What counts as good NBA ball movement? The "seven seconds or less" theory developed by Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns contends that teams are more efficient earlier in the shot clock (they are), and that the best strategy is, consequently, to get a shot off quickly with relatively few touches on the ball. On the other hand, the most praised possessions often involve a series of rapid passes that culminate in a wide-open look, like this nine-touch, Hooisers-esque play by the Spurs:
So what's the better way to go? Thanks to the NBA's new SportVU data, we can actually measure how many touches each team is taking on each trip down the floor. Below are these figures through Tuesday's games, plotted against points per possession. The teams that are colored have both touches and points per possession that are at least half a standard deviation from the league average. One note: While touches can be linked to pace, teams with similar pace—like Golden State and Dallas—don't necessarily use anywhere close to the same amount of touches.
Portland, Miami, and Houston fall right on the league average for touches—you can argue that there's an "optimal" number of touches we're seeing here if you have the right personnel—but in general there's a negative correlation between touches and scoring efficiency (r = -0.48, p= 0.007). While this implies that a fast-paced, low-touch offense may be the better strategy, there are two very notable exceptions to this trend. Here's a categorization of the colored teams:
The Spurs and Mavericks stand alone in the top right quadrant. The aging stalwarts of the West might not be explosive, but they have made the playoffs 25 times in the last 13 seasons, thanks to the sort of offensive movement that we saw in the clip at the top.
You can find the five worst offenses in the league—the Bucks, Bobcats, Cavaliers, Jazz, and Bulls—in the bottom right quadrant; all have touches per possession above the league average, as do the Grizzlies (9th) and Wizards (10th). The Bulls and Bobcats at least have good defenses right now, but the other three have some of the worst point differentials in the NBA.
The Suns and Pelicans—two of the most surprising offenses of the young season—lead the league in fast break scoring, while the Thunder come in third. The Nuggets and Warriors have been a little slower, but Golden State still manages to average 77 fewer touches 100 possessions than the league average thanks in part to awesome Steph Curry shit.
No teams fall in that last horrible quadrant—low touches, low scoring—although the Magic are close. The Kings, who already have the second-fewest touches per possession in the NBA, just traded for Rudy Gay, so expect that league-average offensive efficiency to take a pretty serious hit in the next few weeks.