NBA Finals preview?
For 10 full seasons, I’ve watched the NBA with a close eye. I’ve loved every minute of them all, and I’ve spent much of my life consuming them through watching games and coverage, as well as reading relative articles and forums.
We’re midway through my 11th, and this one is perhaps the best I’ve seen. This season seems to have a different aura to it. The parity level is up, the story lines are more abundant and the competitive-game frequency has risen.
But this season is also exciting because it gives a feel that the NBA is on the brink of a new era. An era defined by a modern style of play.
Over the last few seasons the San Antonio Spurs have ran a very distinctive offensive system. It’s motion-heavy, it’s pass-heavy, it scores a lot of points and it’s landed them a plethora of playoff wins.
The playing style, brought to life by head coach Gregg Popovich, has since been branded as “Pace and Space.”
Here’s the basic science of it:
It begins with the lineup on the floor spread out nicely so that everyone has enough operating room. The ball moves continuously through passing and driving towards the basket. Off-ball movement is also the key, as players are frequently setting multiple picks to free up teammates. These actions are repeated over and over until the most ideal shot is apparent. The strategy has high aesthetic quality and contains apt precision.
While the Spurs continue to instill the system, other teams are beginning to follow suit.
The Golden State Warriors are currently at the top of the league’s standings powered by nights and nights of beautiful basketball. Nearly every possession features pass after pass after pass, and complimented by players progressively running without the ball to new spots. Led by the crafty and sharp-shooting Stephen Curry, the Warriors seem to approach offense like a high-octane game of chess, and exploiting the opposition’s ignorance in making calculated moves until they find a preferred shot.
After three seasons under Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr has his Warriors off to their best start in decades. Jackson’s tenure produced superior basketball than the franchise has seen in recent history, but Kerr has added some more flair to the product. Watching the team in action, it’s no surprise that Kerr played under the tutelage of Popovich from ’98-’01 and again during the ’02-’03 season.
Right below the Warriors for the league’s best record, is the surprising Atlanta Hawks. Calling the shots on the sidelines for them is Mike Budenholzer – who is also disciple of Popovich, having spent 17 years as his assistant coach. The Hawks have grinded out wins all year by producing high art on the hardwood in similar fashion as the aforementioned teams. They’ve been able to grab a firm hold of the top seed in the East with arguably less talent than their competitors, and their success is built on purely sophisticated basketball.
Consider that Kyle Korver has been one of the elite shooters in the game over the last decade. Despite that being common knowledge across the league, he’s still able to get wide open looks from beyond the arc due to the pristine offensive execution. Thanks to rapid screening and motion, Korver has enjoyed a historic shooting season: his percentages on field goals, three pointers, true shooting and effective field goals are an analytical delight.
Korver and his running mates all seem to know their place and eager to find the open man, and the Hawks currently lead the league in assist ratio.
The Warriors and Hawks are functioning on a winning concept and it wouldn’t be too surprising to see them both the Finals come June. Perhaps that would be the final step in convincing the rest of the league to buy into very successful design of beautiful basketball.
I firmly believe that Pace and Space is the future of the NBA — or at least it should be. It has a new-age vibe to it. One that feels fresh, and looks as sophisticated as its innovative quality is evident.
Running a seemingly stationary half-court offense is putting yourself at a clear disadvantage these days. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers frequently have players take turns dribbling one-on-one, and trying to force a scoring opportunity to materialize while everyone else stands and watches. It can be a cringe-worthy sight at times, and it’s just an obsolete method to practice. It’s too easy for defenses to read, predict and get a handle on. Even though the Thunder have guys capable of scoring a lot of points by playing iso-ball in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, there’s no need to place so much burden on them.
Pace and Space takes the pressure off of one particular player, and enhances the magnitude of the five-man unit. It keeps the defense guessing. It camouflages players’ weaknesses, and accentuates their strengths. Drivers are able to get to the rim free of too much traffic in the paint. Off-ball runners are able to utilize several screens. Jump-shooters are able to get open shots.
Playing like this is just more entertaining to watch. Over the last few seasons, I’ve had trouble paying attention to games possession-by-possession. That has more to do with my addiction to Twitter and live box scores than a growing decrease of interest, but watching state of the art plays featuring mosaic intricacy certainly keeps my eyes focused on the TV screen. I’m excited to see what kind of artistry transpires next, and I’m not willing to risk missing it. This style is simply more attractive to viewers.
Teams would be crazy to continue to use playground-style basketball centered around isolation. There’s a more practical blueprint out there that is proven to be more effective. Pace and Space is just better for teams individually, and better for the overall game.
The NBA has gone through a number of eras distinguished by style of play, and it’s in the midst of another transition. Pace and Space is on track to become the favored option of winning in the near and foreseeable future. Expect more teams to stock up on shooters and stretch fours to construct rosters to fit the system.
Only time will tell if that is truly the fate of the league, but that fate is in the best interest of all involved.