Jack and Leo say yes, the evidence says no.

The Toronto Raptors broadcasting crew receives a lot of flack, especially from the readers of this site.

Personally, I think they’re alright — Leo Rautins and Rod Black are literally the worst, but their drivel is effectively counter-balanced by Jack’s folksy wisdom and Devlin’s spot-on Brick Tamland impression. They’re not the best in the business, but the business isn’t exactly brimming with talent, nor innovation.

On the whole, they’re par for the course, and from time to time, Jack provides some insightful commentary. Although his stance on analytics is borderline “get off my lawn”-esque, I respect his coaching acumen and I appreciate seeing the game through his eyes.

That is, except when it runs contrary to evidence.

One of the narratives propagated by Jack (and sometimes Leo) is that the Raptors have a supposed “optimal pace”. Jack tends to gripe about this whenever the Raptors miss a few shots while pushing the tempo. His argument is that the Raptors are coached to be a defense-first, half-court oriented team. Therefore, it’s a bad thing when the Raptors step outside of their game. Surely, you’ve caught this quip.

His point about the Raptors being “defense-first” is definitely correct, and substantiated by the evidence. Dwane Casey’s track record of being a defensively-oriented coach is well-established. As you may recall, he was famously hired by Bryan Colangelo after his vaunted 2-3 zone defense propelled the Mavericks over the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. There’s also the whole “pound the rock” mantra, and the fact that the Raptors rank sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (fourth best after the Gay trade).

However, “optimal pace” argument doesn’t hold much water, at least not when it comes to the results.

And before I go on, I will readily concede that there are issues when it comes to the operationalization of pace. The current measures of pace (ie: pace factor) is rooted in the number of possessions in a given game. In theory, since the total time in a game is fixed, a higher number of possessions equates to teams playing “faster”.

Since this classification is based on outcomes, it sometimes confuses process with results. For example, if Lowry pushes the ball down the court, but the defense recovers in time, forcing him to reset, is that up-tempo, or not? There’s also the issue of discerning between team philosophy and personnel. On one hand, there’s the “7-seconds or less” Suns teams that treated every game as a track meet. On the other, Kevin Love hucks an 70-foot outlet pass to a leaking Corey Brewer. Both plays are technically “up-tempo”, but one is a matter of principle, and the other is a product of unique talent. The result is the same, but the process is different.

Despite its flaws, “pace factor” is a fairly accurate estimate of pace, and quite frankly, it’s all that we have to go on. By this criterion, the Raptors currently play at the 9th slowest pace in the NBA at a pace factor of 91.9. In comparison, the plodding Grizzlies are last at 89.8, and the frenzied 76ers are first with a score of 100.2. These results passes the eye-test — as Jack points out, the Raptors are a slow, half-court team.

However, Jack’s assertion of the Raptors having an “optimal pace” seems a little baseless. For starters, here’s a plot of the differentials of each game (Toronto’s points – Opponent’s points) versus the pace factor of each game. Can you spot a trend (hint: there isn’t one).

pace differential

More specifically, Jack asserts that when the Raptors play worse when they speed up. However, the Raptors are equally as successful playing “up-tempo” versus playing below their usual rate (15-12 vs 18-14). Granted, the list isn’t exactly chalked full of championship contending teams — the likes of Detroit, Philly and Milwaukee are on there — but there are some decent teams included in the sample. Regardless, the evidence does not concur with Jack’s theory.

up tempo

All this number crunching simply disproves Jack’s answer, but fails to address his original question: “is there an optimal pace for the Toronto Raptors?”

For that, the answer is unclear, and perhaps unattainable with statistics alone. Running multivariate regression with the dataset in hopes of a statistically sound conclusion is a little moot considering the limited sample size involved (only 59 games played). In lieu of more data, I turn to Jack’s methodology — what passes the eye test?

Personally, I think the Raptors do have an optimal pace; playing slow half-court basketball.

