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.

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.

 

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Celtics, Suns? Should NBA end one-and-done?

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NBA training camps just opened and teams have yet to play a preseason game, but already two contenders are dealing with problems.

The Celtics have the suspension of coach Ime Udoka as a distraction, plus defensive anchor center Robert Williams will miss at least the start of the season following another knee surgery.

The Suns have the distraction of a suspended owner who is selling the team, plus Jae Crowder is out and demanding a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not seem happy.

Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself go through all the training camp news, including the wilder ones with the Lakers and Nets, breaking down what to take away from all that — plus how good Zion Williamson and James Harden look physically.

Then the pair discusses the potential of the NBA doing away with the one-and-done role and letting 18-year-olds back in the game — is that good for the NBA?

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.