Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Has the small-ball fad passed?


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Sometimes, the NBA’s most important issues can only be fully understood when two college students talk at each other about them. It is in this spirit that we here at NBC bring you Pro Basketball Crosstalk, featuring Rob Mahoney and John Krolik.

Resolved: Contrary to earlier reports, the crackdown on hand-check rules that took place in the 2004 offseason has not led to small-ball teams finding success at the highest levels of play. 

John Krolik: It wasn’t long ago that small-ball teams looked like the wave of the future. The crackdown on hand-checking and the concurrent rise of the D’Antoni Suns made it seem like small-ball was taking the league by storm; stodgy old offenses built around feeding the post or setting up mid-range jumpers were being replaced by small guards and wing players flying into the paint to get a layup or draw a foul, kick the ball out on the break to an open three-point shooter, or find a hyper-athletic big for a resounding dunk. Nobody could stop ultra-fast guards with finishing ability like Tony Parker, Devin Harris, or Monta Ellis from getting into the lane and wreaking havoc. The freaking Warriors beat the Mavericks in the playoffs. (Sorry, Rob.) The winds of change were blowing. 
But here we stand in the year 2010, and not that much has changed. Both NBA finals teams featured a seven-foot power forward and an absolute behemoth at center. Only three of the ten “fastest” teams in the league made it into the playoffs, and only Utah and Phoenix made it out of the first round. Orlando has been the only Eastern Conference contender to run any sort of “progressive” offense, but they also have the best center in the league. 
Meanwhile, guys like Parker, Harris, and Monta no longer seem like the point guards of the future — Monta, in fact, has become the bane of the advanced statistics community. The best pure scorer in the league is, in the objective, non-basketball, sense of the word, slow, and isn’t a particularly good passer either — In short, Durant was a guy who was supposed to dominate the old NBA, but I guess sometimes a great player is just a great player. 
What’s weird about everything being more or less the same on a macro level is that everything seems so different on a micro level. Offenses built around feeding the post are all but gone — the Lakers won a championship without relying on post-up play, and they have Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe. Players like Rashard Lewis and Lamar Odom are now considered legitimate power-forward options. It’s still all but impossible to keep the quicker guards in the league from blowing past their first defender. Teams are shooting more threes than ever before. Yet it’s still the slow-it-down, defense-first, up-with-big-men teams who end up playing each other come May and June. 
One thing I’ll say before swinging it to Rob is that great big men seem to be as valuable as ever, just in different ways. For example, Dwight Howard doesn’t dominate games by getting the ball on the block and making a move every time the Magic have the ball, because that’s not how things work anymore. However, his ability to guard the paint has become invaluable, because there’s no way to stop faster players from getting into the paint without fouling them on the perimeter. Offensively, Howard’s ability to turn Jameer Nelson’s penetration into an alley-oop finish is more valuable than it would have been previously, because Jameer now penetrates more. (The best case study on this might be “MVP KG vs. Best player on a championship team” KG.) 
Rob, your thoughts on all this? 
Rob Mahoney: To say that small-ball teams haven’t found success at the highest levels of play is both indisputably true and an incredible disservice to the Phoenix Suns. 
If the criterion for success is to COUNT THEM RINGS, then certainly, the Suns and every team of their ilk have failed. The six NBA champions since 2004 have averaged a pace of 91.4 possessions per game, which is somewhere between plodding and the ideal habitat for moss. The kings of the hill tend to climb it rather slowly, and that’s as true now as it ever has been.
Still, if the Suns are the poster children for the small-ball movement, to say that they haven’t been successful is way off-base. In the six seasons since the hand-check rules were revamped, Phoenix made the playoffs five times, made it to the conference finals thrice, and the semifinals once. That’s in spite of an evolving and eventually overhauled core, two coaching changes, a season-long injury to a star player, and an owner looking to trim expenses at every turn. There were all kinds of factors working against the Suns, and yet they’re one of the decade’s quintessential teams, despite never hoisting the ol’ Larry O’Brien. 
If Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t have to go under the knife, if the league office didn’t issue some curious suspensions, if they hadn’t continually run into the Spurs, or if the Lakers hadn’t found Pau Gasol on their doorstep, we might not even be discussing this in such uncertain terms. Phoenix was that good for that long, and yet just because they never punched their title tickets doesn’t mean their style is invalidated.
From there, I’d offer this: the Suns (under Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry, not Terry Porter) did it right, and most of the small-ball elements you noted represent the idea in its impure forms. The Warriors had their day in the sun in 2007, but ultimately, their rosters have been mistranslations of an otherwise beautiful concept. Claiming that small-ball failed because teams like the Warriors stumbled is akin to pinning the Clippers’ failures on all moderately paced teams. Sure, other franchises were never quite able to replicate the Suns’ model, but Seven-Seconds-or-Less requires a steadfast commitment to counterintuitive ideals. Run off the make. Don’t foul. Trust the transition three. These are things that basketball players need to be taught to embrace, and that’s an insanely difficult task without a franchise willing to dive in headfirst. Not many are.
If you’d ask me to define why small-ball teams on the whole have failed to find success, I’d start there. Personnel is an issue, too — just because T.J. Ford is fast doesn’t mean he should be running your fast break offense. Additionally, I think a lot of people (fans, players, coaches, etc.) saw small-ball as some easy, as-seen-on-TV method of transforming a team overnight, and it’s certainly not. Like any other basketball system, it takes discipline and proper construction, and the hastily assembled copycats that have been touted as small-ball outfits are only so in form, not function.
