Last season, the Denver Nuggets experimented with several different styles of play. Coming into training camp, head coach Brian Shaw was determined to rid the Nuggets of the fast paced, drive-and-kick style that had become a staple under George Karl. The theory was that the run-and-gun style of play was not conducive to playoff success. To change that, principles of the triangle were installed; namely, initiating the offense through a post entry pass. The experiment was met with mostly negative results as the Nuggets had a losing record at the mid-way point of the season.
There were several forces at play that attributed to the Nuggets’ bad year, injuries are chief among them. Danilo Gallinari missed the entire year with a knee injury, while the Nuggets lost JaVale McGee just five games into the season. Any team that loses two starters in the first week of the season would struggle. But Shaw’s desire to become a slow it down, grind it out team was almost certainly misguided given the team’s biggest strengths: depth, speed and altitude.
The advantage of playing at altitude isn’t an old wives tale or a mind game. It’s an actual, physical, scientific fact that playing and training at altitude gives you an advantage. Teams that are not accustomed to playing at altitude will be more fatigued when exerting the same level of energy in Denver’s thin air than they would at sea level. Likewise, players who train at altitude will be better conditioned when playing at sea level. Add the fact that the Nugget’s have a deep, youthful bench but lack a true super star, or all-star for that matter, and you can see why they are wise to push the pace.
Sidenote: In 2013, Shaw cited D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns as a team that played at a league-leading pace but couldn’t produce championships during the playoffs. The argument is a complete fallacy – “they didn’t win so don’t do what they did.” It’s the type of anecdotal reactionism that permeates the conversation amongst casual basketball fans. It’s the type of thinking that says the only lessons of history are those taught by the winners. In truth, the Suns were incredibly close to winning a championship in the seven seconds or less era, and there are a lot of useful lessons to learn from that team.
Heading into training camp this season, Shaw seems to have made a subtle yet important shift in his stance on the Nuggets as a run and gun team. “We want to get out and run. We played at a fast pace last year. We want to play at an even faster pace this year,” Shaw said at Media Day on Monday. “I still want us to execute in the half court when it’s time for us to execute in the half court.” The implication of these statements seems to be that he has embraced that the team needs to run to maximize their talents. Where before he wanted to execute first, run second, now that priority structure seems to have been reversed.
It’s a good shift and one that I think suits the Nuggets’ roster best. But running up and down the court is only part of the equation. Using the team’s depth and altitude to it’s fullest potential requires a second type of “pace.” That is, a team’s movement and motion in the half court. Let’s call it “Half Court Pace.” Thanks to SportVu player tracking, we know how far teams and individual players run per game. The Nuggets as a team ran 7th farthest last season, logging a total of 1384.0 miles. The high ranking is to be expected of a team that finished 3rd in pace, more possessions means more trips up and down the court. But what about the Nuggets’ half court offense?
Using the formula of team distance traveled per 48 minutes and dividing that by the number of possessions per 48 minutes, we get a rough idea of how far a team runs per possession. First off, let me address the formula’s obvious flaws. We are looking for offensive movement but breaking down possessions this way means that one possession equals one offensive and defensive possession. Additionally, a steal at half court turned into a fast break layup would count as a possession even though it would be likely that the team’s distance traveled in that possession was minimal. These variables certainly are not accounted for in this overly simplistic formula but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. After all, the distance a team moves on defense is largely congruent to how much the offense they are guarding moves, and in that sense, it should be somewhat constant for all teams.
Minor flaws aside, after running the formula for all 30 teams in the league, we get some interesting results. The Nuggets, who were 3rd in pace and 7th in total distance, are 28th in distance per possession. The Spurs, on the other hand, who were 10th in pace and 1st in total distance, are far and above the rest of the field in distance per possession. The only team close to them is the Chicago Bulls who ran nearly equal distances per possession yet played at the leagues 2nd slowest pace.
This is relevant for a few reasons. The Spurs had three of the top 6 players in distance traveled per 48 minutes of all players who played at least 30 games and at least 10 minutes per game, four if you count Nando de Colo, who played 26 of his 47 games last season with San Antonio. In fact, almost all of the Spurs’ guards were in the top 50 in the league last year in individual half court pace.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, only had one player in the top 50 in half court pace: Timofey Mozgov. When on the court, Mozgov ran further than anyone else on the Nuggets! This is partially explainable. Centers run from end to end on most possessions so they rack up a bit more mileage along the way. Additionally, the Nuggets used the 1-5 pick-and-roll as a staple of their offense, so Mozgov was frequently running end to end and then coming back to the top of the key to set a screen. But the fact that the Nuggets ran so much up and down the court but didn’t have anyone in the top 50 in distance per 48 is indicative of their stagnant offense.
