Bad Transition Defense Means Bad Defense

by Ben Rubin

In Part 1 of this series focusing on the effect of Transition on basketball and what it might mean for the 2018 season, we looked at Net Transition Points, and by way of that the kings of the transition game, the Golden State Warriors, who also, not by accident, happen to be kings of the NBA.  In this the second part of the series, we will look at transition defense and posit some guesses, hardly exhaustive, as to why transition defense means bad defense in general. 

However, before we get there, let's revisit the leaders in Net Transition Points.

At the top, we see see Golden State netting 8.1 Fast Break Points per game.  They are followed by six teams with relatively average defenses (Oklahoma City, Washington, Milwaukee, Houston, Detroit, New Orleans) and three teams (Phoenix, Orlando, Brooklyn) with defenses that likely fill their coaches with at least mild displeasure.   Those latter three teams are the teams of interest here as teams with such positive differential in Transition (between 1.39 and 2.76) should have advantages on defense that prevent them from being tremendously bad.

Those advantages should mainly come in an not having to commit men to the offensive end less frequently their opponents and the dead-ball defensive possessions that result from successful offensive ones.  These possessions are important because they should allow the defenses time to set itself before the offense engages.   And any team with such a wide Point Differential in Fast Break should naturally have more of them than their opponents.

The question then is, with such an advantage, why are these teams so bad on defense?

It's perhaps possible that a team could be so horrendous in half court defense as to override their dead ball advantage.  That's surely part of it.  These teams were all bad in the half court.  Some would say horrendously so.  But that's perhaps not all of it.  Perhaps the answer lies even before that.  Perhaps these teams, despite their apparent offensive and overall success are doing transition wrong.


Doing transition wrong?  What's that even mean?  To get the gist of what I am proposing, let's begin by looking at the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Let's begin by looking at Russell Westbrook.

Above, we see they are the second best Fast Break team in the NBA by a fair margin.  That's not just because of offense.  It's because of their defense, as we can see above.  Over the course of a game, the Thunder allow two less points than an average NBA team in transition.  This allowed their defense to be above average (10th in the league) despite being slightly below so in the half court. 

Everyone has noted that Russell Westbrook leaves his man in the half-court to get rebounds.  This is in general thought to be a stain on the reputation of Russell Westbrook, yet some very smart people have noted that the Russell Westbrook was doing so in order to get the rebounds that were often the first step in Oklahoma City's transition game.  As we can all see, Oklahoma City were a good team precisely because they were good in transition.

What was somewhat less obvious is that these rebounds were also likely the first step in Oklahoma City's defensive success.  To get an idea of why, let's look at some video of Russell Westbrook dunking.

Or how about this one?

Russell Westbrook personifies the phrase "One Man Fast Break".  Though what we see here, in these many dunks (some in transition, some in the half court) are not just good offensive plays.  They are good defensive plays as well.  How so?  Well, because Russell Westbrook is a one man fast break. 

Now watch the videos again.  Instead of watching Russell Westbrook, watch for these things instead:

1) The number of men Oklahoma City has to commit to its Fast Break and how hard they commit them.  It's often just Westbrook, and even when five men make it up the court, two or three are often lagging and prepared to get back on defense. 

2)  The number of defenders in the paint when Westbrook completes the play.  It's often none.  When this is the case, the defense has time to set as someone from the opposing team must get back to inbound the ball.  It's also often four or five.  When this is the case, the defense has time to set as everyone besides Westbrook already has an advance on the offense getting down court.

That is to say, that certain fast breaks, should they be successful, are better than others.  1-on-none or really 1-on-anything fast breaks allow the defense a better chance to set than odd man rushes that seem to be in the offenses favor.  For example, 3-on-1, 4-on-2, 5-on-3 plays potentially leave the offense exposed because two opponents are left behind the play, potentially ready to flip the switch and become offensive players.

While this Kevin Love outlet pass isn't an example of successful transition O translating into failed transition D, it's an example of the way it can happen.  This dunk by Al Jefferson below, from the same video package, is perhaps an even better example.

