Shrink the Hummer
The bruiser is a Right Way archetype on the level of the unselfish shooter or the unathletic defender – players who, by hard work and borderline illegal activities, just help their teams win basketball games. A physical team enforces its will on the opponent through a series of grabs, hard fouls, and anything else that causes bruises. The accompanying (assumed) lack of athleticism requires a slower pace to work. In theory, the physical team will grind out the opponent, wearing them down before crunch time and taking over in the final minutes. Recently, though, several athletic teams and players have redefined the parameters of physicality with high-tempo systems and swarming defense. These players and teams accomplish the goals of a slower physical team at high speeds, thus bringing the figure of the bruiser into an entirely new context. Physical play does not require a particular system; it can, in fact, change with the times.
That description presents this sort of physicality as a relatively new phenomenon, but it has been a characteristic of some of the league’s best players for years. For instance, physical punishment is one of the biggest parts of LeBron’s game; on certain plays, there is simply no way to deny him from getting into the lane. That is certainly easy for LBJ because of his unreal strength, but slighter stars can achieve the same types of moments, albeit less frequently. Kobe Bryant is not thought of as an especially big player, yet he overpowers multiple defenders several times a game. While it might seem like I’m cherry-picking the two best players in the league to prove a point, the fact of the matter is that a superstar depends on a manner of physical dominance that is married to his athleticism. The earthbound bruiser has never occupied the domain of physical play on his own.
At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the new physicality is reserved for players blessed with both the physical tools and talent required for superstardom. Kyle Lowry regularly bulls his way to the basket even though he’s 6-0 175 with a disreputable jumper. Yet Lowry’s good qualities (his rebounds, his drives, his free throws) are accompanied by a number of bad ones (his turnovers, his fouls). Whereas LeBron doles out his physicality with precision, Lowry and players of his ilk are primarily at the mercy of theirs. A superstar can survive in any environment, but the newly physical complementary player needs some institutional support to be viable long-term.
Memphis, thankfully, has given that to Kyle Lowry with their fast-paced system. However, the best example of a running team that plays physically is the Warriors, whose undeniable swag has been described on this site and others many times since last spring. What remains particularly impressive about the Warriors’ physicality is that they can do it without players (outside of Baron Davis) who could be termed physical on their own. Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson, and Al Harrington are all underweight for their positions, but, as a unit, they become something vicious and imposing.
To a certain extent, that’s because of the pace the Warriors create; certain bigger teams (e.g. Houston) simply can’t keep up with them, tire, and lose by more than they would in Strat-o-Matic versions of the same games. But speed cannot create physicality on its own. The Suns, for example, will never be mistaken for a physical team because they circumvent the issues of size and toughness almost entirely. I do not mean to suggest that Golden State is better than Phoenix – that would be silly – but the Warriors use a more viable model for the league at-large. The Suns succeed primarily because they have a few perfect pieces for D’Antoni’s system, but the Warriors have created a solid second-tier team mostly through scraps and fallen stars.
If speed isn’t the only answer, then what exactly does Golden State do to be physical? On defense, length is of great importance, especially as a team concept. Nellieball runs one of the few defenses that can legitimately be called “swarming” – five rotating pairs of clawing, grabbing, flying arms can certainly exhaust over the course of 48 minutes. Additionally, the team’s focus on steals and blocks can be demoralizing, if only for statistical purposes. Ultimately, though, the new physicality cannot survive without mental commitment to it. A size disadvantage will always bring up problems, but they can be mitigated as long as the smaller team keeps attacking and never backs down. The Warriors are nothing without tenacity – they are, quite frankly, one of the least watchable garbage time teams in the league. When they turn off their intensity, either after long stretches of frustration or after the game’s out of hand, they’re just another undersized team.
That paragraph contained a ton of basketball cliches, but cliches still work. In the debate between the Right Way and the Fun Way, each characteristic of winning basketball is too often placed on one side of the argument with little regard for how it might apply to the other. Physicality is a tried and true component of many great teams, and it need not be thrown out of a running team’s arsenal any more than a dynamic offense should be cast away from a halfcourt team’s game plan.