One of the big buzzwords coming from Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle this training camp has been “pace.”
Specifically as it relates to the offense, Carlisle has stressed the importance of playing up to a certain speed. And that doesn’t only relate to how quickly the team brings the ball up the floor or how hard the players run in and out of their sets. Pace relates to everything: running, moving, passing, shooting. It’s a mindset.
“We’re not a walk-it-up team. We’re not a play-call, grind-it-out team,” Carlisle said. “We’re a pace, ball movement team. We’ve got to have an attacking pace mentality.”
To give an idea of what exactly that means, look no further than the pace statistic, which counts the number of total possessions a team plays per game. Last season’s team averaged 97.43 possessions per game, good for ninth-most in the NBA.
Early in the season, however, Dallas played at a slower pace in terms of possessions per game as the second unit featured endless pick-and-rolls with center Brandan Wright. Those sets were effective to be sure, but following the trade which shipped him to Boston in return for Rajon Rondo, the Mavericks moved toward more of a quick-hitting offense. Following that shift, the team’s pace rose to 98.02 for the rest of the season, seventh-highest in the NBA.
There aren’t many public metrics at our disposal to see just how much quick ball movement and aggressive action can influence an offense and put defenses on their heels, but one would have to assume that a decisive offense would always make things uncomfortable for an opponent. To draw a parallel to football, Carlisle’s flow offense, at its best, is similar to a “one-cut” NFL running back who makes one move at the line of scrimmage before hitting the gap at full speed. Ideally, Dallas won’t need much time to identify an area to attack, which gives the Mavs the advantage on that side of the ball. It’s less a statistical exercise and more of a team philosophy.
There are numbers, however, to back up why attacking early in the possession is one way to tilt the advantage toward the offense. Last season, the Mavericks as a team finished sixth in the NBA with a 51.5 effective field goal percentage, or eFG. But that number climbed to 59.8 percent when there were between 18-22 seconds remaining on the shot clock, per NBA.com. And between 15-18 seconds, the Mavs finished with an eFG of 52.9 percent. Dallas attempted 14.8 field goals per game during that second time range, the second-highest mark in the league.
That seems to be the sweet spot for the Mavericks. Once the shot clock gets under 15 seconds, efficiency dropped league-wide. The Mavs’ eFG fell to 49.8 percent with between 7-15 ticks remaining, 46.8 percent with between 4-7, and 40.4 percent with 0-4 left.
Many shots that come extremely early in a possession follow an opponent’s turnover, which is why it’s so important for the defense to force them. Dallas was a top-five team in opponents turnover rate last season. Following a steal, for example, the Mavs had a sky-high 65.5 eFG percentage, according to stats site nbawowy.com, but just a 49.5 eFG percentage following bucket by the opposition.
Playing with pace is all about using momentum in your favor and finding quick ways to get into the offense. Carlisle’s flow offense is renowned for allowing players the freedom to play by feel while also following a set of rules and guidelines that simplify the game. All it takes is playing quick. And with camp battles as intense and competitive as they are, those who buy into the philosophy will be the ones on the final roster.
“It starts with energy,” Carlisle said. “We’re a pace team, so we need guys that are willing to run. From there, it’s skill set, ability to adapt to different positions. And we’re looking at everything very closely. We have 20 NBA players here. We can only keep 15 of them, though.”