Statistics and Dreamscapes: On The Cavs’ Transition Game

February 1st, 2010 by John Krolik

One of the most consistent criticisms of the Cavaliers during Mike Brown’s tenure as head coach is that they don’t make enough of an effort to run the ball. On the surface, this rhetoric makes a lot of sense. LeBron James in the transition is one of the most unstoppable forces the NBA has ever seen. He was recently voted the fastest player in the league from baseline to baseline, he weighs 260 pounds, and in the open floor he has enough space to avoid any defender trying to draw a charge. The only possible way to stop LeBron in the open floor is to foul him, and even that doesn’t work sometimes. None of this is new information.

Despite the fact they have this weapon, the Cavs rarely attempt to push the ball. They currently play at the 27th-fastest pace in the league; only Miami, Detroit, and Portland play slower than the Cavaliers.

However, when we look at factors other than pace, it becomes apparent that there there are legitimate reasons behind the Cavs’ methodical offense.

When the Cavs Do Run, They Run Well.

Although statistics for “pace” are easy to find, statistics detailing how many fast-break points a team actually scores are far more elusive. The other week, I finally found a website that makes fast-break point statistics available to the public. Looking at it, it’s apparent that while there’s certainly a correlation between pace and fast-break points, not all teams that try to run are created equal.

Here’s a very simple statistic that gives a rough idea of how efficient teams are when they make an effort to score quick baskets. All I did was take a team’s pace ranking and subtract their ranking in fast-break points. For example, if a team scores the 5th-most fast break points per game playing at the 10th-fastest pace, they would have a rating of +5. Here’s every team in the league this season, ranked in terms of “running efficiency”:

1. Atlanta: +22

2. Philadelphia: +21

3. Charlotte: +13

4. New Orleans: +10

5. Cleveland: +8

6. Dallas: +8

7. Boston: +6

8. Memphis: +6

9. Okla City: +6

10. Houston: +5

11. LA Clippers: +4

12. San Antonio: +3

13. Detroit: +3

14. Golden State: +0

15. Portland: +0

16. Miami: -1

17. Denver: -1

18. Phoenix: -2

19. Minnesota: -3

20. Sacramento: -3

21. Toronto: -3

22. Utah: -3

23. New Jersey: -4

24. Chicago: -6

25. Washington: -8

26. Orlando: -8

27. Milwaukee: -17

28. Indiana: -18

29. LA Lakers: -18

30. New York: -20

Notes On This Section:

-Atlanta and Philadelphia are on a whole different level from everybody else in this category, which makes sense when you consider how athletic both teams are in the open floor.

-People who say how good D’Antoni’s run-and-gun system would be for LeBron might want to consult this data.

-Golden State and Portland are both outliers because of the way I’ve chosen to sort this data. Golden State plays far faster than everybody else, and scores far more fast-break points as well. Portland is the slowest team in the league, and also scores the least amount of fast-break points.

-Finally, when we look at this data, we can see that when Cleveland does choose to push the ball, they’re quite successful at it. Some people will see this and decide that they are picking their spots very well. Others will see it as more evidence that they’re not making enough of an effort to get out in transition, seeing as to how they’re so effective when they do run. However, there are reasons why Cleveland doesn’t run the ball more often.

Defense and The Transition Game

Here’s where things get a little more complicated. Often times, a fast-break starts on the defensive end of the floor. Turnovers are much more likely to lead to a fast-break opportunity than a defensive rebound, for obvious reasons. The issue in this regard for the Cavaliers is that Mike Brown’s defensive system doesn’t force turnovers. He believes in saying in front of the offensive player and showing high on the ball-handler rather than having his players watch the passing lanes and try to gamble for steals. It’s hard to argue with the results, as the Cavs have hung their hat on defense ever since Brown came aboard. Currently, only San Antonio, Toronto, and Phoenix force a lower proportion of opponent turnovers than the Cavaliers do. (It’s not surprising to see the Spurs on that list, as Brown came to Cleveland from the Spurs and brought their defensive system with him.)

