College Is No Place For Heartburn

In the last couple of years, the new rules have completely changed the way the game is played on the court and the way teams are built off the court.

The hand-check rules instituted after the 2003-04 season, LeBron and Wade's breakout year, as well as Steve Nash's first year with the Suns, changed the way the game is played, with shooting guards, point guards, and small forwards able to score as efficiently, if not more efficiently, than big men while being able to shoot far more. Overnight, lineups could be constructed in a whole new way-the Suns were the first team to exploit this by pushing Amare to the 5 and Marion to the 4 and playing fast-break ball, and the rest is history.

While it may seem like many of the league's elite teams continued to be successful without embracing the small-ball style the new rules favor, even teams that appear to be old-school in their execution took advantage of these new rules-Duncan still rules the Spurs, but they wouldn't have won in 2005 without Tony Parker, an ultra-quick guard with a shaky jumper, who benefited tremendously from the new rules and actually won the finals MVP in 2007 over Duncan. The only other team to win a championship under the new rules, Miami, also had a few nice contributions during the finals from an ultra-quick guard who can't shoot all that well. Dallas, another team who seemingly still plays the old style of basketball, wouldn't have been in the finals if it weren't for Devin Harris' breakout performance.

One effect the new rules seem to have had is that building around a good-but-not great offensive big who can't play defense is absolute death, as having an offense built around a big man scoring 25+ points a game on post-ups is no longer the best way to score and big men are now even more important defensively, as perimeter defenders now have almost no chance of shutting down elite perimeter scorers off the dribble, meaning the only way to stop them is to have a big man who can defend the rim.

The league's three worst defensive teams, Minnesota, Memphis, and New York all feature low-post scorers who shoot relatively low percentages for big men, lead the team in scoring, and can't defend anybody but are on the floor for most of the game because of their scoring ability, and Indiana, who were built around a low-post scorer and a perimeter defender, absolutely melted down after the new rules were put into place (although injuries and Melees certainly played a part as well, they weren't good even when they had all their players), and this year has indeed been better offensively with Jermaine O'Neal off the floor.

For NBA teams, the question has been whether or not their coach is able to adjust his style of play to the way the game has changed. That's a more difficult task than it would seem at first; the rules only changed 3 years ago, and most head coaches have been training for their jobs for the better part of decades, with their formative training coming in an age when defense and big man play ruled all.

The coaches of the NBA's fastest teams generally learned the game in some kind of unconventional way; D'Antoni learned the game over in Europe, where the shorter 3-point line, tighter rules, and bigger lanes have always promoted the same style of play as the new rules. Don Nelson and George Karl have always had a philosophy predicated on the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. Phil Jackson has an abundance of jewelry because of his ability to adapt his style of play to his team's strengths and the climate of the league. Jim O'Brien may have learned the game as a college, but he happens to be the son-in-law of Dr. Jack Ramsay, whose Blazers played the game fast and furious back in the day around an abundance of quick guards and Bill Walton's ability to zip outlet passes; no team ran on the court or in practice as much as Dr. Jack's Blazers. The other coach whose team is in the top six in scoring is Jerry Sloan, who has always been willing to adapt his offense...well, props to Jerry Sloan.

Meanwhile, the NBA's worst offensive teams are populated by old-school coaches. Pat Riley has always believed in the power of the center and physical D. Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman learned the game from Bobby Knight, the oldest of the old school. Mo Cheeks and Mike Dunleavy are set in their ways. Hawks assistant Mike Woodson was an assistant under Larry Brown.

Many head coaches are now hindered with the burden of their knowledge, a theory first applied to basketball by Malcolm Gladwell. The lessons they learned from decades in the game have effectively been rendered moot by David Stern's decision to open the game up a little bit and make it more like the European game. Mike Montgomery was simply completely unable to see what Don Nelson saw when he looked at the Warriors, because he saw the team through the lessons he learned from years of coaching the college game. When Scott Skiles' old assistant saw Marion and Amare, everything he had learned had taught him that there was no way to build an offense around Amare at the center, and Marion was no big man.

Last year, everybody who watched the Cavaliers play basketball except for Mike Brown knew that Daniel Gibson was a much better option than Eric Snow, but everything Mike Brown had learned had taught him that Snow's defense and game-management made him much more valuable skills to have in a guard than an undersized shooting guard. Randy Wittman would seem like a man with nothing to lose, but he refuses to throw out a lineup like Telfair-McCants-Green-Brewer-Jefferson because he is absolutely positive that small guards who can't shoot are useless, stringy 6-8 players with length can't guard power forwards, and it's always better to get a low-post look than a quick 3.

Whenever a coach refuses to change his offense, open things up, play smaller, or sit his young players in favor of mediocre veterans, we automatically assume two things: that the coach knows more about his team than we do and has a good reason for doing whatever he's doing. Both of those things are still true, but a valid reason in the mind of a coach could well have come from an age that is so different that it is less functional than a philosophy made with 1/10th of the time and experience, but based in the problems of the here and now rather than the problems of a bygone era. A ten-year old kid who has watched maybe five NBA games would say that dunking the ball is a good thing. The greatest basketball coach of all time would disagree. Sometimes, NBA coaches have to find their inner 10-year old to be successful in the face of change.


At 1/22/2008 11:19 PM, Blogger T. said...

So what's the issue with the Rockets? New-ish school coach (Adelman's back door princeton high post offense) but a center driven, Van Gundy, defense first roster?

