Pace vs Transition

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Published: July 1, 2019

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry is known for his uptempo offense. In a league that has grown faster and faster in recent years, the Pelicans ranked 2nd in pace, at nearly 104 possessions per 48 minutes. However, looking at the transitions stats from Cleaning The Glass, the Pelicans rank 14th in the frequency of possessions that occur in transition. These things seem at odds with each other. Cleaning the Glass defines a possession as transition by estimating whether or not the defense is set. From an answer by the site’s founder Ben Falk:

It’s based on how much time has passed from the event that ended the previous possession (with some somewhat complicated logic depending on what the previous event was)

Measuring by seconds after possession change is a more direct way to measure what we mean by pace. By that metric, the Pelicans rank as the 5th fastest team in the NBA, averaging 12 seconds between change of possession and shot in total. But, the previous event (how the previous opponent possession ended) is also an important factor, especially for the Pelicans.

Possessions that change on a defensive rebound or live ball turnover are considered live ball. Possessions that change on a made shot, dead ball turnover, violation, or period start are considered dead ball. And shots that come after an offensive rebound or timeout are excluded completely.

Using the idea of facing a set defense, a live ball possession change is necessary to be considered transition offense, where the Pelicans play at only a slightly above average pace. Their 21st ranked opponent FG% and 23rd ranked opponent TOV% also limit their chances at live ball change of possession.

We can look at the league average distribution of shots, by time after possession change and how the previous possession ended.

(This chart will be used throughout the article, the dots show the efficiency of shots that occur at that amount of time after possession change with the axis on the left. The bars represent the volume of shots that occur at this time with the axis on the right)

After Dead Ball Possession Change – NBA League Average

After Live Ball Possession Change – NBA League Average

In any case, the benefit of playing fast is clear as efficiency tends to degrade the longer you take to get a shot up.

If we overlay the Pelican’s distribution over the league average, you can see how much the Pelicans are pushing the tempo (compared to league average) after a dead ball change of possession, but not so much in live ball situations.

After Dead Ball Possession Change – Pelicans

After Live Ball Possession Change – Pelicans

There’s a clear benefit to getting shots at 10 seconds as opposed to 16 seconds into the possession after a dead ball possession change, but those possessions are still likely to come against a set defense.

With all that in mind, the Pelicans true “pace” is likely somewhere in between what the two metrics would suggest. Alvin Gentry was recently quoted saying he would be disappointed if the Pelicans didn’t lead the league in pace next year. I don’t think coach was specifically referring to any specific numerical metric, but I will be watching the number of transition opportunities they’re able to create more closely than simply the number of possessions in their game.

The Thunder were the fastest team in the NBA by seconds after possession change and were second in transition frequency; they also led in opponent TOV%. If the Pelicans are going to meet their coach’s expectations, they should look to follow the Thunder Model. Between Ball, Holiday, Ingram, and Williamson the Pelicans have much more size on the perimeter than last year, and with that the ability to be more aggressive and force turnovers.

All Possessions – Thunder

With Alvin Gentry’s uptempo system in mind, last summer Shamit introduced the idea of “Gentry Ball”, more or less, find players who excel early in possessions even if they have deficiencies in the half court with the idea that Gentry’s offensive will maximize those early opportunities. (A recent update on those numbers is posted here).

Looking at the chart of Elfrid Payton’s shots from his previous season in Orlando, you can see that he falls exactly into that mold (includes both after live and dead ball events).

All Possessions – Elfrid Payton (scoring attempts)

Now I want to look at how this applies to some new Pelicans.

Last year the Lakers were 5th in average time between possession change and shot, right behind the Pelicans, so this sort of pace is something they should be accustomed to. The Lakers were a bit more balanced, ranking 4th after live ball events and 6th after dead ball events. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were 3rd in frequency of transition possessions.

Lonzo Ball

Looking at all of Lonzo’s shots, from both years of his career, he fits this mold a bit less than you would expect.

All Possessions – Lonzo Ball (scoring attempts)

Earlier than average, but not to the degree that we see from Payton. On top of that, his scoring efficiency is poor across the board (career 48.7 TS%).

But Lonzo’s value has never been about his scoring, he’s an excellent passer and especially so in transition. This shows up in the data.

After Live Ball Possession Change – Lonzo Ball (Assists)After Dead Ball Possession Change – Lonzo Ball (Assists)

After live ball possession changes, Lonzo is often able to assist on a basket in only a few seconds with 35% of his assists in those situations happening less than 5 seconds after the possession change. His assists also trend early after dead ball events, similar to the Pelicans offense, but again these are likely not what is considered transition offense.

None of this can account for plays where he passes to an assist in transition, or generally helps spark transition in a way that’s not recorded in the box score. In both years of his career, Lonzo has rated in the 90th+ percentile in terms of increasing the frequency in which his team generates transition opportunities. (This is also something we saw from Elfrid Payton in the first 3 years of his career but has strangely has not been the case in the last two seasons.)

Taking all of this together and I think we start to see a pretty clear picture of how Lonzo Ball can help this Pelicans team push their pace.

Brandon Ingram

We have 3 years of data on Ingram, which is convenient as that’s all of the data that I’ve collected so far. Ingram is much more of a scorer than he is anything else at this point in his career. Despite playing for a team that’s been in the top 5 in pace in every year of his career, Ingram’s shot profile is very average with regard to timing.

All Possessions – Brandon Ingram (scoring attempts)

Additionally, the Lakers tend to get in transition a bit less when Ingram was in the game. They usually fell in the 90th+ percentile of transition frequency with him on the court, and the on/off difference was pretty small; but it’s not at all the effect we see with Ball.

There’s obviously still a lot of value to a player like Ingram. The Pelicans won’t be able to run transition for every possession, and they will need guys like Ingram who can create in the half court; but Ball does seem to be a cleaner fit from day one in this regard.

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