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The Spurs are not playing that fast – but teams try to against them

Jan 24, 2011, 7:45 PM EDT

San Antonio Spurs v Charlotte Bobcats Getty Images

Much has been made of how much faster the San Antonio Spurs are playing this season — they are playing more than a possession a game faster than last season, and that number has come down over the last month or so. At the start of the season, the Spurs were surprisingly fast.

Except that they are not. Sort of. It’s that teams are playing faster against them, a fascinating bit of research shows.

But first, some explanation. A lot of the analysis of the new basketball statistics is based around per-possession data. Meaning what matters is not how many points you score per game but how many per possession, because at the end of the game both teams will have the same number of possessions (give or take a couple). Whichever team uses their possessions most efficiently will win. (If you think this is all that new, know that Dean Smith broke down his stats that way at North Carolina.)

A possession is defined as when one team takes control of the ball until the other team takes control of the ball. So, it’s your possession until you make a basket or the other team makes a steal or gets a rebound (usually). But the flaw with this definition of possession is that if your team gets an offensive rebound (or two) it counts as one possession. That means teams that don’t turn the ball over or get a lot of offensive rebounds show up as playing slower than they really do (see the Portland Trail Blazers, as Henry Abbott will be more than happy to tell you).

With brings us back to Rohan Cruyff’s work at SB Nation Monday. He went back and looked at how teams shoot in relation to the shot clock. Do they shoot early in the shot clock or late on average? He used the data at 82games on shots within the shot class and came up with a Speed Index graph.

What he found is not that Spurs are playing any faster — they are 19th in the league in how fast they shoot against the clock, so basically middle of the pack.

But teams shoot faster against the Spurs than any team in the league. Golden State is second, then the Lakers are third. The Lakers also are not the fastest team in the leauge.

I have a theory as to why teams shoot so fast against the Lakers and Spurs — those are two good defensive teams once they get set. Both teams are disciplined about positioning and forcing penetration to help. So it benefits teams to push the pace on them and try to get early offense before they get set. You don’t want Manu Ginobili up in you guiding you to a waiting Tim Duncan, or Ron Artest in your face pushing you to the long arms of Andrew Bynum. But that is what those teams do well if you let them get set.

As for who shoots fastest in the clock? The Suns, who did you expect? Go check out the post for a lot more detail, including how the Magic are the most defensively driven team in the Association.

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