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What Is Spacing: Explaining the NBA’s Holy Spirit

By its fruits, you shall know it.

Phoenix Suns v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA is in love with spacing. The phrase “pace and space” is the buzzword dujour on NBA Twitter, talk shows, radios, and podcasts. When the Memphis Grizzlies drafted Ja Morant they eulogized the end of “Grit-N-Grind” and the beginning of “Pace and Space.” While many of us use the term spacing as casually as we would the term “pick and roll”, “pocket pass”, or “transition defense”, most of us—myself included—tend to oversimplify what Spacing in the NBA is and how it is created. That’s insane considering it’s now one of the main pillars of the modern NBA offense. Spacing is the NBA’s Holy Spirit, it is more identified by its fruits—points—than its actual presence.

It is important to know as many of us have said this offseason, “The Utah Jazz are going to have MUCH better spacing now that they have * insert new Jazz player here *.” The Utah Jazz will, but it may not be because of the reasons you think. So today we’re going to pull together some of the best resources available to get to the bottom of NBA spacing—what it is, how it is created, and how it can be artificially manufactured.

What is spacing in the NBA?

The term spacing is commonly referred to the effect an offense has on a defense when an NBA lineup has multiple shooters on the floor. For example, many of us derided the Derrick Favors-Rudy Gobert pairing on the floor because it lacked “spacing” because most of us believe that spacing refers to shooters exclusively. That’s wrong. Funny enough there isn’t an exact definition of this even if you google it. Many quickly explain in forums that it’s what happens when you have a stretch four. Commonly, floor spacing is the amount of open space created by offensive players in the halfcourt.

A great example is comparing these two pictures of NBA spacing in the 1960s vs Present Day. Both pictures have “spacing” but you can see in the Houston vs Golden State Warriors game of modern day, there’s A LOT more.

That increase of spacing was jumpstarted by three point line, but only recently in the last decade has spacing started to cook with gas. Let’s talk about how spacing in the modern NBA is created.

How to create “spacing” in the NBA

Many commonly believe the three point line is the be all end all to NBA spacing. If you want better spacing, you go out and sign three point shooters. That’s wrong. This is akin to seeing only one part of the pythagorean theory (a² + b² = c²) and saying that b² = c². NBA fans dig the long ball, but it throws off the scent of how spacing is really created. Spacing is a recipe, not an ingredient. Those ingredients are as follows: a big man capable of setting good screens and finishing lobs and at the rim, three wings capable of shooting above average from three, and a point guard capable of knocking down the three and penetrating. One of those wings needs to have star potential and it’s helpful if the point guard has those same abilities. But at the end of the day if you were really going to oversimplify it, the base for good floor spacing is

(Talent of Rim Runner)*Rim Running + (Talent of Shooter)*Three Point Shooting = Spacing

This is why for a team like the Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert is so valuable. Dennis Lindsey talks a lot about how Rudy Gobert is the trigger for Utah’s offense. It’s true. However, it is not necessary to have a Rudy Gobert talent of rim runner if your talent of shooters is Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant as your three point shooters, an elite rim runner—or even an above average one—is not required as shown by the Warriors’ revolving door at center during their dynasty.

Now if you’re thinking, “But how does a dude who can’t stretch the floor actually help floor spacing?” ... well ... you’re not alone. Most of us have been conditioned by Twitter, ESPN, us here at SLC Dunk, and that one friend who JUST WON’T SHUTUP about Karl Anthony-Towns that for a team to have some primo floor spacing, you gotta have a big man that can shoot like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, or Joel Embiid. But that isn’t actually the case.

From Model 284, they talk about the DeAndre Jordan mold from 2015 is incredibly healthy for a team as long as that’s your only player in that lineup that fits that mold:

How do we account for DeAndre Jordan, who doesn’t catch the ball outside very often? To capture the finisher at the rim, we look at scoring less than 5 feet from the hoop (minus drives). The idea behind this is to capture the inside presence that draws help defenders down low, opening the perimeter shooters.

So we have four different types of shooting: Catch and Shoot, Pull-up, Drives, and Shots at the Rim. For each of these statistics, we start at the individual player level and roll up to the lineup level. For Catch and Shoots, Pull-ups, and Drives, we average the frequency with which each player attempts each shot weighted by their usage and adjusted for efficiency, resulting in a lineup-level measure for each of the aforementioned types of shots. Next, we scale these lineup level estimates for each shot type and return a standard deviation.

With shots from less than 5 feet, we take the maximum frequency-adjusted percentage among the individual players in the lineup. This should theoretically give us an indication of the effectiveness of our center. For reference, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela would all be tops in this category.

A balance is needed between outside shooting, slashing, and elite finishing at the rim. The great thing about the NBA is a team must not rely upon NBA unicorns like Kristaps Porzingis or Joel Embiid to usher them into the new NBA. Take the Houston Rockets of the past two years. They relied on the star power of two elite guards—Chris Paul and James Harden—and an elite rim runner in Clint Capela then threw in a potpourri of NBA “3 and D” wings. That mix was enough to push the Warriors to 7 games in the Western Conference Finals, and save for a last minute injury to Chris Paul, they would have been NBA Champions. Their lineup didn’t have an All-NBA stretch four or once in a generation big man unicorn. They had elite guards and the right lineup combinations to provide elite spacing.

But what if your roster doesn’t have the right players to maximize the spacing equation?

