Last season, the New Orleans Pelicans led the league in pace with an average of 101.6 possessions per 48 minutes. After the first week of NBA action this season, a whopping two-thirds of the league was operating at a faster rate than that. Now, with every team past the 10-game mark, that number has dwindled … to 16. But what has been dubbed the NBA’s “pace boom” is more of a shorthand for a confluence of factors that have become inseparable from present-day NBA discourse. Rule changes and points of education have truly made this a league where shooters shoot; coaches are keeping lanes open to promote as much space as possible; and with all that space, players are playing intuitively—even players who publicly disavow the church of analytics but unintentionally serve as its apostles.
We are only an eighth of the way through the season, and the numbers could very well recede as the 82-game grind begins to wear away at teams, but this moment in league trends could signal more about a new state of mind than a permanent shift in metric norms. Ten-plus games in, here are the biggest winners of the pace boom.
The Sacramento Kings
The lords of Sactown haven’t been this fun in 20 years, when a rookie Jason Williams unknowingly sparked a countercultural moment in the NBA. The 1998-99 Kings were ahead of their time, pushing back against the leaden ways of the league—they outpaced the second-fastest team in the league then by nearly four possessions per 48 minutes, and at 14 seconds used per possession, operated at the same speed as the average team in 2018-19, per Inpredictable. White Chocolate averaged 6.5 3-point attempts per game his first year, which trails only Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic for the most by a rookie in NBA history. The Kings dared to explore a style of play that didn’t involve dueling Kaiju and instead emphasized spreading the floor and spreading the wealth.
Counterculture invariably gets swallowed whole by the zeitgeist, and 20 years later, after many aimless restarts, the Kings have found their way back to familiar beginnings. Sacramento is the one of the fastest teams in the league, and it’s all by design. After wasting De’Aaron Fox’s rookie season forcing him to feed the post, the team has now placed their young point guard in his ideal habitat. It’s stunning how aerodynamic Fox’s lithe yet wiry-strong frame glides in the open floor; while most elite athletes experience physical turbulence upon liftoff, Fox’s in-air experience is more akin to a zipline straight to the rim. Fox has seen statistical improvements across the board, but he might not even be the biggest profiteer of the Kings’ endless race.
According to Second Spectrum, Buddy Hield, on average, runs at 4.73 miles per hour every game, making him the fastest player of anyone in the NBA playing at least 25 minutes per game. For the most part, these tracking numbers are useless; just ask LeBron. Having access to the data is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another. But in Hield’s case, it matches the eye test. Hield runs hard. Like JJ Redick, Hield will run full-speed into a catch-and-shoot 3 in transition. He’ll rumble violently along the baseline to curl around a screen when most would rather slither. Hield has been one of the best shooters in the league since being traded to Sacramento, and the wide-open spaces have only empowered Hield to play the way he’s always wanted to. That space has also allowed Hield, previously a fairly rigid player, to toy with his defender’s expectations. This is what a confident player having fun on a confident team looks like:
The Golden State Warriors
The greatest shooter of all time can no longer be grabbed at or held under any circumstances. Steph Curry is still on track to become only the second player in NBA history since his coach Steve Kerr to join the 50-50-90 club. The Warriors are beating up on the league just like old times, but better: Their plus-13.6 net rating is higher than what was posted in their 73-win season. The league is trying to outrun its gold standard. So far, it isn’t working.
Surely the rule changes have helped the Warriors’ best players be the best versions of themselves, but there’s also an element of finality that hadn’t been present before. Kevin Durant’s potential departure at the end of the season is an unavoidable reality, and that new framing has allowed some of us to see the team as something precious rather than something operating in perpetuity. There is a lightness about this iteration of the Warriors. They’re worth tuning into; we can’t be sure how much longer they’ll be around.
Kemba Walker, Hornets
Before the 2015-16 season, then–Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kreutzer helped Walker unlock a version of himself that no one knew existed. The scouting report on Kemba had been to go under on pick-and-rolls. He was one of the worst-shooting point guards in the league through his disappointing first four seasons, and already 25, his development had seemingly stalled. So much has changed since then, and perhaps it has culminated in a titanic 2018-19 season. Walker has emerged as the second-most prolific shooter in the NBA behind Curry. He is also second to only Steph in points per game.
Screen assists are screens that directly lead to made field goals, and since they first started being tracked, Charlotte has been among the leaders every season. Cody Zeller signed a $56 million extension in 2016 largely off the efficacy of his screens for Kemba. As Walker has transformed himself into a mini Steph and defenders have constantly gone over on screens, the geometry of the court becomes easier to assess and easier to manipulate. Part of what makes pull-up 3-pointers so dangerous for defenses is that it can be difficult to know when and where a player will rise and fire. All it takes is a little separation. Screening for Kemba is a lucrative business. Everyone should get in on the action:
Brook Lopez, Bucks
Lopez is an inspiration. When I hit 30 and am invariably faced with the world’s cruel indifference to my mounting obsolescence, I hope to be able to pivot to what the cool kids are doing, and do it so well that my old job—and my old life—becomes almost unrecognizable to me as a person. Lopez, at nearly 7-foot-1 and 270 pounds, is the largest 3-point specialist in NBA history. And by specialist, I mean the only function he has on the court is to shoot 3s. Nearly 73 percent of his total field goal attempts come from behind the arc, which is the sixth-highest 3-point attempt ratio in the league among players who averaged at least five attempts per game. He has attempted 6.2 3-pointers in the Bucks’ first 11 games this season (at a 38 percent clip), more than twice as many as he took in his first eight seasons combined.
