WASHINGTON — ‘Pace’ in basketball is a stat measured by the number of possessions each team averages per game and by those guidelines the Wizards are playing quite a bit slower than they did last year. Last season, with Russell Westbrook storming down the court, they led the league with an average of 104.1 possessions. This year, they are 18th at 98.6, meaning they have 5.5 fewer possessions per game on average.
While personnel changes have to be noted (the speedy Ish Smith is also gone), the slow-down has been by design. First-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has a detailed philosophy on the subject and recently explained his reasoning in pregame press conferences.
“I think the more important marker for me is efficiency. I know I’ve said it before, there’s no correlation between pace and winning. Yeah, you get all those possessions, but are you taking quality shots? I’d rather err on the latter and the efficiency,” Unseld Jr. said before Wizards win over the Grizzlies on Friday.
“Slow us down, keep us organized. It helps us on both sides of the ball. We’re getting quality looks, we have better floor balance and hopefully, we’re not always on our heels. That puts you, in my opinion, at a deficit.”
Though the Wizards’ offensive rating this season (108.5) is technically worse than it was last year (111.2), they have moved up from 17th in the category to 13th, as scoring is down league-wide. Meanwhile, their defensive rating has gone from 19th (113.0) to eighth (104.2) year-over-year.
The Wizards seem to be doing a better job of controlling the pace and achieving what Unseld Jr. refers to as “floor balance.” It has helped them limit easy buckets in transition, as they allow the fewest fastbreak points in the league (8.2/g).
Unseld Jr., though, does not mean he wants his team to play slower than their opponents. He just wants them to maximize possessions. And he will also point out that ‘pace’ as measured statistically by the NBA isn’t the only indicator of how fast a team plays.
“I don’t care if we walk the ball up and out-execute every possession. I’ll take that over just running up and down, taking quick shots. You say that and I think the word gets misunderstood. You still want to play with pace in the halfcourt where there’s body and ball movement,” he said before the Wizards’ win over the Bucks on Sunday.
“You want to initiate your offense with 20 seconds or more so now you can play first, second or third side. You’re not always playing up against the clock, you’re not always falling into one-on-one situations with seven or eight seconds left in the possession.”
The Wizards still cover a lot of ground. According to Second Spectrum, their players average the fourth-most distance traveled per game (18.32 miles) and the third-most on offense (10.05). That suggests the Wizards have a lot of movement in their offense despite having the third-fewest transition plays per game.
Washington ranked in the top-10 among NBA teams in pace in each of the three years before Unseld Jr. was hired as head coach. He has brought a new way approach to utilizing speed. Judging by their 7-3 start, it is working well so far.