With the hiring of Alvin Gentry, analysts and fans alike have celebrated the prospects of a faster paced team. Last year, the Pels, a team seemingly oozing with the potential to turn games into track meets, were the fourth slowest team in the NBA. An improvement in pace was almost inevitable, but Gentry’s hiring brings a guaranteed uptick in pace.
Gentry’s Warriors this year had the fastest pace in the NBA. In his four full seasons as head coach for the Suns, Gentry’s team ranked fourth in the league in pace twice, eighth, and ninth. His teams have averaged more than seven offensive possessions more per game than this year’s Pelicans. But, is a faster pace really good for the Pelicans? Yes, but not for the reasons you expect.
Nylon Calculus tracked the number of offensive possessions in every NBA game this year. To get an idea of how a faster pace will affect the Pelicans, I tried to isolate the Pels’ outlying "fast" and "slow" games. (Statistically, this was done by finding the standard deviation of the set of all games, adding the standard deviation to the average to find a maximum and subtracting the standard deviation from the average to find the minimum. Any game with possessions above the max was considered a "fast" game, and any game below the minimum a "slow" game.)
The Pels played seven fast games and fourteen slow games. In the fast games, the Pels were 5-2 with both losses at the hands of Golden State, one of which was in overtime. Two of the five wins were against OKC, one of the wins was against Golden State, and one of the wins was the 139-91 thrashing of the T’wolves. The fast games were really good. In those seven games, the Pels racked up a net rating of +5.8. That rating would have been good for fourth best in the league.
The slow games were another story. In those 14 games, the Pels were 7-7, which does not sound awful, but those losses were to teams like the Knicks, Jazz, Nuggets, and Kings. These games were not so good. If you extend to the Pels’ 20 slowest games, the stats get even uglier. The Pels were 8-12 in those games with a net rating -2.3.
Imagine next year if Gentry had enough of an impact to replace those 20 slowest games with games that are more like the fast games. That alone would have made the Pels seven games better. This possibility is not that far-fetched. This year, the Warriors slowest game saw them have 88 offensive possessions. Every single one of the Pelicans’ 20 slowest games saw them have 88 offensive possessions or fewer.
So, why was New Orleans so much better at a higher pace and will it continue? Spoiler alert: it had nothing to do with the offense. In the 14 slow games, the Pelicans scored an average of 112.4 points per 100 possessions. In the seven fast games, they only averaged 108.4 points per game.
The difference in the fast games was on defense. In the seven fast games, the Pels had a defensive rating of 102.6 compared to 109.8 in the slow games. New Orleans is 7 points better defensively at a faster pace than a slower pace.
Why though does a faster pace make the Pels so much better defensively? Look at the Pelicans defensively. New Orleans is an incredibly young team that still has not quite figured out how to defensively play together and tends to lack engagement for a full 24 second shot clock. Furthermore, their best defender is Anthony Davis and to take full advantage of his defensive prowess is to place him in space defensively and let him launch his arms at shots, passes, and anything in between.
A faster pace leads to more quick offense, fewer long shot clock possessions, and more opportunities for the Davis and guys like Jrue and Tyreke to wreak havoc. The stats say as much. In the Pels seven fast games, they forced 5 more turnovers over 100 possessions than in their fourteen slow games.
Extending the faster paced defense a little further, we can look at the Pelicans’ defense at different points in the shot clock. The Pels allow teams to shoot the ball at almost 44% in the last four seconds of the shot clock and teams find those shots in roughly 15% of their offensive possessions. That is an awful number compared to elite defensive teams like Chicago, Golden State, and Memphis.
However, the Pels are nearly elite at defending shots coming early in the shot clock. They defend them better than Atlanta, Charlotte, and Portland, all teams with top 10 defensive ratings. Again, it goes back to the Pelicans being a team built to exceed defensively in space, not having to track a lot of movement, screens, and pick&rolls for 24 seconds at a time.
I agree with most who say that the Gentry will make New Orleans better offensively. Shots early in the offense are most efficient, and early offense can mask an offensive deficiency which seems inevitable at either small forward or center. I also think that a faster offensive pace that forces opposing offenses into quicker possessions plays into the strengths of the Pelicans’ defense and makes it better.
Welcome Coach Gentry!! Bring on your speed, let the offense run, and the defense benefit from it. It’s gonna be a hell of a ride.