If it seems you have heard the phrase “transition defense” a lot this N.B.A. season, you are not mistaken. Basketball’s evolution has made everything smaller and faster, and offenses are looking for any opportunity to run. This leaves coaches desperately looking for ways to combat the offensive surge.
The Los Angeles Lakers cited transition defense as a reason for signing Tyson Chandler. It’s a reason often given for why the Cleveland Cavaliers fired Tyronn Lue as their coach. And it was the biggest point of emphasis on Sunday when the Milwaukee Bucks made a statement by throttling the ultrafast Sacramento Kings.
“When you watch Sacramento fly up and down the court, you just realize how important transition is going to be against them,” Coach Mike Budenholzer said after his Bucks asserted their will, crushing the upstart Kings, 144-109.
That the second-leading team in the Eastern Conference was openly discussing strategies for combating the formerly lowly Kings is as sure a sign of any that things have gotten a little weird in the early going of the 2018-19 season.
As teams settle in, one thing is clear: Scoring is up — way up. Because of rule changes and the continued evolution of the preferred style of play, teams are putting up offensive numbers that have not been approached in years.
Raw scoring is at 111.5 points per team per game, its highest level since the 1970-71 season. Reasons include field goals being at their highest rate since 1991-92 and free throws being at their highest rate since 2010-11.
Teams have also, thus far, matched last season’s effective field-goal percentage of .521, which was an N.B.A. record. That statistic was designed to account for the added value of the 3-point shot, and that figure becomes especially impressive when one considers that the league crossed the .500 threshold only once from 1979-80, when the 3-pointer was introduced, to 2008-9.
But more than anything else, the scoring increase has been a result of pace. N.B.A. games may always take 48 minutes to play, but how much is done in those 48 minutes has varied wildly over the years. The game was at its fastest in the early 1960s, with teams routinely averaging 120 or more possessions a game, and hit its modern low point in 1998-99 when it was slowed down to 88.9.
This year teams are averaging 100.8 possessions a game through Tuesday, the highest mark since 1988-89.
For some perspective on how fast games are being played, consider Mike D’Antoni’s groundbreaking offense in Phoenix in 2005-6. Led by Steve Nash, and employing what was considered a lightning-fast offense, that Suns team won 54 games and led the N.B.A. with 95.8 possessions per 48 minutes. Their exploits were recorded in Jack McCallum’s book “:07 Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench With the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns.” That team and book have often been cited as a blueprint for the direction the league was headed.
If you were to drop those runnin’ and gunnin’ Suns into this year’s N.B.A., they would be the second-slowest team, ahead of only the Memphis Grizzlies.
In contrast, the Kings entered Wednesday’s action tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the fastest mark this season at 106.7 possessions per 48 minutes, which would be the fastest pace since Paul Westhead’s Denver Nuggets put up an outrageous pace of 113.7 in 1990-91.
Unlike this season’s Hawks or Westhead’s Nuggets, the Kings have managed to turn that speed into some early success, with a surprising 6-4 record that has forced some reconsideration of their moves under Vlade Divac, the team’s president.
Led by a youthful core of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein, the Kings may not be all the way to good yet — a difficult matchup at home against the defensively superior Toronto Raptors looms on Wednesday night. But they have embraced the game’s evolution and become one of the more entertaining teams in the league, recovering nicely from the disappointing DeMarcus Cousins era, which ended with the superstar’s trade to New Orleans in February 2017. Last year’s 27-55 finish, in which Sacramento was the slowest team in the N.B.A., has become a distant memory.
“I think last year the difference was we didn’t have an identity,” Fox said when asked by The Sacramento Bee about the team’s change in fortune. “We didn’t know how we wanted to play. We didn’t know what we wanted to do. This year, we know we’re trying to run.”
The open question is whether this increase in pace is sustainable, not just for the Kings, but for the rest of the league.
One factor that suggests speed may be the new normal is a rule clarification from the off-season. Referees were instructed to be on the lookout for plays in which a defender impedes the progress of an offensive player, with a goal of eliminating, or severely reducing, holding, grabbing, pushing, shoving, wrapping and making contact when a screen is set.
It is no wonder that with such a clarification fouls are up, to 22.5 per team per game this season, an increase of 2.6 from last season and a return to the level that was typical in the mid-1990s.
Make no mistake, the defensive adjustment is certainly coming. The Bucks and the Raptors are repeatedly showing they can handle fast teams; other teams that greatly value defense, like the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, will be looking for ways to exploit the current style. But, leaguewide, it may take awhile for teams to figure out how to adapt, thanks to the shift in strategy having coincided so fortuitously with the emphasis on not impeding an offensive player’s progress.
“We’ve taught for years that if somebody is coming off a pick, get in front of him, chest him, take him off their line,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton told reporters when asked about the rule changes. “So these are all habits that are going to have to be broken and retaught again.”
Until that can happen, teams will continue to run with reckless abandon. And transition defenses will have to do their best to keep up.