The Skiles Style
Coach Skiles and a history of fast-paced teams
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Scott Skiles wants to play fast. He always has.
So it should not have been so surprising that the Bucks played at the third fastest pace in the NBA during the 2011-12 regular season. But of course, it was sort of surprising.
After all, the Bucks had ranked in the lower half of the league in pace factor during each of the previous two seasons under Skiles, falling all the way to 25th in 2010-11 – which was the same season that the team finished last in offensive efficiency.
Before the 2011-12 season, on Media Day, Coach Skiles strongly reaffirmed his long-standing ideal of playing fast-paced basketball.
"There has never been a moment where I have been a coach anywhere where that has not been a point of emphasis. We are looking to peel that thing off the board, push the ball up quickly, if a good shot presents itself early in the clock, we want to take it. But we want to make it. If you make your share of those, it's incredible what happens."
This time, the Bucks practiced what their coach preached.
Before diving into 2011-12, let's rewind for a moment back to 1990-91. "Goodfellas" was in theaters. "The Simpsons" was a new television show. Michael Jordan was on the cusp of his first NBA title. And a 26 year-old Scott Skiles was the starting point guard, top scorer, and leading assist man for the positively up-tempo Orlando Magic.
In just their second year of existence, the Magic improved 13 games in the win column to 31-51 while playing at the sixth fastest pace in the NBA. Three years later, with a budding Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway now the focal points of the offense, Skiles played all 82 games. And while the team utilized O'Neal in the halfcourt and their paced slowed some, they picked their spots in transition and still played at a faster pace than most teams in the league.
In fact, in six of his final seven seasons playing in the NBA, Skiles played on teams in the faster-paced half of the league.
When we talk about how fast teams play, we are not referencing how fast they literally run. What we are really talking about is pace factor. Pace factor is an estimate of the number of possessions a team uses per game (or, more specifically, per 48 minutes played). So, teams that shoot early in the shot clock tend to use more possessions in a game, and thus, have a higher pace factor.
The stat is not inherently good or inherently bad – some teams play well at a fast pace, others play well at a slow pace. Some teams just play well. For instance, the Spurs played at the seventh fastest pace in the NBA this season and boasted the best offensive rating overall. Back in 2004-05, the Spurs ranked 24th in pace factor and ninth in offensive rating.
In 2010-11, the Bucks ranked 25th in pace factor and finished 30th in offensive efficiency. This past season, they finished third in pace factor and 12th in offensive efficiency. The offensive reinvention may have taken Bucks fans by surprise, but just as Skiles had a strong history of playing at a fast pace, he also had an even stronger history of coaching teams playing at a fast pace.
Skiles broke into the head coaching ranks with the 1999-2000 Suns. That team ranked 10th in pace factor. In his next two seasons in Phoenix, the team finished seventh and 10th respectively in pace factor – and keep in mind this preceded the Steve Nash-led "Seven Seconds or Less" era in the desert. Skiles then moved on to the Bulls, who never finished lower than 11th in pace factor in any of his five seasons as head coach.
Even in his first season with the Bucks, the team ranked 11th in pace factor. But they fell to 19th and then 25th in the following two seasons, marking the two slowest-paced teams Skiles had either played on or coached in the NBA. And it wasn't working, at least offensively. In 2010-11, the Bucks ranked last in offensive efficiency. But there was a curious trend at play during that season: The team went 23-18 in their 41 fastest-paced games and 12-29 in their 41 slowest-paced games.
This season, the team ran and ran and jumped all the way back up to third in pace factor. No team in the NBA got faster – how can I put this – faster than the Bucks.
Most teams slowed down in this lockout-shortened season. The average pace factor league-wide was 91.3 – down from 92.1 in 2010-11. Actually, this season was the slowest-paced since the 2005-06 season.
But the Bucks bucked this pace-slowing trend, just as they bucked the downward offensive trend in the NBA this season. They played faster with a better offensive efficiency at the same time the league played slower with a worse offensive efficiency. Skiles can rightfully be credited for promoting a more up-tempo pace – but this is also about the players buying into and, ultimately, excelling in the Skiles style.
The late-season swap of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh (along with Kwame Brown) played a part in the team maintaining an up-tempo style. Ellis and Udoh came from a Warriors offense best-known for its wide-open, fast-paced style. But the acceleration was in the works well before that deal. One month into the season, on Jan. 25, the Bucks already ranked ninth in pace factor.
Offseason additions such as Shaun Livingston, Mike Dunleavy, and Beno Udrih proved that the basketball can indeed move much faster than anyone can run. And so the up-tempo game was largely spurred on by fast, forward-looking ball movement, as the Bucks finished third in the NBA in assists per game. The team passed early in the shot clock and often, registering 14.0 fastbreak points per game – 10th most in the NBA – one season after finishing last overall averaging just 10.0 fastbreak points.
The newfound dedication to playing up-tempo basketball was aesthetically pleasing and helped energize the offense in new, efficient directions. However, the flipside is that the defense suffered a major dip in 2011-12, falling from fourth to 16th in defensive rating. With an emphasis on quickly pushing forward, the defensive woes were compounded by the fact that the team dropped from seventh to 25th in defensive rebound percentage, allowing additional scoring opportunities for opponents. But are successful defenses and up-tempo offenses mutually exclusive?
Not necessarily. A few teams managed this season to combine an up-tempo offense with defensive success. The Knicks ranked fifth in both pace factor and defensive rating, while the Thunder ranked sixth in pace factor and 10th in defensive rating. Perhaps even more notably, Skiles had found this balance in the past as a coach. In 2006-07, he led the Bulls to the top overall defensive rating while playing at the seventh fastest pace. Plus, that team did not push the ball at the expense of covering the glass, as they finished 10th in defensive rebound percentage.
"We're looking for good and great results and a long and happy relationship. It's on that basis that we're going forward."
That is what Senator Herb Kohl, owner of the Bucks, recently said in reference to both Skiles and General Manager John Hammond. Skiles is returning for at least one more season. With an important free agency period and NBA draft upcoming, it is too early to make predictions. Just don't be surprised if the season goes fast.
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