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Love Hertz: The Danger of High Frequency Ball

November 9, 2011

Hey there, casual basketball fan. Quick: estimate the amount of time it would take you (yes, you) to score 320 points if you were left completely undefended on a basketball court. It’s no simple exercise, is it?

Now, estimate how long it would take the 1990-1991 opening night versions of the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors to score 320 total points.

Time’s up: 48 minutes.

That’s right, a point every nine seconds. The final score was 162-158, and they didn’t need overtime. And they did it with relatively poor combined three-point shooting (six-for-seventeen).

No time for halftime.

November 2, 1990

It was the opening night of the season that would make Michael Jordan a first-time NBA champion. It was also three months to the day since Iraq had invaded Kuwait, at least partly a result of Saddam Hussein’s frustration with Kuwaiti overproduction of oil and subsequent oil price declines.

Saddam Hussein probably didn’t care much about basketball, but overproduction was the word that night back in the United States, as the Nuggets and Warriors ran up and down the court filling a box score with statistical absurdities.

Fast breaks are for the Kurds!

Check the stats for yourself. When you stop laughing uncontrollably, resume reading.

  • During the game, there were 239 field goal attempts, just short of 5 per minute, or one every 12 seconds. Despite that rate, no single player attempted a crazy number of field goals – Chris Mullin was the game leader with 25, which sounds like a lot, but compare that to Kobe Bryant’s season average of 27.2 attempts in 2005-2006.
  • Every player who attempted at least 10 shots connected shot at least 50% for the game.
  • By scoring or assisting, Tim Hardaway accounted for 33 of 63 field goals for the Warriors.
  • Twenty-one different players scored, and both teams had two players with more than 30 points.

As undeniably entertaining as high-speed offense can be, there is danger at high speed – quite literally, it’s harder to stop. But in basketball, playing at a fast pace makes it even harder to stop someone else, and the Nuggets’ defensive stats serve as confirmation.

Maybe they were tired from nonstop fast breaks, or maybe they just weren’t that good at defense. Either way, you know that old line about defense winning championships? Let me translate that into equation form for the 1990-91 Denver Nuggets:

most points scored + most points allowed = 20 wins (league-worst)

Yikes. There’s evidence that the Nuggets weren’t even that good at scoring, though – although they led the league in points per game, they were only 21st in offensive efficiency (points per possession), meaning that all those extra points were created only by extra possessions, and not by any distinct offensive advantage.

So why the emphasis on fast-paced scoring above all else?

Because it's more fun than defense.

Paul Westhead was a zealot, that’s why. Known for a high-speed system throughout his coaching career, he put on a turbo boost with the Nuggets, hoping to revolutionize the game and re-write the record books. In an interview prior to the season, he even said “There will be 200 point games…200 points is going to happen.” See the video below for more.

Well, we never saw a 200-point game. We never even saw the Nuggets score more than they did on that opening night, which for a regulation game is still the highest combined score in NBA history, and also the most points scored by a losing team.

Westhead’s logic seemed strong – a team that scores a lot of points is likely to win, right? But just like Communism during its run, his flawless ideals weren’t producing results, and whatever the disconnect between theory and practice, the win-loss record is the most damning of evidence against a style of play in professional sports.

Permanent, transitional shifts were a very 1990 thing. East and West Germany reunified, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases, and McDonald’s opened its first location in Moscow.

And there was no turning back.

However, the Paul Westhead offense was but a flash in the pan (NUGGETS JOKE). It was clearly not effective, and the following season, when Denver drafted towering center Dikembe Mutombo, who ran the court as gracefully as a dump truck with square wheels, the Nuggets averaged 20 fewer points per game.

Despite better defense, unfortunately they still only won 24 games, and Paul Westhead was fired, never to be hired as an NBA head coach again. Speed kills.

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