There have been many surprises in the first two weeks of the 2007-08 NBA season, from Chris Kaman emerging as a dominant big man to the Chicago Bulls undermining high expectations with a 1-5 start. I've seen nothing, however, more surprising than this: The Phoenix Suns are tied for seventh in the NBA in pace.
Yes, it's early, but these are the run-and-gun Suns, the team that can't win in the playoffs because of how fast it plays. Jack McCallum even named his book about spending a season with the Suns :07 Seconds or Less, Coach Mike D'Antoni's instruction to his players about how quickly to get off a shot. So how could six teams be playing faster than Phoenix?
The answer ties to something my colleague Bradford Doolittle observed earlier this week: The NBA as a whole is playing faster than it has in 15 years. As Bradford explained, the NBA's pace has been trending downward since the league began tracking turnovers at the team level during the 1973-74 season, allowing us to calculate possessions per game. The introduction of the three-point line in 1978-79 slowed things down considerably, with another major drop-off coming in the mid-1990s as teams emulated the slow, physical style employed to much success by the "Jordan Rules" Pistons and the Pat Riley Knicks.
By this decade, scoring had declined to the point that NBA commish David Stern took an interest in encouraging offense and speeding the game back up. The first effort to do that, amending the illegal defense rule and allowing teams to play zone, had little effect. Then in 2004, the NBA tried again. This time, it wasn't a matter of changing a rule but simply enforcing one already on the books: a prohibition on hand-checking on the perimeter that went into affect after Riley's Knicks manhandled opposing guards en route to the 1994 NBA Finals.
At the same time as the rules re-interpretation, the Suns added a freewheeling All-Star point guard named Steve Nash to athletic frontcourt players Shawn Marion and Amaré Stoudemire. With D'Antoni drawing upon his experience playing and coaching in Italy to encourage the team to run, Phoenix became the most potent up-tempo offense the league had seen since the Showtime Lakers.
While offenses immediately responded to the rules re-interpretation, with league-wide efficiency jumping from 104.2 points per 100 possessions in 2003-04 to 107.4 in 2004-05, the impact on pace has been more gradual. In fact, after the league's average number of possessions per team per 48 minutes went up from 89.0 to 89.8 in 2004-05, it slipped back to 89.3 the following season. It was last year that the NBA really began running again. Average possessions per team per game reached 90.6, just the second time in 11 years they topped the 90 mark. The caveat again applies that it is very early this season, but pace has taken another dramatic leap league-wide to 92.8 possessions per team per 48 minutes trough Monday. If that held up, it would be the fastest the league has played since 1993-94.
Here is the NBA's pace by year since 1992-93, the season before the league really began to slow down:
Why haven't the Suns kept up with the rest of the league? Well, for the most part they have. This season Phoenix has played faster, in raw terms, than ever before. The Suns are averaging 96.6 possessions per 48 minutes, up from the 94.2 they averaged the last two years. If you adjust Phoenix's pace relative to league average, the team is not playing quite as fast as in 2004-05 and 2005-06, but still well above average:
Year Pace APace
04-05 94.7 105.4
05-06 94.2 105.5
06-07 94.2 103.9
07-08 96.6 104.1
What seems to have happened is that the success the Suns have enjoyed, as well as the incentives to play smaller and quicker that the rules re-interpretations have provided, have inspired teams around the league to throw caution to the wind and run. Where in 2004-05 and 2005-06 the Suns were the league's fastest-paced team, and by a fairly significant margin (nobody was within 1.5 possessions per 48 minutes of Phoenix in 2005-06), now there are other teams playing at an extreme pace.
Last year, the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets joined the group. In the Bay Area, Don Nelson turned the Warriors into the most extreme version yet of his preference for versatile, fast lineups. As with Nelson, most pace changes are associated with new coaches, but holdover George Karl decided to start running his already fast Nuggets even faster. Karl relied on assistant Doug Moe, who led some of the NBA's fastest offenses during his days as the head man in Denver, and the Nuggets brought in Pepperdine Coach Vance Walberg, a noted fast-break guru, to instruct the coaching staff before training camp.
Both Golden State and Denver played even faster than Phoenix in 2006-07, and the Warriors parlayed it into one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.
This past summer, two more new coaches encouraged their teams to run. In Indiana, Jim O'Brien described playing faster as his number-one goal on offense in a chat on the Pacers' Web site, saying he would, "challenge our team on a missed shot and a made shot to get the ball across halfcourt in three seconds, which should prevent the defense from setting themselves." Meanwhile, new Sonics Coach P.J. Carlesimo has emphasized transition offense as well. As he did in Golden State, Carlesimo has "Guru of Go" Paul Westhead--who was once responsible for the fastest offense in the history of the NBA while a head coach in Denver--as a part of his coaching staff.
Many coaches talk about playing faster during training camp, but the results have spoken for both the Sonics and Pacers, who rank second and fourth in the league, respectively, in pace so far this season.
Rounding out the group of fast-paced teams is the team most obviously borrowing from the success of the Suns. That's Memphis, under Marc Iavaroni, who spent the previous five seasons as an assistant in Phoenix. The Grizzlies, who already started pushing the ball last year after replacing crawlball specialist Mike Fratello on an interim basis with Tony Barone, have kept running under Iavaroni.
The season is still young, which is why I'm not yet ready to declare the other team playing faster than Phoenix a true up-tempo squad. That team is the Utah Jazz, and while Jerry Sloan has been more willing to loosen the reins in recent seasons, Utah's fast pace probably has more than a little to do with playing four of its first eight games against Golden State, Seattle and Memphis.
Still, it is not too early to believe that the Suns are no longer the outlier they once were in terms of playing up-tempo. A full fifth of the league can now be considered running teams. In his column, Bradford expressed his wish that the trend toward up-tempo basketball continue to spread across the league. I think he's in luck, and the results should be fun to watch this season.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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