Every team in the NBA is smarter than it was ten years ago, which has brought drastic changes in style of play and how players are valued throughout the league. The league-wide move toward analytics has simply transformed everything we once thought we knew about basketball. This movement is particularly obvious when looking at the league-wide makeup of shots – in 2009, the average team took 39.2 percent of their shots from beyond the three-point line; in 2019, that number is 65.8 percent and should only climb as more players at all positions are coming into the league having learned to bomb from deep.
The increased emphasis of the three-point shot has revolutionized basketball, revamping the game from one where the best teams were built around the best big men to one that’s dominated by skill-based players on the perimeter. There are exceptions to the rule, as always, but the math has taken over the NBA to the point that it’s almost an entirely different game than it was a decade ago.
The math doesn’t stop there. While increased usage of the three-point shot is the most obvious change in basketball from the previous era, teams are analyzing the numbers to uncover all sorts of other inefficiencies. In particular, teams are running in transition more than they were previously. In 2009, transition opportunities were roughly 12 percent of a team’s offense; in 2019, the average team spends more than 15 percent of its possessions on transition opportunities. Just like the three-point shot was shown to be more valuable than a mid-range jumper, transition offense greatly outperforms half-court offense.
So how come we haven’t seen a gigantic increase in transition offense like we did with three-point shots? The difference is in the perceived value of those things; there are coaches and analysts who still don’t buy in to the value of the three-pointer over other offensive philosophies, but there are few people in the history of the sport who would argue with you over the value of transition offense, even if they didn’t have the intricate numbers we have today to prove their point. From the beginning of time, coaches have preached the value of getting back on defense and want their teams to “play fast,” though that can sometimes be misconstrued as only being defined by transition opportunities.
Smaller and faster lineups have contributed to teams getting out in transition more often, as has an increase in rebounding from players who are capable of taking the ball from one end to the other and making a good decision with the ball, whether that be scoring themselves or finding an open teammate. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook are redefining traditional roles across all facets of the game, with their defensive rebounding and transition ferocity following that theme. There are few things in the NBA more terrifying than attempting to stop one of these guys at full speed. Other forwards are taking their cue from Antetokounmpo, Simmons, and James, including one of James’ own teammates in Kyle Kuzma, who has taken the mantle as one of the Lakers’ best transition threats with James sidelined with a groin injury.
The statistics in this area boggle the mind. The Lakers get out in transition on more than 20 percent of their possessions when Kuzma is on the floor and nearly twice as often after a defensive rebound.