It’s weird looking at how fast James Harden and the 2013 Houston Rockets played and comparing them to how fast the league played 30 years ago. The pace of last season’s Rockets was 96.1, according to Basketball-Reference, and good for the fastest team in the league. They were one possession faster than the Denver Nuggets who were coached by George Karl, a coach with a knack for creating one of the fastest teams each season.
But if that same Houston squad played at the same pace in 1983 (I highly doubt they would), it would’ve been dead last in the league. The slowest team back then was the Hubie Brown-coached New York Knicks, whose pace was 97.0. Denver was the fastest at a whopping 112.1. (It has to be the altitude, right?)
It’s difficult to see the NBA’s average pace ever going back to what it was like 30 years ago, when it was 103.1, especially with how little it has changed for over a decade. 2004 was when offense in the modern NBA reached a low point but the average pace, 90.1, was only slightly down from seasons before when it was around 91. It still hasn’t changed much since then, averaging out last season at 92.
The emphasis this season on delays of game may lead to a rise in pace if teams adjust, creating fast break opportunities as soon as the ball goes through the net and initiated by the deep pool of speedy, athletic point guards that exist today.
The change would be minuscule, though. There’s so much to cover about the NBA 30 years ago–a time when I wasn’t even alive–to now on why getting back to an ‘80s pace is so challenging. One of the more noticeable aspects when looking at games from that decade is the defense compared to now. It’s more sophisticated now than ever before with the schemes and personnel to work with. Teams now also can’t just fire away from anywhere on the court when advanced metrics tell us the mid-range jumper is the worst shot in basketball, and there’s been an overemphasizing of taking away fast break opportunities, just to name a couple more elements. Plenty more can be included.
But it’s worth noting that even though the pace of last season’s Rockets are no match for the even the slowest of teams 30 years ago, their offensive efficiency, 109.7, would’ve tied for third-best. (Here’s a great, though dated piece about its relation to pace.) Defensively, they would’ve been in the top ten as well. And while the pace continues to be that of a snail, scoring is back up from when teams averaged just 93.4 points in 2004, mostly thanks to rule changes allowing for more crowd-pleasing play.
There’s something to be said about all of that. Teams with a faster, more hectic pace than the Rockets would be exciting to watch, at least at first. But if it didn’t result in similar efficient scoring emphasized right now, I’m not so sure it’d be worth it.