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The Best Way To Derail An NBA Offense? Make It Waste Time.

In the modern NBA, there is no resource more valuable than time on the shot clock. In fact, it’s the only thing that teams can’t score without. While it’s tough to put the ball in the basket if you don’t have a high-level ball handler or marksmen to knock down shots and space the floor, it’s not impossible. But once that timer above the backboard hits zero, your opportunity to produce points is over. And in what is once again the most efficient scoring season in league history, every single second has value — perhaps more now than ever before.

A common refrain among coaches and players alike is the need for a team to get into its offense quickly, or to prevent the opposing team from doing the same. Shots taken early in the clock — especially those taken in transition, before the defense has a chance to get set — tend to carry a higher expected value than those taken later, after all. But even initiating your half-court offense with expediency has its benefits. Running the initial action of your set a second or two earlier can mean the difference between having to force a contested jumper just to beat the buzzer, and being able to pump-fake, sidestep and let it fly without a defender breathing down your neck.

These days, the NBA tracks every movement of every player, as well as the ball, 25 times per second, thanks to the Second Spectrum cameras in the catwalks of all 29 arenas.1 Because of the data generated by those cameras, we know exactly how long it takes for each team to get the ball over the half-court line, and how long it takes for them to initiate the first action — whether that means setting the first screen, making the first cut or taking the first dribble toward the basket — in their offense. We also know that the correlation between “getting into your offense quickly” and scoring efficiency on a given possession is sky-high.

The relationship isn’t exactly linear, though. On average over the past 10 seasons,2 the first four seconds of the shot clock within the half-court have been worth more points per 100 possessions (9.68) than the next 11 seconds combined (7.70). That means the earlier in the shot clock that you get the ball up the floor and then perform an offensive action, the better.

All of which brings us to this season’s underdog darlings: the Sacramento Kings. This season, no team has a better offense than Sacramento, which is leading the league in offensive rating by more than a full point per 100 possessions and is on track to set a new league record for scoring efficiency. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Kings are also among the league’s fastest teams at getting into their half-court offense. According to Second Spectrum, only the Indiana Pacers have run their initial offensive action faster on average than the Kings, and even they have done so by a margin of just 0.007 seconds.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Several years ago, Kings coach Mike Brown took part in a coaching training session for Basketball Fundamentals, where he explained his three offensive staples. The very first one was pace: “Getting into your offense with 21 or 20 seconds on the shot clock,” Brown said, noting exactly the range where the drop-off has been steepest. “You need to get into your offense by then so you can get to your third and fourth option, if you need to.” Brown was still a Golden State Warriors assistant at the time of that coaching clinic, but his Kings team has taken the lesson to heart.

If initiating your offense as quickly as possible is desirable, it logically follows that allowing your opponent to do the same is, well … not. But whereas all it really takes to get into your offense quickly is a desire and dedicated commitment to actually doing it, the same is not necessarily true on defense. For the most part, you have to force your opponent to waste time if you want them to waste time. That’s where backcourt pressure comes in.

An NBA court is 94 feet long, and we (unsurprisingly) found that, the farther away from its own goal that a defense starts guarding the opposing team’s ball handler, the longer it will take that opponent to get into its half-court offense.

To measure this pressure effect, we first divided the court into zones by the distance from the basket. When a team picks up the opponent 94 to 79 feet away from the basket (i.e., the furthest 15-foot stretch of the court from the goal), we considered that utilizing “deep backcourt” pressure. Doing the same from 79 to 64 feet away is “medium backcourt” pressure, and doing it from 64 feet away to the midcourt line is just regular old “backcourt” pressure.

Of course, you don’t have to go all the way into the backcourt to pressure the ball handler. Most teams tend to have their offense initiated from just outside the 3-point line, so we also divided the area between the midcourt line and the top of the arc into three zones. Picking up from 47 to 38 feet is utilizing “high frontcourt” pressure, doing it from 38 to 30 feet is “medium frontcourt” pressure and doing it from 30 to 23 feet is “low frontcourt” pressure. Not picking up the ball handler at all until he reaches the 3-point line is what we called “no resistance.”

The correlation between ball handler pickup distance and time to initial offensive action is even stronger than the one between offensive initiation and scoring efficiency. In other words, the more time you want the offense to waste, the farther up the floor you should apply pressure on the ball handler.

That may seem obvious in theory, but it’s impressive to see just how well it works in practice. And while plenty of teams around the league are trying this tactic, no player utilizes it more often than Milwaukee Bucks guard Jevon Carter. According to Second Spectrum, Carter has picked up the ball handler in the backcourt more than 62 percent of the time he has defended the guy bringing it up the floor. That’s the highest rate in the league, with only Atlanta Hawks guard Aaron Holiday joining him above 60 percent.3

“He rolls into the gym, I think, ready to pick up somebody off the bus,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

When Milwaukee signed Carter just two days after he was waived by the Brooklyn Nets last season, it wasn’t a signing that created many waves. But it was one that made a lot of sense, considering the Bucks had utilized a heavy dose of backcourt pressure to swing the NBA Finals in their favor the year before. It was Jrue Holiday doing the pressuring then; bringing in Carter spared Holiday the heavy lifting, allowing the Bucks to ask him to do it more strategically rather than all the time.

Because Carter applies pressure so often, he’s one of just 11 players who is, on average, picking up his man in the backcourt (i.e., at least 47 feet away from the rim). The rest of the group is basically a who’s who of pesky backup guards, led by the king of the backcourt steal himself, Jose “Grand Theft” Alvarado.

