As a long time Spurs’ fan, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this line — or a similar sentiment — from a coach or player early in the season: it’s a process.
What kind of process? I’m assuming a building process. But, what I have always found odd, is that you hear it from long-time veterans in the exact same system. I mean, what kind of process is there to learning the exact same thing you already know. Isn’t it more like a quick review? I mean, if I had to do some algebra now, I wouldn’t read the whole damn book front to back and call it a process! I’d give myself a quick refresher and move along.
Of course, that might be why I’m a loser.
So, I put on my wannabe coach’s hat and pondered this for a while. If I was a coach, how would I make the 82-game NBA season a process? How would I build my team?
I decided to focus on defense. If I was a coach, what would be the first thing I’d want to make sure that my team was doing correctly? This was easy. You can’t have a good defensive team if you don’t have good transition defense. If you never get the opportunity to set up your half court defense, then there is no point in working on half court defense.
Going into the season, I decided to focus on transition defense for a few games. My next step was to try to figure out how I would measure successful transition defense. I don’t think fast break points is a good measure. First, I’m not really sure what the NBA considers a fast break point. Second, transition defense is about more than fast break points. It’s about getting back after a miss or a turnover AND getting back with a minimum of mismatches that the other team can exploit.
I started my analysis with the season opener against the Mavericks and fairly quickly realized that my tracking method needed work. I refined it and came up with something I like a lot better. I track three situations and three results from those situations.
The three situations:
- The ball comes from out of bounds. This includes all makes, all time outs, and situations in which a turnover leads to the other team inbounding the ball.
- After a miss. Pretty self explanatory. This includes free throws.
- After a live ball turnover.
The three results:
- No Fail is when the team gets back perfectly.
- Semi Fail is when the team gets back but there are mismatches.
- Full Fail is when the team is out numbered or the team is scrambling for the possession.
I tracked these for four full games. Hawks, Pelicans, Clippers and Warriors. During my tracking, I had to consistently remind myself that I was trying to measure transition defense. I wasn’t measuring half court defense or bad offense. Here is what I found (check the results spreadsheet yourself).
Possessions/Points from a full fail: 15/13, 11/10, 5/7, 9/19 — five of those nine possessions against the Warriors were after missed shots. The Clippers only managed it twice.
Possessions/Points from a semi fail: 6/10, 6/6, 16/14, 9/7 — While the Clippers only got into a full fail twice, they got into a semi-fail a whopping 10 times after a miss and another whopping 4 times after a make.
While the Hawks numbers individually by situation aren’t impressive, look at them on their own:
- Full fail after missed shot: 8 possessions
- Semi fail after missed shot: 6 possessions
- Full fail after inbounds turnover: 7 possessions
- Semi fail after inbounds turnovers or made shots: 0 possessions
- Full fail after made shots: 0 possessions
They ended up in 15 full fail possessions. This was terrible transition defense. In addition, the Hawks got the Spurs into a full fail or semi fail situation 14 times on 26 missed shots. That’s just pathetic. They also managed a full fail on 7 of 11 turnovers (which is a crazy lot of inbound turnovers).
Looking at total number of opportunities (miss or turnover), how many times did the transition defense give up a full fail or semi fail?
- The Hawks got a full fail or semi fail 21 times in 37 opportunities .
- The Pelicans didn’t have as many opportunities, but they got the Spurs off balance 17 of 31 times.
- The Clippers managed it just 21 of 44 opportunities.
- The Warriors did it 18 of 42 opportunities.
In short, the Spurs really did a good job of getting back against the Clippers and Warriors. Just from these numbers, I’m going to say that keeping things to a semi fail or full fail less than half the time is good.
Let’s also take a look at total number of opportunities (miss or turnover), how many times did the transition defense give up a full fail?
- Hawks: 15 of 37 opportunities
- Pelicans: 11 of 31 opportunities
- Clippers: 4 of 44 opportunities
- Warriors: 9 of 42 opportunities
I’m going to make the determination that holding the opponent to a full fail less than 20% of the time is really good.
Later in the season, late December or so, I’ll do another check on the transition defense.
Of the four games, the one that the Spurs lost was the game in which they did the best job of limiting transition points.
I found it interesting that there were always 22-24 possession per quarter. Well, almost always. 13 0f the 16 quarters fit into that range. Two of the others were against the Clippers at 20 and 21. Then the fourth quarter against the Hawks had 26. Remember this when you see pace numbers spouted around the web.
Also remember that teams that foul a lot and get fouled a lot will have a lot more possessions relative to teams that do not. Like the Spurs.
Lastly, teams that take quick shots in the shot clock, which are usually bad shots, will have more possessions. So just one bad, quick shot per quarter can heavily influence pace numbers.