The NBA Out of Timeouts

Given that they follow commercial breaks, post-timeout plays tend to stand out. But can we learn from them?
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Scott Brooks is all, "Guys, try dunking. It works!"

Image via Basketballogy.

The San Antonio Spurs are in the middle of a TV timeout. During the huddle, Gregg Popovich calmly but authoritatively draws up a play while Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the rest of his charges absorb the whiteboard scribbles. Pop diagnosed a weakness in the defense and uses this moment to take advantage. The referees call the two teams back to the court. Parker takes the inbounds pass and runs the play. The Spurs score easily.

It's a scenario that repeats itself over and over. The details change but the concept remains the same: NBA teams aim to grab quick buckets on the possessions immediately following timeouts (also known as ATO plays), usually exploiting a mismatch or defensive liability. The coach diagrams a play, his team runs it, two points. "Scoring out of timeouts is important because it's pretty much the only situation where the head coach has complete control of what everyone is doing. So if the coach sees something or sees a mismatch, he can direct his guys to do that right out of the timeout," says Sebastian Pruiti, who founded and spent a season coaching with the D-League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

"We had a sheet with plays that we liked and that we could run coming out of timeouts. Then as the timeout called we take the situation, personnel, and what the defense is doing into consideration and then we drew up one of the plays we had. Sometimes it could be a counter, too. If a team's running one play over and over, maybe draw up the same play, but with a backdoor cut to trick the defense."

Some coaches are, of course, better than others at drawing plays. Pruiti and Kevin Pelton, who covers the sport for Basketball Prospectus (and sometimes for The Classical), both cited Popovich and Doc Rivers as two of the best—"in a league of their own, in my opinion," Pruiti says. Pelton also singled out the coach of the upstart Philadelphia 76ers for praise. "Doug Collins has always had a great reputation for ATO plays," Pelton says. "There was a line in Michael Leahy's Jordan book quoting an assistant on how the Wizards could have won every game if Collins got to draw up a play every time down the court."

The worst, according to Pruiti and Pelton—and pretty much everyone else paying attention—were the Los Angeles Clippers. Vinny Del Negro and Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew. "Check out this [Hawks] huddle from their game against Boston," Pruiti says. "That's a terrible huddle. You got guys not knowing what play is being run, Larry Drew isn't drawing anything, and you got a bunch of different guys talking at once. Exactly what you don't want to happen."

But do the numbers back up the anecdotal observations? Yes and no. Synergy Sports provided some offensive efficiency numbers and a few stats stuck out. Only four teams scored more points per possession immediately following timeouts than they did on their overall half-court sets. On average, teams score 0.878 points per possession in half-court sets but only 0.849 points per possession in the first half-court possession after a timeout. Pruiti hypothesizes that while timeouts give coaches an opportunity to call a play, they also ensure the defense is set, which makes scoring more difficult.

The four teams who are better immediately following timeouts: The Memphis Grizzles (0.866 ATO PPP; 0.85 overall PPP), the Los Angeles Lakers (0.914; 0.894), the Miami Heat (0.92; 0.909) and, surprisingly, the Los Angeles Clippers (0.933; 0.912). In fact, only the San Antonio Spurs had a higher ATO PPP (0.939) than the Clippers. Del Negro might call terrible plays—everyone seems to think so, at least—but Chris Paul makes up for a lot.

On the other end of the scale is a case where looks are not deceiving: the Hawks are one of the worst post-timeout teams. Their 0.891 overall PPP ranks 10th in the league, while their 0.821ATO PPP is 21st. The Golden State Warriors (0.828 ATO PPP; 0.907 PPP) and the Denver Nuggets (0.824 ATO PPP; 0.899 PPP) are also significantly worse following a timeout than they are during regular half-court possessions. The Charlotte Bobcats, of course, are just terrible, and rank 30th in both categories. Michael Jordan's team scores 0.739 PPP ATO and 0.796 PPP.

There's a wider divide between the best and worst ATO teams than there is between the best and worst half-court teams. San Antonio's 0.939 ATO PPP would yield 93.9 points per 100 possessions, while the Charlotte Bobcats would score just 73.9. Compare that with 94.8 and 79.6, respectively, during the run of play.

What do all these numbers mean? For one, it's more difficult to score out of timeouts than it would appear anecdotally. The perception that teams score easily ATO likely comes from the ease with which those baskets are (or appear to be) scored—it's easy to remember a beautifully run backdoor cut on the first play following the latest carpet-bomb sortie of ads for Men At Work.

The other lesson is a simpler one: first impressions as a fan are worth trusting. Just as you suspected, the Spurs are a very good offensive team and the Bobcats are a terrible one. Teams that execute best in general are execute best out of timeouts: the Spurs, Thunder and Heat score are the NBA's first-, second- and fourth-most efficient teams out of timeouts. Just as everyone has always thought, having a magical point guard trumps, or at least goes some way towards mitigating, having a bad coach. And if it seemed like no one was listening to Larry Drew … well, congratulations, you were right about that one, too.

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