NBA: The pros and cons of today’s pace and space game

NBA Golden State Warriors (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
NBA Golden State Warriors (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

In today’s NBA, Pace and Space has become popularized around the league. Is this completely advantageous or are there also consequences in this approach?

The “copycat” trend has occurred in sports for many years: In the NFL, following the Philadelphia Eagles’ championship victory over the mighty New England Patriots, in 2018, there are now various teams mimicking the Eagle’s blueprint.

In the NBA, following the 80’s Los Angles Lakers’ dynasty, teams started drafting bigger point guards (e.g., Shaun Livingston, Doc Rivers) after witnessing Magic Johnson’s greatness and the effect his court vision and height had on winning.

During the 90’s Bulls dynasty, GMs looked for athletic and skilled two guards in the draft (e.g., Harold Minor) they thought would replicate Michael Jordan.

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But as of today, we have all witnessed the small ball play style becoming popularized among NBA teams, or what is commonly referred to as “positionless” basketball, due to the Golden State Warriors’ success.

That being said, although many might not be aware, the origins of small ball basketball first began with former NBA coach, Don Nelson, and his offensive play-style known as “Nellie Ball.”

Even though Nellie ball was implemented during his first coaching gig, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Nelson’s run-and-gun offense became most known during his Warriors tenure.

At the time, the Warriors’ offense was centered around of hall of famers, Chris Mullin, and Mitch Richmond, as well as all-star point guard, Tim Hardaway.

In The Players’ Tribune, while reflecting back on his coaching days and what was considered an abnormal offense at the time, Nelson stated:

"“I wanted to push the ball. Before long, we were leading the league in scoring and the term Run-TMC was born. Our goal every time we hit the floor was to score 100 points, and on lots of nights, we scored more than that. Timmy would push with Chris or Mitch on the wing and the defense would just be at our mercy.”“But when you play small, teams are going to do everything they can to beat you inside. So I adjusted my personnel. I wasn’t going to try and battle with the big men. I would outsmart them.  So I had my forwards handle the ball — just like Paul Pressey used to do during my Milwaukee days. And although Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond were skilled forwards who could handle the ball,” the offense also relied on forward “Tom Tolbert.”“At 6′ 8″, he was actually one of my most talented big guys. He caused mismatches for opposing centers because he could face you up while being crafty enough to do damage from the perimeter.”"

Sound familiar? But it doesn’t stop there.

In the 2004-05 season, following the Phoenix Sunsfree agent acquisition of Steve Nash, NBA head coach, Mike D’Antoni, was able to refine Nash’s NBA career and finally make a name for himself.

With D’Antoni relying on the infamous “7 seconds or less” offense – with Nash initiating the up-tempo offense and an athletic Amar’e Stoudemire being the pick-and-roll man – D’Antoni went on to win NBA Coach of the Year that season, after the Suns achieved a 62-20 record, and Nash won his very first MVP award at the age of 31.

In the following years, the Suns’ core continued to have successful seasons. Even making the NBA Western Conference Finals in 2005, 2006, and 2010.

But despite great team success, the Suns never were able to get over the hump and win an NBA championship. The main reason being, always running into Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs.

As a result, post up bigs stayed ubiquitous around the league and the skepticism/criticism surrounding jump shooting teams remained the same: “you live by the jump shot you die by the jump shot.”

By 2015, however, in light of Kerr’s Warriors championship success and Alvin Gentry’s strong point, GMs around the league soon began to realize that the formula actually worked and it led to the “Steph Curry effect”: NBA GMs making roster decisions to emulate the Warriors’ offense.

Hence the reason why you heard Atlanta Hawk’s GM/former Warriors assistant gm Travis Schlenk’s comments upon drafting Trae Young, why you see NBA bigs with an old school skill set having a hard time finding an NBA job and get significant playing time (e.g., Greg Monroe, Jahlil Okafor, Al Jefferson), and more NBA teams placing a higher emphasis on analytics compared to prior years.

But what are the positives and flaws in this particular approach?

Outside of how aesthetically pleasing it is to watch, it’s not far fetched to say that today’s talent is also superior to years past and various marginal NBA players have been exposed.

The days of physical/hustle players with limited skillsets, such as Kurt Rambis, Rick Mahorn, Reggie Evans, Anderson Varejao, and many others, are long gone since they command little respect on the offensive end and only allow defenses to clog the paint.

Instead, in order to play in today’s NBA, a player needs to bring versatility, athleticism, and length, and if you’re a big who is limited offensively, rebounding, catching lobs, and blocking shots at an efficient rate are a must, à la DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela.