JK: I’m a big opponent of the “History is the propaganda of the victors” construct, so I definitely hear what you’re saying w/r/t the Suns. They were a few bad breaks away from a championship, no doubt. You could, of, course, say the same thing about a number of teams: LeBron’s Cavaliers were two Rashard Lewis threes away from playing Kobe’s Lakers in the Finals. The Magic were one Dwight Howard free throw/missed Derek Fisher three, and Courtney Lee layup
from putting up a real fight against the Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain was a Frank Selvy mid-range jumper from taking a game seven from Bill Russell. They were a few good breaks away; so were a lot of teams. 
(My point about the Suns? The Marion trade absolutely devastated their ability to beat top-tier teams playing their style. Like I said about Howard/KG earlier, the hand-check rules have benefited great defensive reactors as much as great offensive actors, and Marion’s ability to cover ground and guard multiple positions was CRUCIAL to their success.)
My main point was how I’m disturbed that the Suns didn’t find anybody to take up their mantle. The Suns were a tremendously talented team; look at those rosters sometime. They had all the talent to win championships, even many of them — the year they did it without Amar’e was a testament to how good their system can be, but that was still a team with great talent at multiple positions perfectly suited to making that style work. 
Furthermore, what made the Suns special was Steve Nash, one of the most talented (and unique) offensive players we’ve seen in the last decade. The question of whether the Suns’ system is a blueprint for a team that wants to win a championship or the best system to utilize Steve Nash’s talents has yet to be answered at the highest levels, from where I stand. To make my point clear: the Moneyball A’s didn’t win a title either, but the Sabermetrics/big-ball/Value-on-OBP way of building teams swept the league in their wake. The Suns way of building teams has not. 
Here’s my small-ball thesis for the time being:
(Talent) +/- (Coaching/Chemistry) +/- (X-Factor) = Success
Assume “X-Factor” has more inherent variation than the former two considerations. If you accept that postulate, you see why small-ball is a good idea for “mid-level” teams but has trouble producing finals berths: The faster you play, the more you’re embracing variance and increasing the value of your X-Factor, be it positive or negative. (I realize that, theoretically, more possessions would suggest less possibility for randomness, but that’s not the way the NBA, a game of runs, operates.) 
The 2007 Warriors had a pantsload of X-Factor, and that was great for them: it allowed them to beat the Mavericks, but led to them getting beaten fairly handily by the Jazz. For an 8-seed playoff team, that’s something you’ll take every day. For the past few seasons, my beloved Cavaliers sought to limit their X-Factor as much as possible, because they had LeBron, and it led them to the league’s best regular-season record for the last two years. (It did backfire on them pretty badly when the Celtics had the matchups to bully them in the 2010 playoffs and the Cavaliers had NO answer for them.) 
Now that LeBron is gone and they’ll be an (at-best) moderately talented team, they’re going to play faster and up their X-Factor, and I support that. But at the highest levels of the game (read: Conference Finals/NBA Finals), relying on variance/your ball movement to be there/your shooters to be hot is generally a losing strategy against a team with a methodical gameplan and a lock-down defense. Great small-ball teams have a greater chance of beating teams with more talent than them as well as a greater chance of losing to teams with less talent than them. In the regular season, where things even out over 82 games, that’s a fair proposition. For elite teams, the ones that need to win 4 playoff series in a row, it’s not as favorable. 
I’ll return to the Suns/small-ball in general issue with one last metaphor before letting you run the anchor: David beating Goliath doesn’t interest me. An army trading in their crossbows, swords, and shields for slings would. 
RM: I’m with you in principle that fast breaking teams have greater variance in their performance at times (though I’d love for a savvy statistical mind to either confirm or deny that), but isn’t that what the playoffs are all about? Playing your best basketball at the right time and all that? Call me crazy, but I don’t mind betting on a well-constructed squad like the Suns, slightly parabolic though their play may be, over a team slogging through the season and waiting to flip the switch. 
Plus, it’s not as if the Suns were slacking in the post-season. Phoenix played well enough to win the damn thing during some of those playoffs, they just happened to run into their antithesis over and over again. Prior to this year, San Antonio was the death of them, and the only teams Phoenix had lost to in the playoffs were the Spurs and a team constructed in SA’s likeness (the Mavericks under Avery Johnson). Maybe that’s just another break that the Suns never got, but it’s also a pretty consistent obstacle that kept those Phoenix teams from consummate immortality.
It’s not about pace or style, really. It’s about reliability. That’s at the core of your X-Factor contention, but where we seem to diverge is in how that factor impacted the Suns. Good teams need reliable players as their foundation, and it doesn’t much matter whether that player is Tim Duncan or Steve Nash, as long as the roster around them is thoughtfully assembled and the system is fitting of their talents. The Suns may have more give to their game than say, the Spurs (do pardon the redundancy of that counterexample), but with a talent of Nash’s caliber at the center of the operation, they can still find success by almost any standard.
Oddly enough, that means that while I’d love to say that the game done changed because of small ball, it really hasn’t. Rather, it’s simply become more apparent than ever that teams need to embrace talent in all of its forms in order to pursue the exact same element (reliability) that has always been crucial to success in the NBA. In my eyes, the Suns have validated small-ball as a possible avenue through which to do that. No one has put down their swords and crossbows because it’s not about the weapons. It’s about how they’re used, and while the traditionalists have won battles aplenty by standing in formation, Phoenix wasn’t afraid to turn to guerrilla tactics.