Playing at a torrid up-tempo pace simply isn’t possible — nor advisable — with this current roster, because there isn’t enough ball-handling ability. Lowry, Derozan and Vasquez shoulder the bulk of the ball-handling duties, and they all have their flaws in terms of pushing the ball. Lowry is an excellent ball-handler, but he’s too short to consistently finish in the lane (a la Westbrook). Derozan’s ball-handling is much improved, but he’s still not entirely polished in the open court, and he’s much better at finishing lobs or leak-out passes. Finally, they don’t call him Greivis Molassquez without a reason. In short, he’s pretty slow. The Raptors lack the horses to run.

However, could the Raptors benefit from playing a little more up-tempo by being opportunistic? Of course. For example, Ross could leak out a little earlier after missed shots, and potentially make himself a target for outlet passes. Similarly, Jonas could make timelier decisions after corralling the rebound, as opposed to methodically swinging his elbows around when no one is threatening the ball.

Of course, these decisions come at a cost. Leaking out earlier means having one less player available to snag the defensive rebound which has been an issue for the Raptors of late. Similarly, having Jonas make quicker decisions risks silly turnovers under the basket, and/or commentors setting this blog ablaze. It’s not exactly a bulletproof plan.

However, as the data bears out, playing faster doesn’t seem to impact the Raptors’ success, possibly because there are circumstances where playing fast is ideal. For example, the Sixers shoot a lot of long jumpers, and their transition defense is beyond awful. It only makes sense to capitalize by running. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to score on he Pacers in the half-court, so as long as the Raptors can ensnare the rebound, they should take their chances with a quick pass up the court.

Truthfully, with a team full of youngsters, it’s probably best that the Raptors take their time. At this point in his career, Jonas struggles with making the right decisions on a consistent basis, so it’s probably best to keep his options limited. The same also applies for Ross and Derozan, who both need to improve their ball-handling to serve as effective transition wing players.

And that circles back to the motto of this season — it’s all contingent on development. Can the players on this roster develop the capability to play faster when called upon? Can Derozan push the pace and break down a mis-matched defender sagging in the paint? Can Ross master the subtle balance between leaking out, versus staying back? Can Jonas rebound more effectively, and throw outlet passes? A true contending team dictates the tempo of play, but they’re also flexible and versatile. For example, the Heat are the 22nd slowest team in the NBA, but they can run just about anybody out of the gym when they play small-ball.

But for now, the Raptors are who Jack thought they were — a slow half-court team that grinds out victories.

  • simo_8

    You mean Leo Rautins and Jack Armstrong… not Leo Armstrong?

    • DDayLewis

      I most certainly did.

    • DDayLewis

      I most certainly did. Thanks.

  • Ogi

    also 24th fastest, or 9th slowest.

    • DDayLewis

      Yup. Fixed it too.

  • Bombay

    You lost me at jack… Sorry but a real tough read… I know it’s a mini break but come on. I have league pass and listen to the other hacks and they seem to reap praise on TO so let’s stop trying to pic apart an old man’s rethoric.

    • lewro

      I can’t picture Jack listening to this, seems more like the work of Greivis’ barber:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QnlM6QcDNE

      Seriously, i thought the “get off my lawn” bit was apt and a little funny. reminds me of gran torino. shout out to talking raptors, the movie.

    • Thomas Smith

      Is it just me or do people today write a lot more words than they need to? I use to be able to read a blog post in several minutes. Now I get through half and then I’m either lost, bored, or disengaged. It’s not just Raptors Republic doing this. Be short. Be concise. Get to the point as quickly as possible.

  • caccia

    When Jud Heathcote arrive at Michigan State from Montana in 1976, he commented that the Big Ten fans did not understand pace. Specifically, he said that to control the game, a team had to go at different paces at different times during the game. His Michigan State teams were very good at that, especially with a mini-coach handling the ball by the name of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. There is no reason that the Raptors could not change up the pace depending on personnel, as they become more seasoned.

  • Bendit

    Speaking of “pace”…anyone notice the ref in the post pic trying to keep up with Lowry…lol? Think he is in good position to call a foul in the next two secs should it occur? Wonder if these guys get a huff&puff test before the season starts?

    • JonasBrotha

      That’s a interesting point you raise…I know professional soccer refs and probably NHL refs as well have to get a certain score on a beep test in order to officiate. Although certainly fit for his age, you think Dick Bavetta is attaining that score on a beep test? How about Joey Crawford? LOL.