The NBA’s most aggressive backcourt defenders

NBA defenders by largest average pickup distance (in feet), plus share of possessions picking up the ball handler, 2022-23 season

Player Team Avg Pickup Dist Poss Pickups Pickup%
Jose Alvarado Pelicans 58.8 ft. 645 381 59.1%
Aaron Holiday Hawks 57.4 516 313 60.7
Jevon Carter Bucks 57.3 975 608 62.4
Miles McBride Knicks 49.5 439 166 37.8
T.J. McConnell Pacers 49.3 725 258 35.6
Cole Anthony Magic 49.1 832 316 38.0
Davion Mitchell Kings 49.0 943 417 44.2
Dennis Schroder Lakers 47.9 1015 341 33.6
Tyrese Maxey 76ers 47.8 941 281 29.9
Nickeil Alexander-Walker Jazz/​Wolves 47.2 452 136 30.1
Josh Okogie Suns 47.2 671 216 32.2

Includes half-court possessions only (i.e., no transition).

Statistics through games of March 15.

Source: Second Spectrum

Also among that group is Knicks guard Miles McBride. Inserted into New York’s rotation in December as part of an effort to help a lagging defense,4 McBride was affectionately described by teammate Obi Toppin as “annoying on defense for other teams” after a pair of games in which his pressure helped spur New York to back-to-back wins to rebound from a three-game losing streak. “But he’s on our team, so we love it.”

For McBride, being annoying is actually part of the point. “Nothing better than seeing a guy [who] you can mentally break and then physically wear down,” McBride said with a laugh. 

“So, if I can do that to the [other] team’s best player?” All the better, says McBride.

And stars are the class of players increasingly facing heavy backcourt pressure. The list of offensive players who are picked up by defenders the farthest away from the rim almost exclusively consists of guys like Luka Dončić and Stephen Curry, who together make up the entire top-seven average pickup distances during the player-tracking era. In fact, nobody other than Dončić, Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul or Trae Young appears on the list until 18th.5

Dangerous stars with logo range get picked up early

NBA ball handlers by largest average defensive pickup distance (in feet), since the 2013-14 season

Player Season Possessions Avg Pickup Dist
Luka Doncic 2022-23 2,047 46.4 ft.
Stephen Curry 2020-21 2,091 44.3
Luka Doncic 2019-20 2,507 44.2
Stephen Curry 2022-23 1,348 43.7
Luka Doncic 2020-21 2,800 43.7
Stephen Curry 2021-22 1,984 43.6
Luka Doncic 2021-22 2,461 43.3

Includes half-court possessions only (i.e., no transition).

2022-23 statistics through games of March 15.

Source: Second Spectrum

It makes sense that these guys would be the ones being defended farthest out on the floor. They’re the league’s most effective drivers of efficient offense, so trying to get them to waste as much time as possible before they begin orchestrating carries huge benefits. As does the mere act of making them work as hard as possible just to get the ball into the frontcourt, which we saw when Holiday hounded Paul during those aforementioned 2021 NBA Finals.

While it may seem trivial, annoyance was actually one of the most common reasons cited by both coaches and players for why they apply backcourt pressure. “Obviously, it can disrupt their rhythm a little bit. It takes time off the clock a little bit. And it can be a little bit of a nuisance, or it can be a little bit of an irritant throughout the course of a game,” Brown said. “Especially when you’ve got a guy like Davion [Mitchell] doing it.”

Mitchell, like McBride, shouted out Carter as arguably the most effective player at pressuring this way. And while he agreed that being annoying has its value,6 he noted that the biggest benefit is actually to the teammates sharing the floor with him. “I mean, it’s better for them so they don’t have to guard multiple ball screens,” he said. “They just have to guard one ball screen and then a quick shot because the shot clock is going down. So, they kind of want me to [pressure].”

Just one player I spoke with was largely unconcerned with taking time off the shot clock, disrupting an opponent’s rhythm, or really any other reasons for pressuring ball handlers in the backcourt beyond just one. “I’m trying to take the ball,” Chicago Bulls guard Patrick Beverley said.7 He’s certainly been successful at doing just that: During the player-tracking era, only two players8 have forced more turnovers with their backcourt pressure than Beverley, whose incessant pestering has resulted in 47 takeaways.

No matter the specific rationale for using the tactic, there are myriad benefits to pressuring the player bringing the ball up the floor. So why is it still not a widely utilized defensive tool? To explain why, I went to perhaps the league’s foremost proponent of pressure: Bucks assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who famously utilized a full-court press more often than almost anyone in league history when he was the head coach of the franchise then known as the Charlotte Bobcats.

“When I got the job at Charlotte, I went and saw Larry Brown. And basically, he said, ‘Just count your possessions. You got maybe 16 bullets.’ Anything that’s 16 or under,9 you know, you play up the floor and put them in a press — no problem. So, on his counsel, I didn’t want to be crazy about it because NBA players, you know, give you everything you got,” Dunlap said. “When it comes to full-court pressure, you know, you have to be judicious in the way you utilize it.”

But even if it has to be used sparingly, there’s no questioning how effective backcourt ball pressure can be at disrupting those precious early-clock seconds, when the offense is at its most efficient.

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  1. There are 30 teams but the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers share Arena.

  2. In other words, during the player-tracking era. 2022-23 season statistics through the All-Star break.

  3. Among the 141 players who have defended ball handlers on at least 400 possessions.

  4. McBride later exited the rotation when the Knicks traded for Josh Hart at the deadline, but he recently reentered it for a few games when Jalen Brunson missed time with a foot injury.

  5. That 18th player? Raymond Felton during the 2016-17 season, weirdly.

  6. “Really, no one likes pressure like that,” he said.

  7. Beverley was still with the Los Angeles Lakers at the time of our conversation.

  8. Dennis Schroder and T.J. McConnell.

  9. Four times per quarter, Dunlap said.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.


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