Advanced Metrics Handbook, Vol. 3: Pace

Part of an occasional series explaining some of the advanced statistical terms employed at Orlando Pinstriped Post. Today's topic: pace.

The Golden State Warriors have put up impressive scoring numbers since re-hiring head coach Don Nelson in 2006. In the four seasons since then, the Warriors have ranked second, first, second, and second in points per game, with an overall scoring average of 108.7 points per game. He's an offensive genius!

Or maybe not. The biggest problem with per-game statistics, especially on the team level, is that they fail to account for pace, which refers to the number of possessions a team uses per game. The famed North Carolina coach Dean Smith is said to have defined "possession" as, roughly, what occurs during the time one team has the ball without giving it back to its opponent. As we'll see below, pace uses traditional boxscore statistics to estimate the number of possessions each team uses. On a single-game level, one can comb through play-by-play data to count the possessions individually, but pace is a solid, shorthand way to get an accurate figure from larger sample sizes. From there, we can learn more about teams' tendencies and true aptitudes.

The formula:

0.96 * (FGA + 0.44 * FTA + TO - OReb

In plain English:

Pace counts the myriad ways a possession can end: via a shot attempt, a free throw, or a turnover. It adjusts for possessions that extend after a shot attempt by disregarding offensive rebounds, and accounts for technical and and-one free throw chances by multiplying total foul-shot attempts by 0.44.

What it's for:

Pace levels the playing field, so to speak, when it comes to evaluating teams. It doesn't penalize slower, more methodical teams for their style of play, which often hurts their per-game scoring numbers; similarly, it doesn't reward the run-and-gun teams for their style of play, which inflates their per-game stats. Pace is incredibly useful for making apples-to-apples comparisons between teams, as well as considering teams individually.

Pace is the basis for two other key advanced metrics: offensive rating and defensive rating, sometimes referred to offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency, or as points per 100 possessions and points allowed per 100 possessions, respectively. Dividing the number of points scored (or allowed) by the number of possessions, and multiplying that result by 100, used yields a given team's offensive (or defensive) rating, the most accurate way to measure teams' effectiveness on both sides of the ball.

Furthermore, it's important to note that there isn't a correlation between pace and offensive aptitude. Slow-paced teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (87.7 possessions per game last season, 30th) and San Antonio Spurs (91.7, 11th) field quite impressive offenses when one accounts for pace; the Sacramento Kings (94.0, 6th) and Minnesota Timberwolves (96.1, 3rd) are counter-examples, as they play at a fast pace without much good offense to show for it. Ultimately, it comes down to players making shots, and coaches designing gameplans that maximize their players' strengths.

Remember: pace is a descriptive statistic, not an evaluative one; offenssive rating and defensive rating are the evaluative ones. Having a fast pace isn't necessarily good or bad, but having a low offensive rating is bad. Please understand the difference.

The takeaway:

The Warriors indeed put up some eye-popping per-game numbers on offense, largely due to their ranking 1st, 2nd, 1st, and 1st in pace in those years. But when one takes the air out of those stats by adjusting for pace, it becomes clear that Golden State is no great shakes at that end. Referring again to the four seasons since Nelson took over, the Warriors have ranked 20th, 4th, 9th, and 14th in offensive rating.

Within this franmework, we can evaluate players as well. Is scoring 25.5 points per game on the world's fastest team, as Monta Ellis did last year, more impressive than scoring 21.5 per game for the slowest, as Brandon Roy did? Probably not. Adjusting for pace is a crucial basketball concept, and one that more broadcasters and mainstream media types would do well to adopt.

Steering the discussion toward the Orlando Magic, whom this site ostensibly covers on an everyday basis, it's apparent that pace doesn't much affect the Orlando Magic's standing with regard to offense or defense. Here's a look at how the Magic have ranked on offense and defense, both on a per-game and pace-adjusted basis, since coach Stan Van Gundy took the helm in 2007:

Season Offense (Rank) Defense (Rank)
Trad. Adv. Trad. Adv.
2007/08 104.5 (6) 111.3 (7) 99.0 (11) 105.5 (6)
2008/09 101.0 (10) 109.2 (11) 94.4 (6) 101.9 (1)
2009/10 102.8 (6) 111.4 (4) 95.3 (4) 103.3 (3)
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