Suck Faster: When Bad Teams Play Up-Tempo

Ask a casual NBA fan to guess which team plays at the fastest pace in the league and most of them would probably guess the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, teams drilled in the principles of modern pace-and-space basketball, with Houston coached by the inimitable Mike D’Antoni, who might as well draw the two little arrows of the fast-forward symbol on the whiteboard during timeouts.

This article originally appeared on January 25, 2017, and stats are as of that point in the 2016-17 season.

They’re not bad guesses; the Warriors are second in pace (100.7, with all stats in this article coming from Basketball Reference), while the Rockets are fourth at 98.8. There aren’t too many surprises; the creaky Mavericks play the league’s slowest game followed by the grind-it-out Jazz, while the Suns, Nuggets, and Pelicans round out the top six (perhaps the biggest surprise is the Pacers in eighth after playing so slowly under Frank Vogel last season.)

But who’s the fastest team in the league? Well, it’s also the worst team in the league, the 9-35 Brooklyn Nets, whose motto in life seems to be “suck faster.”

This? This, to steal a line from Austin Hourigan, makes No. God. Damn. Sense.

Basketball is ultimately a game of sample size. Runs get smoothed out over the course of 48 minutes (and entire games get smoothed out over the course of a seven-game series in the playoffs.) Given enough possessions rather than enough minutes, a better team will almost always beat a worse one. You see this in the college tournament every March; some 15 seed slows the game way down, hits a few three-pointers, and holds on to escape, send a 2 seed packing, and bust everyone’s bracket.

The same is true to a lesser extent in the NBA. The Pelicans built a 20-point lead over Cleveland, 70-50 at halftime, the other night, and they nearly blew the game by playing too fast in the second half and letting the Cavaliers’ superior offensive ability make a game of it; the final margin was two points.

When you have the second-worst Offensive Rating (103.4, tied with Orlando and ahead of only Philadelphia) and the second-worst Defensive Rating (112.3, behind only the wretched Lakers) in the entire league, when your Net Rating stands at nearly nine points per 100 possessions, why would you essentially hand a free point to your opponent per game (the equivalent of three wins over an entire season!) by playing 10 possessions faster than a bad team that at least knows how to steal games by slowing it down and taking advantage of building a lead that can’t be eroded away by the other team upping the tempo (how Dallas does it?)

Brooklyn is second-worst in turnover rate (15.0, behind Philly), so it’s not even like they’re generating extra shots (they’re a decent shooting team, 16th in both true shooting and eFG%) that can garner them points. Even when not adjusted for pace, their gross scoring output, 105.8 a game, only manages to rank 13th (deceiving a lot of people into believing that their offense is better than it is, until you face the Newtonian Third Law counterpoint to non-pace-adjusted counting stats and see that their opponents pour in 114.8, worst in the league.)

If the Nets were a team of young horses and draft picks trying to establish an identity of leveraging superior athleticism, that would at least have a certain Timberwolves quality to it, but Minnesota has an average player age of 23.7; Brooklyn, at 26.3, is 15th-youngest.

What’s more, any advantage gained by devising a strategy that is by design going to lose more games is nullified by the fact that the Nets don’t own their own draft pick; the faster the Nets suck, the better it is not for Brooklyn but for Boston; the Celtics might just luck into winning the draft lottery thanks to a system that is built to use mathematics to fail more quickly.

So why do the Nets do it? Coach Kenny Atkinson was an assistant first with the Knicks, where in his four years New York ranked 2nd, 8th, 3rd, and 5th in pace under Mike D’Antoni, and then in Atlanta, where Mike Budenholzer had the Hawks 13th, 15th, and 8th in pace. So Atkinson implemented up-tempo offensive schemes and decided to turn it up to eleven in Brooklyn.

There’s just one problem. D’Antoni’s Knicks and Bud’s Hawks were playoff teams! If you’re a playoff-quality roster, you crank up the tempo, run the other team off the floor, and trust the power of your own net rating, which gets amplified in those extra possessions every game.

On bad teams, there’s a simple x-causes-y effect: The faster you play, the harder you suck. And Brooklyn? They suck like a Dyson vacuum…to the everlasting joy of the Boston Celtics.

I’m a big believer in “fail faster”…but I’m not coaching a garbage NBA team…