Playing fast doesn’t guarantee success in NBA

The referees may be in contractual limbo, but the NBA has its style police busy setting the agenda for the coming year.

Will living in a copycat world inspire the league’s coaching masterminds to orchestrate the game in a different fashion when the new season commences? Is the fast pace that made the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors so compelling a few years ago in danger of being pushed out the door? Is the waltz tempo preferred by the sideline sharpies in Cleveland about to take hold?

For starters, let’s backpedal to our copycat reference and examine the NBA’s most recent championship team. While on the Finals catwalk last June, the Los Angeles Lakers — at first blush — seemed like a finesse team playing a quick tempo while blessed with enough engaged defenders to make a sufficient number of stops.

An examination of the hard data indicates that Phil Jackson’s team checked in as the league’s fifth-fastest team; please note that the pace attached to each NBA team is calculated as the number of possessions achieved per 48 minutes. It is here where the promising (in terms of points-generated fun) tempo promulgated by the likes of Mike D’Antoni and Don Nelson begins to smell like the wrong way to go … if your intent is to seize a championship.

According to the possession-frequency numbers, the league’s four-fastest teams from last season all failed to qualify for the NBA playoffs. And the teams playing at the slowest tempo were working well into the postseason. It should be noted that the Phoenix Suns — after firing coach Terry Porter and promoting former D’Antoni assistant Alvin Gentry — rallied to finish fourth in speedy tempo but made their doomed playoff run while working without injured top scorer Amare’ Stoudemire.

Anyway, with D’Antoni now attempting to outscore the world in New York (and dreaming of coaching LeBron James), it should be noted that the playing-fast-is-foolish premise might have been retired for quite a while if commissioner David Stern had not allowed a body block by San Antonio Spurs forward Robert Horry to alter the course of the NBA playoffs in 2007.

Had the Suns been at full strength for the entire Western Conference finals series, I strongly believe they would finished the Spurs, taken down the Cavaliers in The Finals and provoked widespread attempts at duplicating D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less format. That would have created a scoring salvo capable of goosing greater fan interest among those who don’t bother to whine about how the NBA isn’t as tactically pristine as college hoops.

This missed opportunity for offensive and marketing paradise may, at least, demonstrate that Stern is more foolish than fiendish.

So, with D’Antoni hoping to eventually hire enough talent in New York to turn his system into a juggernaut and Nellie doing whatever he can to avoid defense in Oakland, most of the league’s coaches began slowing things down a bit more.

A great example of going from a brisk warp factor to a more possession-squeezing style was seen last season in Denver, where — even before launching Allen Iverson to Detroit — George Karl returned to his defensive-oriented roots. On offense, the Nuggets dipped from first in pace the season prior to fifth, eliminating a whopping five possessions per 48 minutes.

Slowing the pace may force a team to attack a defense after it’s already set, but it does enable a coach to make sure his primary scoring options are taking the most shots from prescribed spots on the floor.

In Cleveland, Cavs coach Mike Brown — always a stickler for defense and a reasonable tempo — slowed things down even more last season. But perhaps the most telling statistical change was Cleveland’s offensive efficiency. The Cavs registered at 19 for 2007-2008 in the crucial category of points scored per 100 possessions; with Mo Williams on the payroll to help LeBron create (and make) shots last season, they jumped to fourth.

That must be what creates winning basketball … offensive efficiency, right? Well, not so fast. Even though they still played at a speedy pace last season, the Suns also managed to finish No. 2 in offensive efficiency. The Suns’ big, playoff-missing calamity occurred on defense, where they finished 26th in terms of defensive efficiency.

And now we may be on to something.

If you’re looking for a single, team-statistical area that (for now) may draw the widest line between contender and Secaucus, it’s probably defensive efficiency. Don’t mistake that for fewest points allowed per game; a team can play quite slowly and appear to be fairly stingy even though it surrenders baskets at an unreasonably high rate.

With that cleared up, please note that a great testimony for defensive efficiency was made last season, when 10 of the top 11 stingiest teams per 100 possessions qualified for the playoffs.

Yeah, guarding the other team with a little consistency gives you a really nice opportunity to win a game.

But it’s not that simple. Many of the faster-paced teams lack overpowering low-post punch and choose to squeeze off 3-pointers at a rapid rate as a means of compensation. They use less clock and theorize that a decent conversion rate from beyond the arc will become the great equalizer. It’s not unlike a college football team spreading the field and throwing the ball around because it lacks the recruiting mite to develop a manhandling offensive line.

One reason why NBA speed-embracing coaches fall short of glory is their failure to use defense to make the game even faster. With the eight-second time-line rule and 24-second shot clock, pressure defenses could severely trim the opposition’s ability to create scoring opportunities for superstar players. This would take teams out of their comfort zones and generate a tempo that is favorable to the fast team.

Unfortunately, coaches either have insufficient clout to make their players play that hard on defense or fear of straying that far from traditional NBA philosophical values. Maybe they lack adequate depth to play pressure defense and fear this tactic will lead to chronic fatigue as the six-month-plus season rolls along.

So they rely on pushing the pace with offense, pose as sitting ducks on defense and unwittingly invalidate a fast system of offense as a viable option.

But despite trends, statistics and the style police, the best brand of basketball should be the brand that fits the players a coach has.

There are many ways to win a basketball game. In the end, the most valuable employee could be the lead personnel guy.