Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
| November 5, 2007
It's a time-honored tradition of NBA training camp. A head coach promises to push the tempo, only to slow things down and call plays from the sidelines by the time the scores start counting. Seattle SuperSonics Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo
even admitted as much last month, when he was talking about the Sonics playing at a quicker speed.
Three games into the season, however, the team has more than fulfilled Carlesimo's fast-paced prophesies. Through the first partial week of the 2007-08 campaign, the Sonics are the NBA's fastest team, averaging 104.3 possessions per game. While the pace is partially explained by facing up-tempo opponents Denver and Phoenix, the Sonics were able to run right with the Suns, scoring 21 fast-break points to Phoenix's 22.
"We definitely want to play at a quick pace, and we definitely want to be a good defensive team."
The Sonics are part of a league-wide trend toward faster play. When the Suns came out of nowhere to post the NBA's best regular-season record in 2004-05, Mike D'Antoni
's first full season as head coach, they were something of an anomaly. They led the NBA in pace of play two straight seasons. By last year, however, both Golden State and Denver played faster than Phoenix.
Now, the success enjoyed by the Suns and Warriors, as well as the Nuggets, has inspired teams around the league. After the first week of the season, Phoenix, Denver and Golden State rank third, fourth and sixth in the NBA, respectively, in possessions per game. The Indiana Pacers are the league's second-fastest team; like the Sonics, they're pushing the pace under a new head coach.
"It's good," D'Antoni said before the Suns played the Sonics. "Obviously, it's a lot easier to do that because of the success of teams like Golden State."
The trend toward faster play is even more obvious at the league level. Last year, NBA teams averaged 90.6 possessions per 48-minute game. That was the first time since 1999-00 that teams had averaged more than 90 possessions per game. In the early going this year, the pace has taken a huge leap upwards to 93.5 possessions per 48 minutes.
Faster play has, naturally, translated into more scoring. In the early going, no fewer than 15 teams are averaging at least 100 points per game. That's up from nine in 2006-07, and would be the most in the NBA since 1994-95, when 16 of the league's 27 teams scored triple-digits.
Where the Sonics diverge from many of their fast-paced brethren is in the emphasis Carlesimo also places on defense. Up-tempo teams are associated with offense, and while that is partially because more possessions inevitably mean more points, teams like Golden State and Phoenix have boasted stronger offenses than defenses.
"We're going to try and walk the line," Carlesimo said during training camp. "It's not an easy line to play at this pace offensively and be a good defensive team. That's not an easy combination, nor is it easy to play man and play zone, but we want to try and do that. We definitely want to play at a quick pace, and we definitely want to be a good defensive team."
When that combination works, misses and steals turn into easy buckets at the other end, producing a combination that is tough to stop and highly entertaining. Sonics fans should know. Few teams have pulled it off better than the mid-'90s Sonics. In 1995-96, the Sonics played at the league's third-fastest pace but boasted the league's second-best defense on a per-possession basis.
The first half of the matchup with Phoenix showed what the Sonics could eventually do on a regular basis. In that half, in which the Sonics outscored the Suns 58-55, they had seven steals and turned 11 Phoenix turnovers into 17 points. The Sonics also had 17 fast-break points and outhustled the Suns on the glass. The KeyArena crowd reacted to the scrappy play.
"I think it's going to be fun to watch," said Nick Collison during training camp. "We're going to play hard, we're going to try to run."
So far, so good.