How does one play “fast defense”?

Recently a blogger over at SBnation wrote an article on a new stat he had developed called “speed index;” his idea being that the Pace stat wasn’t necessarily a true indicator of a team’s speed-of-play since turnovers, offensive rebounds, and fouls can affect the number of possessions per game.  So he did a little data mining and determined how much shot clock a team used while on offense as well as how much their opponents used while they were on defense.  His findings were remarkable to say the least.

Go take a look and then come back here to see my thoughts.

So we can dicker over whether or not the Spurs are playing faster on offense, or we can take his findings for what they are on that front.  Personally, I think it’s possible to both fast break more than you have in the past and still be primarily a half-court team.  This becomes even more true when you see that the Spurs’ take-away rate is much higher this season than last (30% by some measures), and steals are a great way to get out on the break.

The truly outstanding result of this statistical exercise is the finding that for some reason, the Spurs are coercing their opponents into taking shots early in the possession.  I have really no idea how they manage that, but it seems to be working.  Even though I have no solid ideas on the subject, I do have some loosely defined hypotheses.

I think the first contributing factor to this phenomenon is the fact that few NBA teams are as disciplined as the Spurs, and those that are stand a better chance against them.  How I think this matters is that undisciplined teams tend to take the first marginally good shot that presents itself, whereas more regimented teams will continue to look for a better scoring opportunity.  Those that wait until later in the shot clock will fare much better.

I’ve noticed something that I believe to be at least a somewhat consistent trend that may be arising from this behavior. [ED.-Wow, Brad, that’s the most wishy-washy sentence I’ve ever seen.]  It seems to me, that it is not uncommon for the Spurs to allow an astronomical shooting percentage early in the game, that slowly dwindles to more a more pedestrian level by the end.  I think that opposing squads might be tiring themselves out taking all of those quick shots early in the game.  Then at the endgame they just don’t seem to have the same energy needed to make shots at the same clip.

Another contributing factor in my opinion is the underlying philosophy of the Spurs’ defense.  Those in the know, know that Pop hates uncontested threes and shots in the paint.  He can live with long twos, as those are a particularly inefficient way of scoring points.  Given the choice, any Spur would rather chase a player off of the three-point line and count on help to cut off passing and driving lanes than sag off to protect against a drive.  Player X might think he’s now beaten his man, but with solid interior defenders around the goal (Timmy and/or Antonio) and quick-handed players elsewhere (Cubits, Manu, TP) I think most players would rather go up for the shot than take a chance doing something else. 

Finally, I think the Spurs’ offense helps them on defense.  “Huh?” You ask.  Well, I think that it’s only natural for a team to get concerned about playing such an effective offense.  That concern leads to nervousness, trepidation leads to mistakes, and mistakes lead to one-shot possessions.

If a team wants to beat the Spurs, this is how they can increase their odds:

  • Move the ball effectively on offense to get Timmy and crew rotating as much as possible.  Whether that be pick-n-rolls, drive-n-kicks, or swinging it around the horn.
  • Use as much of the shoot clock as possible, preferably by mixing the ball movement strategies listed above while waiting for your opening.
  • Crash the hell out of the offensive boards.  The Spurs are looking to get the ball board, outlet pass down court, and get you scrambling.  By grabbing the O-rebounds you limit those opportunities.
  • Manage the clock to keep the Spurs’ offense from getting on a roll.
  • Pray.

Oh, and since you and I are the only ones reading this, I’m not at all worried about giving away any secrets.  Also, if some NBA team’s scouting department is looking at a little read blog from the corners of the Spurs’ blogosphere then I think they have bigger things to worry about.

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