When defensive rebounding is brought into the equation, it becomes even clearer that running the ball is more a philosophy than a strategy. It makes sense that defensive rebounding would have an inverse correlation with fast-break efficiency. Every player that’s trying to leak out on the fast-break is a player who isn’t going towards their own basket and trying to snare a rebound. The uptempo Phoenix Suns force fewer turnovers than any other team, but rank 29th in defensive rebound rate. Scott Skiles’ Bucks force tons of turnovers, but also make crashing the defensive boards a point of emphasis. The Warriors rank first in opponent turnovers and dead last in defensive rebounding. (For those of you keeping score at home, the Warriors are also first in pace and fast-break points. Say what you will about Don Nelson, but he is committed to his vision.)

To see which teams tried to give themselves the most opportunities to get out on the break, I made a second quick-and-dirty formula. First, I took the inverse of each team’s ranks in opposing turnovers forced, and gave that number a value from 1-30. (For example, the Warriors, who force more turnovers than anybody else, have a “turnover score” of 30.) Next, I took each team’s ranking in defensive rebounding rate, and gave that a value from 1-30. (Again, the Warriors are the worst defensive rebounding n basketball, so they get another 30.) From there, I added those numbers together, giving us a rough idea of which teams try to give themselves the most transition opportunities on a per-possession basis. Here’s the list:

1. Golden State:    60

2. New Jersey:    50

3. Okla City:    46

4. Boston:    45

5. New York:   45

6. Philadelphia:    43

7. Denver:    41

8. New Orleans:    39

9. Memphis:    39

10. Detroit:    37

11. Atlanta:    36

12. Sacramento:    35

13. Charlotte:    34

14. Dallas:    33

15. Houston:    32

16. Phoenix:    30

17. Milwaukee:    30

18. Indiana:    29

19. LA Clippers:    28

20. Miami:    28

21. Washington:    27

22. Toronto:    26

23. Minnesota:    25

24. Utah:    24

25. LA Lakers:    21

26. Chicago:    20

27. Portland:    17

28. San Antonio:    7

29. Orlando:     7

30. Cleveland:    6

Unsurprisingly, the Cavs rank dead last. Golden State gets a perfect score of 60, and the Lakers’ low score helps explain why they struggle to score fast-break points in spite of their fast pace.

The last thing I did was to make a scatterplot charting my first number, fast break efficiency, against my second number, fast break opportunities. Here’s what the graph looks like:

(Apologies for the drabness of the graph and the lack of a regression line. I can’t figure out how to get a regression line in Google Docs, and can’t figure out how to import an excel graph into Flickr. I hate technology.)

As you can see, the overall correlation is fairly strong, especially when some of the outliers are tossed out. As I mentioned earlier, Golden State makes so much more of an effort to run than everybody else that my graph literally doesn’t know what to do with them. For their fast break to be properly quantified, the numbers would need to be crunched on a raw scale rather than in terms of team rankings. The graph also suggests that the Knicks’ fast-break has been especially awful; it may be time for Mike D’Antoni to fit his system to the talent he has instead of waiting for the next Steve Nash to emerge. The only other teams with an “opportunity” value above 40 and a below-average “efficiency” value are the Nuggets, who are barely below average, and the Nets, who are the Nets.

Another note is that the teams in the 30-40 range on the X-axis seem to have much more success on the fast-break than the teams on the extreme end of the scale. Moderation may be a wise policy when it comes to run-and-gun.

On the other side of the y-axis, the Cavs’ transition game looks much better than it would initially appear. Only the Clippers, Spurs, and Cavaliers have an above-average efficiency rating with a below-average opportunity rating, and the Cavs are more efficient on the break than either of those two teams. This is despite the fact that the Cavs don’t just have a below-average opportunity ranking, but the lowest one in the league.

Overall, I would say that the Cavs’ system could be more fun to watch, especially with the prodigious ability of LeBron James in the open court. However, when they do get the opportunity to run the ball, they do so quite well. Furthermore, creating more of those opportunities could take away from the strengths that have made the Cavs a serious title contender.


Given the basic level of the math involved here, it should be obvious that this is meant more as a snapshot than a definitive thesis. I’m looking to start a discussion on what makes an effective uptempo team, not finish it. Hopefully you guys find this stuff interesting and can contribute some thoughts of your own on the subject.