Lets look at the 4th quarter film of a game against Charlotte last season that perfectly illustrates the Nuggets’ wasted opportunities to get movement and wear a team out. In this clip, the Nuggets run a pin down action and send the corner shooter through to create space for Faried to get deep post position. It’s by no means a complicated set, but just a little bit of motion gets the Nuggets a great look at a shot. Charlotte doesn’t necessarily expend a bunch of energy defending this set but the corner cut through forces Josh McRoberts to shift over into help long enough for Faried to establish post position.
On the very next possession, the Nuggets run an isolation for Foye who has a favorable matchup. The problem is that they don’t run any off ball or through action and the other four players are reduced to standing around. The contested pull-up jumper misses but even if it were to go in there would be consequences of running sets like this, especially late in the game. Charlotte was playing on the road and their star player is a 7-foot, lumbering post player who was grabbing his knees throughout the 2nd half. Allowing him or any other players the opportunity to take a defensive series off is letting them off of the hook.
Just one minute later, the Nuggets run HORNS with Chandler and Foye in the corners to stretch the defense while Hickson comes up to play pick and roll with Fournier. The action works as Fournier hits a tough contested pull up jumper but notice how stagnant the other four players are on the court. Foye and Chandler don’t move while Faried spends the entire possession sizing up rebounding position amongst three defenders. It’s a 2-minute stretch of 4th quarter basketball where a road weary, slow plodding Bobcats team is allowed to stand still in the half court and catch it’s breath.
Late in the game, Mozgov follows up a solid defensive sequence by running the court and establishing post position on Al Jefferson who, at this point, can barely jog. Even though Chandler doesn’t see him on the break, Mozgov continues to make Jefferson work and ultimately gets deep post position and scores. It was a great play and gave the Nuggets a 2 point lead with just over 2 minutes in the 4th. Unfortunately, the next three possessions were all isolation post-ups that allowed the defense to hold their positions. The Nuggets would go on to lose this game and begin the worst stretch of their season, losing 13 of 16.
Contrast the Nuggets’ offense in that game with the Single-Double or “Floppy” set that the Spurs run to perfection. Marco Belinelli begins the action by running around a screen to receive a pass. It isn’t a great screen but it is enough to make Foye have to chase him and use energy. Following the pass, Tony Parker runs the baseline and comes off of a double screen while Kawhi Leonard comes off of a single screen, hence the play’s name. Not only are the defenders forced to give chase to the cutters, but even Faried who is defending the screener is forced into help side a few feet allowing for a series of passes that ultimately lead to a basket.
Another example of the Spurs’ strategic difference in the half court is the way that they run and execute the fast break. Notice how Ginobili calls for the outlet pass but doesn’t receive it. Immeditely he switches to transition mode and sprints to the corner. When Patty Mills’ first option, the pick and roll, isn’t open, Ginobili sprints to receive the dribble hand off and come off of another screen. When the dribble penetration isn’t open for Ginobili he kicks it to the corner for 3. To Manu’s surprise, Belinelli doesn’t take the shot and so Ginobili sprints once again back to the far corner.
This is the best type of fast break. It utilizes both full court pace and half court pace. The Nuggets are forced to sprint up and down and left and right. The result is a tiny lapse in Foye’s focus and he gives up the easy backdoor cut for an and 1.
Obviously it isn’t fair to compare the Nuggets of last season to the champion caliber Spurs. But this Nuggets team has a lot in common with the Spurs. They both have point guards that are great at dribble penetration. They both have deep benches and great shooters on the perimeter. Coach Shaw has said that there shouldn’t be much drop off between the starters and the bench and no team exemplified that more last season than the Spurs, who played their starters fewer minutes than any other team in the league.
Execution in the half court is important to run an efficient offense. But a team playing at altitude can make up for a lot of mistakes if they are committed to leading the league in both pace and half court pace. The Nuggets coaching staff can increase their half court pace by installing offensive sets that utilize more movement. Princeton sets like Chin High is one set that would work particularly well for the dribble penetration of Lawson and Robinson since it requires a lot of space below the free throw line for players to execute long cuts. Floppy is another set that the Nuggets should steal. The Spurs came at teams in waves, last season. Above all else, the Nuggets should aim to replicate that.