Justin Anderson cuts under basket, reaches back for putback dunk (video)

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One player dunking on another is always fantastic.

But some of the best jams come when the dunker artfully dodges defenders in the first place.

Mavericks forward Justin Anderson did that with this putback slam against the Pacers last night.

Wednesday featured a ridiculous number of players getting dunked on (videos)

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 26:  Willie Cauley-Stein #00 of the Sacramento Kings slam dunks the ball over Marquese Chriss #0 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the preseason NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 26, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Twenty NBA teams started their seasons last night, providing a glorious onslaught of basketball unlike anything we’ve seen in months.

One of the best parts? It seems players forgot they were supposed to duck out of the way, rather than defend, dunks.

That led to some fantastic slams

Gerald Henderson on Domantas Sabonis:

Lance Stephenson on Kenneth Faried:

Jonas Valanciunas on Boban Marjanovic:

Willie-Cauley Stein on Marquese Chriss:

‘Our 49 Pulse angels’: Orlando Magic honor those killed in nightclub

A banner printed with the names of the Pulse nightclub shooting victims and 49, the number of people who died in the shooting, is unveiled in the Amway Center during a tribute prior to an NBA basketball game between the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — There’s nothing that can give Mayra Alvear back what she lost, or ease her pain, or calm her anger.

With one gesture, she at least felt some joy again.

Underneath a softly swaying banner displaying the number 49 – commemorating the number of lives lost – and as first responders unfurled and held a massive American flag for the national anthem, the Orlando Magic paid tribute Wednesday night to the victims and survivors of the Pulse gay nightclub massacre with an emotional ceremony immediately before the team’s season-opener against the Miami Heat.