In terms of how the players themselves are benefiting from this play style, as an NBA ball-handler, with shooters being superglued by opposing defenders at the 3-point line, there is now enough floor spacing to have open driving lanes.

Help defenses are being forced to make a decision and pick their poison i.e., stay attached to the shooter at the 3-point line or rotate to contest the layup after his teammate is beaten off the dribble.

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And this is only for driving lanes. If the ball-handler has a high basketball IQ and reads the play correctly, it’s easier to adjust based on how the defense is playing him.

For example, if he calls for a screen involving a stretch big and the defense hedges, he can pass it to set up his teammate for an open 3. Contrarily, the ball-handler can also take the 3-point shot himself if the defense chooses to go under the screen.

Yet the success of a fluid offense is all predicated on one thing: the player’s ability.

If a team were to run a similar pick-and-pop play, but the big setting the screen isn’t Dirk Nowitzki or Lauri Markkanen, do you necessarily want him taking that open three? Is it a good idea, in general, to have players who have a three-point percentage, in the high 20’s or low 30’s, to shoot three-pointers consecutively when left open?

Looking at the Toronto Raptors this season, their Pace is 18th in the league with standing at 100.30, and their AST% is at 53.4, which is 22nd in the league. These numbers are not exactly Warriors-like; there is not a lot of ball movement and they’re playing at a pace that is near the bottom of the league.

But somehow they still have the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Nick Nurse is well aware that he doesn’t have the same personnel as the Warriors, so he created an offensive system that would fit his roster best: He has a top 5 NBA player and arguably the league’s best on-ball defender, in Kawhi Leonard, whose strength on the offensive end is isolation in the mid-post/on the perimeter, and being the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, so he chooses to have the Raptors play at a slower tempo.

Moreover, given that most teams around the league are going small and are quicker, Nurse realizes that Jonas Valanciunas, who has limited lateral quickness and has a hard time guarding the pick-and-roll, is better suited coming off the bench.

By starting Serge Ibaka at the five, this season, not only does he have a better rim protector and someone who’s mobile enough to switch on to guards, but Valanciunas is now strengthening his bench with going up against second-string centers.

Point being, he is having success because he is sticking to what his players are good at; isolation players, like Kawhi, aren’t as effective when you ask them to get most of their points off of transition threes, pin-down screens, and an up-tempo offense, as effectively as Steph and Klay.

One of the most glaring issues that have emerged with today’s Pace and Space offense, however, is besides Joel Embiid – who chooses to play back-to-basket on occasion and mostly settles for jumpers – there are a lack of bigs across the league who can score in the post with a great enough efficiency to punish undersized lineups.

Back when Don Nelson coached the Warriors and Bucks, while relying on the Nellie ball offense, there were great bigs his undersized lineups were matching up against (e.g., Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing), which impeded long-term success (he also didn’t have generational shooters like Klay, Steph, and Durant).

However, if there were great back-to-basket bigs playing today, teams would likely not be able to get away with playing small 70 percent of a game and this even includes the Golden State Warriors.

Looking at the Warriors’ starting centers on their championship teams, over the years, they had Andrew Bogut, Zaza Pachulia, and JaVale McGee ( DeMarcus Cousins is obviously a different story).

In crunch time, they went to their lineup of death with Draymond Green at the five.

Now, if a big is slow footed, he will have a hard time on the defensive end, regardless, but would the Warriors be able to have Draymond at the five position, for prolonged periods of a game, if a player of Shaq’s caliber played today?

And this is with just Golden State. Imagine that particular player playing against the small ball lineups of Houston, Milwaukee, Dallas, Portland, amongst others.

Instead of small ball teams forcing opposing teams to go small to matchup, like you often see today, the roles would likely be reversed; coaches would limit their small lineup usage since they would not be able to prevent enough points in the paint.

NBA teams would need an actual 7-foot big for his post defense at times during a game, which perhaps would create more job opportunities for guys like Kendrick Perkins or Roy Hibbert; the unemployment rate for bigs would decrease.

A lot of the bigs in today’s NBA have a great face-up game and have the ability to do multiple things (e.g., shoot, rebound, and handle the ball).

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And players like Julius Randle and Thaddeus Young being able to go coast to coast after grabbing a rebound is a good trait to have on a team, but is it really a difficult play to stop given the personnel on the Pelicans and Pacers roster?

Does the bigman face-up game necessarily punish undersized lineups?

The Warriors have learned to run an offense that is meant to maximize the talent on their roster.

Perhaps other teams should consider doing so as well. Maybe then, it will lead to more diversity across the league with teams playing to their roster’s strength.