Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

Gonzaga, still zigging

Perhaps we should’ve seen Gonzaga’s historic 2018-19 season coming. After all, it was a team that returned three starters from 2017-18’s Sweet Sixteen group, one that spent the final three months of the season in the KenPom top ten. They’d open 2018-19 #9 on Ken’s site. That quickly proved to be a huge mistake, but not in the direction you’d think.

Two weeks into the season, Gonzaga would become the first team to beat Zion Williamson, then spent the next three months losing two games to future 1 & 2 seeds away from home. They demolished all oncomers in West Coast Conference play at record rates:

They’d close the regular season at a mere +27 PPG over their conference opponents. Their defense, which struggled for the first month, became a top 15 unit by season’s end. Oh, and all they did was have the second-best unadjusted offensive efficiency numbers in KenPom’s database, dating back to 2001-02. They made plays like this:

Look unbelievably easy. Of the five other 1.2+ PPP teams in the KenPom era, only one rated inside the top 100 for Average Possession Length offensively. Gonzaga posted historic numbers and did it at breakneck speeds, with the sixth-fastest APL in Division 1. If they’d played both sides of the ball at their offensive rate (14.7 seconds per possession), they would’ve averaged 81.6 possessions per game, the clear highest rate in Division 1. However, their defense slowed things down considerably, which merely sets them at 71.4 possessions per game.

Gonzaga’s transition offense terrified opponents all season long, and it’s easy to see why. Anyone could score in transition off of looks like this:

And Gonzaga often did. This year’s edition of the Bulldogs shattered the previous program record for points per game (83.5 in 2017-18), getting 87.6 a game even including two 72 and 69-point efforts to end the season. Coupling the most efficient offense in school history with the fastest offense in school history was a blast for anyone paying attention. Even in their mid-December loss to North Carolina – one of four losses all season – they were still getting great looks in transition.

Gonzaga didn’t get a ton of transition run off of turnovers (#130 in defensive TO%) or after opponent buckets (76th-most attempts in D-1), but they were frequent, heavy users of transition possessions after missed shots. Look at how quick the Bulldogs rush down the court, taking advantage of Rui Hachimura’s ball-handler capabilities and using Josh Perkins, traditionally the point guard, as the 5 man:

Gonzaga’s unique ability to use nearly anyone at any position in transition made them the hardest offense to guard in America. Per Synergy, all five of Gonzaga’s starters used at least 18% of their transition possessions as the ball handler. That’s an absurdly democratic rate, made especially rare by two of those starters being power forwards that weren’t traditional outside shooters. One of those starters, Clarke, was particularly useful as the 5-man trailer:

Plays like this are what Coach Williams of West Virginia Tech references. Mark Few clearly doesn’t accept selective running, as in every Gonzaga transition possession I saw, all five players on the court ran basket-to-basket without complaining. The fun part, and probably why Gonzaga’s players relished the slower defensive possessions: Gonzaga only played an eight-man rotation for the majority of upper-tier games. (Against lower-end opponents, this was a nine- or even ten-man rotation.) Gonzaga’s players were asked to play longer and tougher stretches and still managed to run up-and-down at breakneck speeds.

Like the others, Gonzaga got a ton of open looks in transition: 60.8% of their threes in the first ten seconds of the clock were open. They actually shot slightly worse on these, but it’s a small sample size. I think misses like this are pretty excusable:

Lastly: Gonzaga destroyed all oncomers in transition at the rim. An astounding 18.3% of Gonzaga’s overall shot attempts were off of opponent misses in the first ten seconds of the shot clock. On these, they shot 70.1% at the rim. When you drive as hard as these guys do, you make good things happen:

Gonzaga, of course, aided their cause this year by having multiple first round NBA Draft picks on the roster. If you’re a coach reading this, I feel fairly safe in assuming that you likely do not have the same talent advantage. That said, Gonzaga would’ve played this way regardless of the names on the backs of their jerseys. After a few years (2011-12 to 2015-16) in the murky middle, Mark Few has spent three straight seasons pushing Gonzaga’s pace to program records. Considering the first of those seasons was a year in which their starting center was a 300-pound bowling ball, you can make this happen with your team. I’ll refer you back to the quote from legendary Iona coach Tim Cluess: “I will never, ever play the game the other way.” Mark Few did for a long time. He doesn’t anymore, and all it’s brought him is being a few points from the first mid-major national title in nearly three decades.

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