The Bucks play at one of the fastest paces in the league, and you might expect that to be a no-go for a brontosaurus like Lopez. But does it really matter if Lopez only ever has to run three-fourths of the way down the court on offense? So, cheers, Brook. Here’s to finding new leases on life and finding paradise in Milwaukee.
The Toronto Raptors
When everyone is flying up and down the court, it’s important to have a battalion with fresh lungs. And the Raptors have plenty of able bodies suited for any number of configurations. Much of the credit goes to new head coach Nick Nurse having a keen sense of his roster and having the guts to optimize his lineups depending on the opponent. He is the only coach in the league who flexes the starting center position: Serge Ibaka starts against teams with a perimeter-oriented 5, and Jonas Valanciunas starts against more traditional 5s. Unsurprisingly, it’s led to career years for both bigs despite playing fewer minutes on average than in years past.
The Raptors, who boast the best record in the NBA at 11-1, are not only the deepest team in the league, they seem to generate a new folk hero (or two) every year. It was OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, two plus-minus deities, last season; now it’s all about Pascal Siakam.
Siakam, a third-year forward, is the most athletic player on the Raptors’ roster, and end-to-end is one of the fastest bigs in the game. Hustle has always been in Siakam’s player DNA, but the exponential expansion in skill from Year 2 to Year 3 is startling. Thought to be an energy player off the bench coming out of New Mexico State, Siakam is now entrusted by Nurse to run plays as the ball handler from way behind the 3-point line.
An easy play the Raptors have found success with is having Siakam bring the ball up the court then initiate a dribble handoff 30 feet away from the basket to free up Kyle Lowry for a sudden rise-and-fire 3:
Siakam’s development gets to the heart of the current leaguewide movement: There’s a don’t think, just go ethos pervasive throughout the NBA, and the easiest way to adopt and adhere to that mentality is by having as many players as possible who are comfortable making plays for others. It certainly helps that he plays on the Raptors, whose best players are also shrewd opportunists away from the ball.
Zach LaVine, Bulls
The NBA has been edging closer and closer to becoming a flesh-and-hardwood simulation of a video game, so it’s only right that classic Create-a-Player templates have propagated within the league. This version of LaVine, the one currently fifth in the NBA in points per game at 27.4, was always my favorite player to build: 99 on dunking, 90 on speed, 85 on 3-point shooting, 80 on ballhandling—and anemic defensive stats to balance out the overall rating.
With Kris Dunn out for a prolonged stretch with an MCL sprain, LaVine has become the de facto lead guard amid the Bulls’ sea of unconvincing point guard options. He’s thrived in the pick-and-roll, making full use of his generational explosiveness and Robin Lopez’s technically perfect screens to navigate around the chess pieces on the court. LaVine has perhaps become the mutated vision of Russell Westbrook that some claimed to have seen in his lone season at UCLA. It might be more accurate to say he’s become the player Austin Rivers has always thought himself to be.
The Bulls are among the bottom of the league in pace, at 99.49 possessions per 48 minutes, but it’s worth remembering that figure would have put the Bulls in the top 10 last season. Even teams that haven’t committed to running up the score have reaped the benefits of the league’s broader schematic shift. For a Bulls team that’s just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, LaVine’s newfound offensive command has been something worth holding on to.
Josh Richardson, Heat
There are times when I watch Richardson play and wonder whether he is who Durant would be if he were a normal wing’s size. It might have something to do with their release of their shots and the similar ways in which their long arms unfurl on pull-ups. Or maybe it’s in how their defense never feels like emphatic denial—it’s anticipatory and smooth, like nature taking its course. Richardson’s ascension became last season’s worst-kept secret, but he never had the raw numbers to back his claim as a rising star until now.
With injuries and multiple logjams up and down the roster, the Heat have leaned on Richardson more than ever, and he’s responded with an absurd uptick in production despite only receiving a two-minute bump in average playing time. He is averaging nearly 20.7 points (up from 12.9 last season), converting on a career-high number of 3s and increasing his number of attempts by 80.5 percent. Richardson has ramped up his usage while boosting his efficiency and sacrificing nothing on defense. Getting the ball into the hands of your best player isn’t a novel strategy, but occasionally it takes time to identify who that player is. Richardson’s name was floated in possible Jimmy Butler trade proposals, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine their best two-way player getting moved now.
Blake Griffin, Pistons
Once the most electrifying in-game dunker since Vince Carter, Griffin has now turned into a 6-foot-10 James Harden. We’re looking at the new normal. This sensibility isn’t going away. The climate change is real.