“We felt the recognition needed to be significant,” Magic president Alex Martins said. “We think part of the healing process for our community is making sure we don’t forget. And we felt it was most appropriate that we do it on opening night, so it receives the proper recognition and exposure – but also gave the greatest number of our fans the opportunity to recognize and remember.”

Some survivors were present, as were some relatives of those who were killed on June 12 in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The gunman, Omar Mateen, was killed after a three-hour standoff during an exchange of fire with SWAT team members.

“What the Orlando Magic are doing is amazing, is beautiful. I’m honored and grateful,” said Alvear, the mother of Pulse victim Amanda Alvear. “That they are lifting the number 49 out of respect, a symbol for our 49 Pulse angels, it has a deep meaning – demonstration of love and that they care, that all of them will be remembered.”

The nightclub remains fenced off, yet is still attracting a daily stream of mourners. Banners on the fence are dotted with thousands of handwritten messages from visitors, with some flowers and candles on the ground.

Martins was the chair of OneOrlando, a fund that collected $29.5 million in donations that’s being distributed to 299 claimants. At the time of the shooting, the Magic were just a few weeks removed from the hiring of Frank Vogel as their new coach, and less than three weeks away from a free-agent period where the roster would be greatly revamped.

But Martins quickly volunteered anyway, helping oversee the massive task.

“One of the ways that I felt I could help, that I could assist, was to help with the administration of the fund,” Martins said. “So I raised my hand immediately.”

The tribute coming before a Magic-Heat game was fitting, given how many of those affected by the events of that night were from South Florida.

It was particularly poignant to one survivor.

Heat employee Laura Vargas was shot twice that night. She can recall every detail – the strobe lights, the Heineken in her hand, how she was putting away her ID as she heard the first shots. She remembers watching Mateen reload a weapon, the blood pouring from her wounds, even the look on the police officer’s face when she was rescued.

Her best friend, Luis Vielma, who Vargas said was straight, was one of the victims.

“It’s not even just about me,” Vargas said. “It’s coping that he’s not there anymore. It’s a lot to carry around.”

Vargas isn’t able yet to resume work. She was at the arena the Heat call home last week for an event called “Loud And Proud” that celebrated the LGBTQ community, but couldn’t shake the feeling Mateen was there. Her flashbacks and nightmares are terrifying – she said she had “a total breakdown” recently at Disney when a fireworks show sounded like gunfire.

Nights like Wednesday, she said, make it all a bit easier.

“The love that’s come out of this is not fading,” Vargas said. “It brings me comfort to know that my best friend is one of the reasons why this world is a little bit less crappy, that his life isn’t just forgotten. No. He made a difference. And he would be happy to know that even with the chaos, the horror, he made a change.”

This was not a one-night commitment for the Magic, who have contributed both money and staff resources to the ongoing healing process and plan to continue. In addition to the banner, the team aired a video in tribute and invited singer Brandon Parsons – who composed a song called “Forty-Nine Times” – to perform pregame.

Parsons’ song included this phrase: “Takes more than just a gun, more than you to tear us down, so let your colors fly free.”

“It’s been so impactful since the day of that event,” said Otto Drozd, the Fire Chief for Orange County Fire Rescue. “This is part of the healing process. We continue to remember the 49 that lost their lives and those that were injured that night, and really, we do that because we don’t want to relive it.”

Joel Embiid hits shots, blocks Westbrook, looks good in debut


And somewhere, Sam Hinkie weeps.

After two seasons on the sidelines with foot injuries, Joel Embiid played his first NBA game Wednesday night — and he looked good — 20 points, seven rebounds, and a couple of blocked shots. The Philadelphia crowd loved him — when he opened the game with a nice move and free-throw line jumper, followed by a block of Russell Westbrook, the arena nearly exploded. He was later serenaded with “trust the process” chants as he shot free throws.

He’s still a work in progress — he tried to do too much rather than let the game come to him. That led to 7-of-17 shooting and him chasing blocks on defense and getting out of position. He played like an over-amped rookie. Which he was. (Apparently, some Philly fans were a little over-amped, too.)

But one with a world of talent. The Sixers have something here.