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

4 Comments

Gorilla Fire.jpg

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.

C.J. McCollum on Warriors: ‘They set a lot of illegal screens’

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, center, reaches for the ball between Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, top, and forward Andre Iguodala during the second half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 1, 2016. The Warriors won 118-106. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
1 Comment

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts accused Anderson Varejao of being dirty on a particular play.

C.J. McCollum says the Warriors cross the line much more regularly.

via Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

“They set a lot of illegal screens,’’ Blazers guard CJ McCollum said Tuesday at the team’s shootaround at The Olympic Club. “They are moving and stuff. That’s the respect you get when you are champions, you get a lot more respect from the referees. You have to figure out a way to get around those screens and make it difficult.’’

One underappreciated element of the Warriors’ success is their excellent screening. Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are two of the NBA’s best. Even the diminutive Stephen Curry wreaks havoc with his screens, leveraging his shooting ability to befuddle defenders.

Do the Warriors sometimes set illegal screens? Yup. Do they do so more than other teams? Yup. Do they do so more than every other team? Anecdotally, probably, though I’d love to see numbers.

But that’s part of Golden State’s strategy. The Warriors screeners so often straddle the line, they move it. It’s a fine line between a good legal screen and an illegal one, and Golden State dares the refs to blow the whistle.

McCollum can campaign for that to change, and his statements might cause the league to instruct referees to watch Warrior screens more closely. But even if Golden State has to harness its movement and arm extensions on picks, the team is more than capable of setting quality clean screens.

Anderson Varejao responds to Terry Stotts’ ‘dirty play’ charge: Not intentional

1 Comment

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Golden State backup big man Anderson Varejao insists he didn’t deliberately trip Trail Blazers guard Gerald Henderson in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series.

Yet after watching the replay, he understands it sure looked like he did it on purpose – which is what Henderson thought. Varejao said it looked worse than it was.

“When I looked at the play, I was like, `Oh, it looked like I was trying to do that,”‘ he said. “How can I try to do something like that? I’m going down and my foot got stuck. That’s all.”

Portland coach Terry Stotts on Monday called it a “dirty play.” Then Tuesday, the NBA ruled it a Flagrant 1 foul on Varejao.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series was set for Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, and both players involved seemed to be ready to move forward.

The 33-year-old Varejao, a 12th-year NBA veteran from Brazil, said in response to Stotts that he isn’t a dirty player.

“It’s a playoff game, we all know it’s going to be like that. I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about. I just thought it was a physical play,” Varejao said after the morning shootaround. “Got hit in my back, I was going down, my feet got stuck somewhere and all of a sudden, someone else fell. I’m sorry that that happened. Do you think I’m looking for guys to take them out? No. I know how it is to be hurt. I’ve been hurt enough.

“I would never try to hurt anybody, I would never do that.”

He and Henderson were ejected late in the third quarter of Sunday’s game after receiving their second technical fouls. Both were hit with a technical at the 3:29 mark of the third when Varejao tripped Henderson after they collided. Henderson jumped up, pointing a finger at his opponent’s face. They kept jawing a few minutes later and were tossed with 15.1 seconds left in the period.

Stotts was still steamed about it a day later.

“Varejao made a dirty play. It was a leg-whip and I thought it was a dangerous play,” he said. “I thought Gerald’s reaction to being tripped like that was appropriate. Otherwise, no one would have seen it. It was unfortunate that he got tossed on the second, but you have to defend yourself – especially when somebody makes a dirty play.”

Henderson said after the game that he believed Varejao thought the Blazers guard ran into him on purpose.

“I hit him. I bumped him good. But I didn’t, I wasn’t trying to hit him,” Henderson said, calling it “a little excessive” to have Varejao go at his legs.

Varejao said Tuesday he was initially surprised Henderson came at him.

“But looking at the play, he had the right to do it. I understand why he came back at me the way he did, which is OK, guys. It’s a playoff game,” Varejao said. “It’s going to be physical. It’s fun when it gets like that.”

Raptors starting Norman Powell over Patrick Patterson against Heat

Toronto Raptors' Norman Powell (24) runs back up court after the Raptors scored against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff basketball series, Tuesday, April 26, 2016 in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
1 Comment

Raptors coach Dwane Casey got a taste of changing his starting lineup.

Now he can’t stop.

Matt Devlin of Raptors.com:

Norman Powell replaces Patrick Patterson (who replaced regular-season starter Luis Scola in the first round). This makes the Raptors smaller and increases their ability to switch among their three starting wings – Powell, DeMarre Carroll and DeMar DeRozan.

Luol Deng gave the Hornets plenty of trouble as a stretch four in the last round. Toronto countered that advantage before falling victim to it.

The key will be the Raptors holding their own in the paint, rebounding and defending, and maintaining a reserve advantage that boosted them all season.

Stephen Curry wins Magic Johnson Award

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 29:  TNT report Craig Sager interviews Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors after their game against the Washington Wizards at ORACLE Arena on March 29, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
1 Comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Stephen Curry has won the Magic Johnson Award, given by the Professional Basketball Writers Association to an NBA player who combines excellence on the court with cooperation with the public and media.

Curry led the NBA with 30.1 points per game and a record 402 3-pointers in leading the Golden State Warriors to a 73-9 record, best in league history.

The reigning MVP beat out teammate Draymond Green, Portland’s Damian Lillard, New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Atlanta’s Paul Millsap on Tuesday in voting by the PBWA, made up of approximately 175 writers and editors who cover the league on a regular basis.

The award was created in 2001 and named for Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whom the PWBA regards as “the ideal model for the award.”