Here we can notice another way that transition scores are often different (and easier) than the same scores in the half court.  The players getting back to cover in transition are almost always small.  That is, they are not players that can viably protect the rim, especially from players like Lebron James or Russell Westbrook or Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

For these players even one-on-two in the open floor can be an advantage situation.  It's no coincidence that the best one-on-whatever fast break players, the ones named Westbrook, Wall, Giannis, Harden, Curry, Durant, Lebron, the guys who can win on their own put their defenses over and over again in relative chances to succeed, are on many of the best Fast Break teams.

It's also probably one of the biggest reasons Derrick Rose is no longer an elite player, and also why we are perhaps underrating players like Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox to become so.  Players who put their teams in such transition opportunities are potentially really valuable, not just because they get their teams to play in transition, but because they can do so while also allowing their team to switch back to defense with relative ease. 

As a reminder, here's what Derrick Rose used to look like on Chicago. 

He looked a lot like Westbrook does now.  And if we had reliable transition numbers going back that far, I bet we'd see similar success.  Whereas Derrick Rose now is a very average transition player, generating only 3.3 transition opportunities per game compared to 5.7 for John Wall or 6.8 for Russell Westbrook.

Whereas a team like Brooklyn or Phoenix is occasionally turning their fast break opportunities to an opportunity for the other teams offense.

Here's Kevin Durant with a chasedown block on Devin Booker, which turns swiftly into a Curry three.

Though more than plays like this one, I think the problem with these teams might just be overly casual play in transition.  We've seen examples over the last few years in Philadelphia, who shows up on the bad defense group.

But we also seen recent examples in Phoenix.

And in Brooklyn.

Of course, it's not just casual play.  In this highlight clip, we see just about every issue a team could have on defense, in transition or in the half court. Team personnel was obviously a major issue, but we also see miscommunication, lazy rotation, distraction, not getting back on defense.

This play at 2:57seconds doesn't seem exactly like a transition opportunity.  A Lebron pass to a corner three for Kevin Love.  But it also points to several reasons why teams who are bad a transition defense may tend to be bad in the half-court as well.

1) The defender is late to contest.

2) Even though the defense is mostly back, having denied the initial transition opportunity to some extent, the defense is also out of sorts.  We see Lebron freely available on the curl, no one having picked him up.  Then on his drive, we see three people guarding just Lebron and Tristan Thompson in the paint.  Of course, even with three people covering two men, the basket is still arguably open for Lebron James since Lopez is occupied with Tristan Thompson.  Lebron James just chooses to throw to Kevin Love in the far corner.

3) Beyond that, even had Lopez been paying attention to Lebron and even had Kevin Love been covered up Lebron would have had options, namely a pass to the near corner which would have led to a shot or kicked the defense into rotation.  In lieu of that, a pass to Tristan Thompson who would now, with Lopez's attention on Lebron likely be open under the basket.

4) Even beyond this problem, because the defense didn't get back in time, we also have issues of cross matching, with defenders no longer on their preferred assignments.

Basically, once the defense is late, the defense is doomed.  And giving up lots of transition points is likely a sign that the team is late a lot.


I'm hardly an expert on every NBA team.  I don't have enough time to watch them all to be so, or even close.  As such, it's possible I have identified the wrong reasons for what seems to me to be connected actions on the basketball court.  That is, bad transition defense leads to bad half court defense.  Which is not to say that there aren't potentially other reasons for bad defense, as teams like the Portland Trailblazers hasin recent times shown us.

But let us return to our Transition Defense table.

The links in the data, while not perfect, seem to be pretty clear.  Teams that are better at transition defense tend to be better at defense on the whole, whereas teams that are worse tend to be worse.  And those that are really bad tend to be terrible. 

That is largely the same pattern we see last year as well, the only two for which such transition data is publicly available.  It'll be interesting to see in the coming years if the pattern holds, and if there are exceptions and outliers what they can teach us about the game.  Beyond that, let us hope that the NBA makes SportVU data available to the public again (after all, we are paying for it, just through a series of middlemen) by which we could better study how one-on-none or three-on-one or four-on-one or two-on-three fast breaks ultimately affect a team's ability to play defense.