indiana, plays is likely less helpful against elite competition come playoff time than a team, like the Knicks, that shoots a boatload of 3′s.

I’m sure there’s some stat-based stuff I don’t understand or left out. This is a great conversation and one I’m hoping will continue in the comments!

Related posts:

  1. Inside the play: Bulls UCLA read
  2. Nowhere Fast: The David Kahn Story
  3. Close Calls: top teams in the clutch
  4. How to play better defense
  5. 2011 NBA All-Deceptive Teams


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