HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — With the way the San Antonio Spurs eviscerated the Miami Heat defense on their way to the largest point differential in Finals history, ball movement has become a hot topic around the NBA. (You could say that the Spurs have spurred a ball-movement movement.)
The Cavs, Knicks, Nets, Pacers, Thunder and Warriors are among the many teams who have given lip service to moving the ball better this season. And why not? More movement should make your team tougher to guard and give it a better chance to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
In the past, there wasn’t a great way to measure ball movement. We had assist ratio (AST/FGM), but an assist could be recorded without a lot of ball movement, a lot of ball movement doesn’t necessarily lead to an assist, and assigning assists is ultimately at the discretion of the official scorer.
Now, we have SportVU. And the presence of its cameras in every arena can give us a much better picture of how much teams really move the ball … and move themselves. The cameras track every movement on the court, both by the players and the basketball.
The Spurs are the first team that come to mind when discussing ball movement. But they ranked fourth in passes per possession last season, according to SportVU, behind Charlotte, Chicago and Utah.
Those three were all bottom-seven offensive teams, though. One reason they passed more often is because they often went deep into the shot clock without finding a good shot. The Jazz took a league-high 21 percent of their shots in the final six seconds of the shot clock. The Bulls (20 percent, fourth highest rate) and Bobcats (17 percent, 10th highest rate) took a lot of their shots in the final six seconds too.
To account for that, SportVU can look at passes on a per-minute basis. And to simplify things, it can isolate passes and player movement in the frontcourt on possessions that lasted more than six seconds (to eliminate fast breaks).
When we do that, we see that the Spurs do moved the ball more than any other team, more than 15 times per minute. The Bobcats were still near the top of the list, but the Jazz (14.1) and Bulls (13.9) ranked ninth and 11th respectively.
The league average was about 13.6 passes per minute (one every 4.4 seconds), and the Golden State Warriors are at the bottom of the list at 11.7 passes per minute, a number which might change with a new coach.
The Sacramento Kings were just above the Warriors at 11.9 passes per minute, but interestingly, ranked high in terms of player movement.
Not surprisingly, the Spurs were at the top of this list, too. Not only is the ball moving in San Antonio’s offense, but so are the players. Tony Parker is passing off and circling under the basket before getting the ball back at the top of the key. Tiago Splitter is setting multiple screens on most possessions. And Danny Green is running from corner to corner to get open while his defender is focused on the ball.
The Bobcats, Sixers, Wizards, Jazz and Bucks also ranked in the top 10 in both ball and player movement. The Warriors, Pistons, Knicks and Thunder, meanwhile, ranked in the bottom 10 in both.
There was a decent correlation between ball movement and player movement, but there were teams that ranked high in one and not the other.
The Kings and Pelicans each ranked in the top five in player movement, but in the bottom five in ball movement. New Orleans ranked third in the league in drives, but was the team most likely to shoot on those drives.
On average, about 65 percent of drives would result in a drawn foul or a shot by the driver. Tyreke Evans (70 percent), Eric Gordon (79 percent) and Austin Rivers (82 percent) were all guys who drove a lot, but not for the purpose of finding an open teammate.
The Kings’ offense featured a lot of cutting, but not a lot of passes. Isaiah Thomas led all starting point guards in seconds (of possession) per touch (5.45). And DeMarcus Cousins (1.95) led all power forwards and centers in the same category.
On the other side of the ledger were the Clippers and Lakers, who ranked high in ball movement (eighth and fifth, respectively), but low in player movement (22nd and 25th).
The Clippers’ offense is a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls and a solid helping of post-ups, each of which draw extra defenders to the ball and create open looks for other guys. But those other guys aren’t moving that much when they’re not involved in the primary action. The Lakers, with far less talent, often swung the ball around the perimeter until somebody had enough space to launch a three.
Is better ball movement the answer?
The Spurs move the ball beautifully, move themselves often, ranked sixth in offensive efficiency in the regular season and took it to a new level in The Finals. But the Spurs are special.
There is no correlation between ball movement and offensive efficiency. Three top-10 offenses — Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Toronto — ranked in the bottom 10 in ball movement (passes per minute in half-court possessions). And five bottom-10 offenses — Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Utah, Charlotte and the Lakers — ranked in the top 10.
If you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, you don’t need to move the ball that much. And if you have the combination of Goran Dragic and Channing Frye, you’re going to get some great shots by just running a pick-and-roll. If you don’t have enough talent, it’s not going to matter much how much you move the ball.
The same goes with player movement. As noted above, the Clippers ranked 22nd in player movement (team distance per minute in half-court possessions), and they had the No. 1 offense in the league.
You might think that better ball movement allows you to better sustain your offensive success in the playoffs, when you’re facing defenses that know all your players and aim to take away your primary actions. But last year, there was no correlation between teams that moved the ball well in the regular season and those that improved offensively in the playoffs.
Again, the Spurs are special.