How to manufacture spacing in the NBA

Think of manufactured space in the NBA as the chocolate chip cookies in which you substituted applesauce for eggs. It worked in a pinch, it got the job done, but the final product wouldn’t win you any awards. Many times over the past Utah Jazz season NBA analysts, writers, and opposing coaches would comment about how great Quin Snyder was at getting his players good looks. They would say it incredulously because Utah’s only real offensive threat off the dribble was Donovan Mitchell. How was Donovan Mitchell finding so much space in the regular when he was Utah’s only threat off the bounce? How were Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver getting so many open looks from three when they were Utah’s only real threats from beyond the arc? How did Rudy Gobert set a career high in points when the paint was even more clogged than prior season for the Jazz?

Zach Lowe explained what a team without “star players” like Utah does and why they have had to do it for the past two seasons back in 2018.

Without Hayward, the Jazz rely even more on Quin Snyder’s whirring, Euro-infused system of screens, cuts, and drives. He calls it “advantage basketball.”

Some players are so good, they constitute a living, breathing advantage. James Harden can walk the ball up, take one ho-hum screen, and destroy your defense.

Utah’s players need a head start -- an advantage. Snyder’s system runs so that whenever a player catches the ball, he has one.

The first rule of advantage basketball is that you never surrender your advantage. Get a five-foot head start, and you should expand it 10 feet before shooting or exchanging the baton. “You have to keep the advantage,” Gobert says. “Punish them.”

Hesitation erases an advantage. When Hood or Mitchell comes off a screen and pauses to pound the ball, you see Snyder’s exasperation. The coaches have shown Mitchell that one aggressive dribble immediately after a catch covers as much territory as two or three ponderous ones, he says. Ingles will tell you: Decisiveness turns slow players into fast ones.

This stuff isn’t unique to Utah, but the Jazz teach it in more granular detail.

Watch below as Utah builds the advantage until the defense’s rotations are not just a couple seconds behind but 8-10 seconds too late.

The Utah Jazz were able to punish the Brooklyn Nets with a lineup of Raul Neto, Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Georges Niang, and Derrick Favors. They’re deliberate and without hesitation.

The problem with manufacturing space is it exacts a heavy toll as Zach Lowe explains here.

Add it up, and Utah leads the league in on-ball screens by a mile, per data from Second Spectrum. They rank fourth in handoffs, and eighth in off-ball picks. When the system works, they generate shots this group of talent has no business generating.

Smart teams—more importantly, more talented teams—can pull back the curtain on a team like Utah’s manufactured space by switching. This is a big reason why the Houston Rockets have been Utah’s kryptonite in the playoffs. Instead of allowing Utah to build any momentum whatsoever off screens by sticking to the ball handler, they switch on a lot of Utah’s screens. They forced Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, or Donovan Mitchell to take them off the dribble knowing that only one of those players had the talent to do so.

The real holy grail for a team that is great at manufacturing space despite its limitations is to one day be able to combine the strong execution with the right pieces. While applesauce can fill in at times for eggs, to have damn good chocolate chip cookies, you’re going to need eggs. If you want to win awards and the adoration of others, you need the real stuff.

Advantage Offense meet Advantaged Players

Remember when I shared that crude equation for space that looked like this?

(Talent of Rim Runner)*Rim Running + (Talent of Shooter)*Three Point Shooting = Spacing

Remember how I said it was oversimplified? It’s because that preschool level equation doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is spacing is. There are additional variables that require a team to execute crisply on offense. Variables that require a team to pivot when things go wrong. Variables that require a team to adapt when all the pieces don’t fit due to roster construction or injuries. Variables that are completely out of the team’s hands but still affect team chemistry, motivation, and—most importantly—health.

This is why many fans in Utah like their team’s chances at competing for an NBA championship next season in 2019-2020. While other teams boast more recognizable star talent—Kawhi Leonard/Paul George and Lebron James/Anthony Davis—the Utah Jazz seem to have the perfect balance mixed with the perfect offense. The pieces fit alongside the strategy. Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, and Bojan Bogdanovic can overcome the switching reaction to Utah’s advantage offense. If a team like Houston decides to switch, Utah has additional players that can exploit the mismatches one on one. Utah’s advantage offense now forces teams to make more difficult decisions when it comes to getting behind the offensive action.

Improved spacing allows all those additional advantages, but they were in concert. Trying to point to what makes spacing better is like asking someone to identify the most important part of an orchestra. It depends on the music, the talent of the musicians, the ability of the conductor, and so on and so forth. Everything is dependent on another.

NBA spacing is in danger of being spoken of so ubiquitously that it almost loses its meaning. Like when you type the same word over and over again and it just looks like squiggles on a page. When I was in graduate school one of my professors would correct any student who used what he called a buzzword because it was a quick way to sound smart but not really contribute anything that had real value. That’s almost where we are at currently with “spacing”. It’s why retired NBA players scoff when they hear analytics nerds scream they need better spacing while pointing at bad three point shooters or bad frontcourt pairings.

While those contribute, they’re not the be all, end all. In the NBA blogosphere, we point to spacing like it’s the holy grail of the modern NBA while players and coaches look at it like unmolded clay. It’s inanimate clay until it is molded by dribble hand offs, off ball screens, and premier perimeter playmaking.

Spacing is the NBA’s Holy Spirit, your team can survive without it, but if it has received it in full, games are a pentecostal experience that will leave you screaming, speaking in tongues, and feeling like you communed with a higher NBA power.