      • Matteemo

        I refereed soccer at a pretty high level for a long time and fitness tests were actually structured differently for different age range. A 25 year old has to complete a much higher difficulty fitness test than a 65 year old. I never really agreed with this as my thought was that you can either keep up or you can’t, and I often found that the oldest guys were typically the worst referees, yet we’re given a bit of a pass on the fitness level. Regardless, that is the way it was structured, I would assume other sports are the same. The truth of the matter is when you’re huffing and puffing, the body has a hard time getting adequate amounts of oxygen to the brain, and decision making suffers.

  • hateslosing

    No offense to the William Lou but I think he wasted some time here. Basically you concluded that there is no statistical relationship bewteen pace and winning, then said that that doesn’t matter because you “feel” like the Raps have an optimal pace. You also start by saying the evidence is against disagrees with Jack and Leo, but then say at the end that Jack is right. Write an outline or something next time because this was all over the place.

    • DDayLewis

      Not going to lie: I totally wrote this in two portions.

      But you are wrong about my conclusions. Jack’s assertion that “the Raptors play worse when playing fast” is unsubstantiated, but I personally agree with him about the Raptors playing best at a half-court pace.

  • Cdel00

    The pace Jack is referring to is not possessions per game.

    Jack is referring to the pace of the individual play. A typical play has lots of bumping and grinding via screen usage. It has the wing players drawing their defender through traffic causing the opponent fatigue.

    Playing this style is the slower pace jack means. It’s effective because by the time the 4th rolls around the other team is sore and tired.

    This is why the Raps have excellent 4th Q ratings

    Keep up the great work BTW RR :)

  • Stef

    William Lou: Looked for your email address; didn’t wanna be a douche. Couldn’t find it. (I’ll take the risk.)

    It seems that .. if you’re not trying to stick a player with a nick-name, you’re mis-spelling or mis-typing (one of) our best player’s name.

    When googling or commenting, caps/punctuation doesn’t matter much. If you’re gonna be a serious hoops writer, maybe it does.

    You’re obviously a smart guy. And it’s not difficult.

    It’s DeMar DeRozan. Not Demar Derozan.

    Sorry, but .. in my mind, it had to be said.

    All the best.

    • DDayLewis

      The DeMar thing is just a product of being lazy. I’ll try to fix it.

      I can’t help giving players nicknames/punning their names. That’s half the fun of blogging!

  • asifyouknow

    Greivis Vasquez segment on ESPN #terpnation

  • TheSpiceTyrant

    Good thought provoking article. I’d like them to exploit more odd man rushed, or create those opportunities from teams that are big rebounders. I think the reason they don’t do this as much is because they don’t have a lot of faith in maybe 3-4 guys handling the ball. Personally I think they should always try to push on odd man rushes since we have guys who can finish and clean up well. That would increase the pace

    • j bean

      I think they don’t take advantage of that situation enough simply because they don’t practice it. Come on guys, give us some dunks, lobs and no look passes instead of pulling up and playing it safe.

  • jamesk

    ummmm, jack is constantly talking about offensive execution, obviously they don’t want to play up and down, but don’t try to pretend he doesn’t appreciate a nice early opportunity, or pushing it on the break, which he loves, ‘take it ta tha tin!”

  • afrocarter

    Mr. Lou gets points for describing Jack’s b-ball acumen as “folksy”. A more suitable adjective does not exist. Kudos

  • Justin

    I like the post, but I think it needs to include other factors, namely strength of opponents, home court advantage, and possibly back to back games, all of which affect the point differential. Another confounding factor is how much the Raptors make their opponents play “sub-optimally”.

    For an analysis like this make sure you’re careful of Simpson’s Paradox:

    http://vudlab.com/simpsons/

    • DDayLewis

      Most definitely. Without controlling for the confounding effects of other factors, it’s difficult to conclude with any degree of certainty.

  • Ellis

    Interesting read, although somewhat disappointing the data didn’t bear out any trends.

    I would agree with your conclusion that on a possession basis, the raptors play better at a “slower pace”, I think simply because they have so few capable ball handlers.

    On an unrelated note, man these 4 day breaks between games are hard to take.

  • Lyall

    It’s “Operationalizing”, not “operationalization”.