Playing Tempo: A Difference Maker for Basketball Teams

Any time two teams clash, there are many “games within the game” but
none are more important than the battle of tempo. Whether a coach
intentionally creates tempos at both ends of the floor or not, system
choices create an identifiable tempo. Whether one starts with a
certain tempo in mind or not, everyone ends up with a preferred (or
necessary) “way” to play.

That’s the crazy thing about tempo, even though everyone practices a
certain way and prefers to play a certain way, every game (even parts
of games) can be very unique. That’s primarily because of the
opponent trying its best to play their preferred way. In the end,
it’s all about which of the two teams imposes its will on the other
for the length of the game or long stretches.
That’s not to say that the team that controls tempo always wins but
rather that team adds to its chances to win.

Before we go too much farther, let’s discuss some specific tempos and
the various factors that can affect them:

SLOW: Tempo is often misunderstood as something created at the the
offensive end, but in reality, it is a 50-50 proposition. At the
defensive end, a slow tempo is created by conservative defenses that
“pack it in” and don’t take a lot of chances on or off the ball.
(Think Virginia Cavaliers). Generally, these teams pick up at the top
of the key or at the opponent’s 3 point range. They may pressure the
ball but only in a “neutralizing” way. There is usually little
denying and much sagging off the ball, whether in man or zone. These
teams generally get back in transition extremely well. The opponent’s
offense has to “search” for shots longer than usual- shot clock or
not. Hence, a lot of time is moving off the clock. Everyone knows
more shots/possessions mean a faster tempo and fewer shots/possessions
creates a slower tempo. Two types of presses also slow down the
tempo. One is a 2-2-1 press which either retreats or only traps in
high percentage situations and the other is a full court man pressure
which tries to “turn” the ballhandler as much as possible. This can
be very fatiguing but can be highly effective at the high school
level. This type of pressure can be very difficult for many HS
guards. Even when the handler navigates the floor successfully, he is
eating up a lot of time and energy.

At the offensive end, slower tempos are created by teams at the
conservative end of the shot selection spectrum. Whether on a primary
break, secondary break or in the half court, these teams may take an
early shot but unlike their mirror opposites, they aren’t looking for
the very first look. More accurately, they’re looking for a real good
look or maybe even the best look.

The combination of playing conservatively at both ends obviously
creates the slowest tempo and is at one extreme. This can be a very
difficult tempo to play against and can be very difficult to impose
one’s will against this style and speed them up.

FAST: Teams that want to play fast defensively and force a high
possession game generally press but trap at one or several floor
locations. The farther away from their defensive basket the traps
occur, the faster the tempo these teams will create. (Think West
Virginia Mountaineers). These teams will employ 1-2-1-1, run and
double and run/jump presses and want you out of your comfort zone,
shooting earlier than normal and from unfamiliar spots on the floor
and by players unaccustomed to taking those shots.

At the offensive end, teams that force a fast tempo normally run as
much as possible-both primary breaks and secondary breaks. Their half
court offenses tend to be quick hitters or NBA type plays rather than
continuity or motion offenses that can eat up a lot of time. These
teams are very often looking for an “early” good look.

The combination of playing fast at both ends can also be very daunting
for an opponent. Conventional thinking says that playing this way is
recommended for very talented teams only. Teams that are athletic but
not highly skilled usually force the action at one end-the defensive

We just discussed the two ends of the tempo spectrum but most teams
play at tempos somewhere in between or a permutation of one or
another. Let’s briefly discuss a few before we summarize.

SLOW/FAST: There are some defensive teams that will slow you down by
2-2-1 pressing and once you cross mid-court will speed you up with a
trapping defense like a 1-3-1. This type of change of tempo can be a
bother because most teams don’t see this often and don’t practice
against it.

FAST/SLOW: Defensively, these teams will force the action full court
and try to get a trap or two but once you cross mid court will play
position/neutralizing man and grind it out or even retreat into a
zone. Offensively, these teams will fast break but pull it out and be
relatively conservative in the half court.

CHANGING DEFENSES: Teams that do this well can be very pesky because
not only are they giving you different floor position looks but they
can also be speeding you up and slowing you down-even on successive

Again, these are general categories. These would all be classified as
“tough preps”-talent being relatively equal. Keep in mind that
sometimes we don’t necessarily choose a tempo; a tempo chooses us
after we practice and maybe even after we play a number of games.
Flexibility is another key if/when we need to adjust our tempo at
either or both ends. Even after a working tempo is established it
is advisable to keep an open mind to season-to-season, game-to-game
and in-game adjustments. Only the elite college programs recruit
players to systems and tempos and even the best of those coaches
adjust when necessary. Every team has a “best” tempo but will
invariably need alternate tempos for certain teams and/or situations.
We know that the very toughest preps start with excellent talent and
that talent alone can create tempo. However, talent aside, we as coaches
can significantly impact a game with tempo. Once we establish how we
want (need) to play, the key is to be resolute and attempt to impose
our will on our opponent in that regard as much as possible.


  1. Coach: great man..really, really good stuff right here. Poke your chest out because there just aint a lot of kats walkin around with a better understanding: very evident: you know it inside and out. I wondered if, since watching isnt always an option, if you could give some complimentary/supporting stat to look for, that would indicate a teams tempo offensively vs defensively. Perhaps better put: you mention a slow defensive pace may not always accompany the like on offense: how can one tell, stat-wise? Thanks!!

    1. Coach. Thanks for your kind words and interest. To determine the effectiveness of pace of play, try googling NCAA BB Team Possessions per game. Today’s rankings show Savannah leads the nation with 88.2 possessions a game and Marist is last at 58.7 per game. After that google OER-offensive efficiency and you’ll be able to determine how effective a team is at their pace.
      That whole analysis will give you a look and better understanding of pace and effectiveness of pace, which is probably a better word than “tempo”. Good Luck!

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