I think it's deeper than that. Just loosening the reins and letting players run free and wide doesn't always work - sometimes you get the Paul Westhead Nuggets.

And didn't Riles preside over the premire (in terms of winning) running team of all time? Magic? B. Scott? Worthy?

At 1/23/2008 1:20 AM, Blogger Krolik1157 said...

The whole point is that the Westhead Nuggets were ineffective because they played in a different era, and many coaches who learned from watching that team fail spectacularly under the old ways are hindered by that knowledge under the new rules. The issue with the Rockets, one of the few teams with a center truly good enough to build around, is that they haven't been able to stay healthy and lack players who can attack and draw fouls off the dribble, the players benefited most by the new rules, which is what many half-court teams who flourish under the new rules have, be it Parker for San Antonio, Harris or even Nowitzki (whose FT attempts jumped from 423 to 708 between 03-04 to 04-05) for Dallas, Wade in Miami, and Hamilton/Billups for Detroit, the kind of players who can make half-court attacks work under the new rules without needing to go run-crazy. As for Riley, I admit to making the mistake of thinking of his Knicks days first, and he has been a guy who was able to adapt his team's attack fairly well to being Wade-centric instead of Shaq-centric, so for him the problem might just be that his team has become old and terrible outside of Wade.

At 1/23/2008 1:55 AM, Blogger T. said...

Ah yes, sorry, my response was off-the-cuff instead of thought through. That makes more sense.

There is a slight disconnect, however, there's one new school of thought (the Carrill/Adelman/Eddie Jordan/Byron Scott) school of Princeton offense, which may not focus on the dominant guard/wing penetration, but still produces high octane offenses (2007 Rockets aside).

At 1/23/2008 2:15 AM, Blogger Spencer said...

Nice work Krolik.

That Slate piece linked at the end was an interesting read as well. The Wooden vs. Naismith idea deserves some digital ink.

At 1/23/2008 9:58 AM, Blogger Ken said...

Nice read Krolik.

I don't think you're necessarily wrong on the showtime Lakers front either. They never won a championship without Kareem and the reason the scores were high back in the day was that players acutally could shoot. The playoff games were at a slower pace and had more fouling so largely is was a more traditional post and kick offense with emphsis on transition D.

On a side note, what Riley is currently doing to the Heat is a crime. Has the league at large just refused to deal with him anymore? Rickey Davis and Mark Blount? Shaq's standing reservation at Mansion is getting full use this season.

At 1/23/2008 10:01 AM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

The Rockets have one of the few centers good enough to build on, yes, but Yao would have been way more useful 5-10 years ago. He is just NOT fast enough laterally to defend penetration/ranged attacks unless he positions himself perfectly every time. This is why Utah won last year - Boozer just took him away from the basket and destroyed him repeatedly, and Deron Williams got into the paint and around Yao almost at will.

At 1/23/2008 11:59 AM, Blogger CRS-ONE said...

Great article.

I do agree that Yao's kind of anachronistic in today's game, but I do believe that a lot of Houston's roster doesn't compliment him and makes him look like an albatross.

At 1/23/2008 4:15 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

It's a nice read, Krolik, and I enjoyed the post alot.

But I don't agree with it.

Put it like this: According to your theory, the Rockets need simply trade T-Mac straight up for Wade (actually not a bad trade), and booyah... the Rockets are the NBA champions.

But I don't buy it totally. I agree that adaptation is one of the best traits in a coach. But at the end of the day I feel like this post is kinda a smug way of saying "I'm smarter than an NBA coach", even if it's offset by the rationale that "it's because I know less that I'm smarter!". I didn't buy it when Malcolm Gladwell was selling it (btw, it's a trait of a lot of Gladwell articles to come back to the conclusion that "the more people know, the less they know").

Not to mention that, despite selling it as Parker and Wade being players who win in the "New NBA", those teams would have won in the rough 90's, in the showtime 80's, in the 70's and 60's. The Spurs/Heat are not new school, not anymore than Hakeem's Rockets.

As for the current Heat, I have to give Pat Riley props. Despite bowing out as coach/GM at the end of the season, he's leaving the franchise in great shape rather than selling it out at one last chance of glory. The Ricky Davis deal was about clearing cap space. Ricky and Jason Williams are coming off the cap at the end of the season. Miami is one of the few spots that will always be able to attract star free agents (one of about five franchises in the NBA - LA, NYK, Chi, Orl, Mia). Add in Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose next season to Wade, Haslem, and Shaq's corpse, and you have a pretty good foundation. Once Shaq comes off the books, it's over. The Heat, if properly managed, should be a contender within the next 4 years, if not sooner.

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At 1/23/2008 5:45 PM, Blogger Five Pound Bag said...

somebody is looking for more Kyrylo Fesenko posts.

anyway, very good article Krolik. I'd also point out that Boston's awesome defense this year is spearheaded by KG's ability to jump the high screen/roll (the oxygen of the new offensive fireworks) and still recover to defend the rim against penetration.

At 1/23/2008 8:43 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

I think the thesis is sound, if summarized as: "Many NBA coaches underperform because of their inability to adapt to and take advantage of new rules."

Some of the examples used, as already pointed out, are problematic.

For example, Riley's coached several different styles and figured out how to squeeze one more championship out of Shaq. That he couldn't sustain may not be the result of nonadapatability.

On the other hand, Phil and Mike Brown do help this argument.

In the last few seasons, I think careful watchers have seen that, despite still using the triangle, Phil has adapted other aspects of his coaching to his players in ways that weren't obvious when his teams were packed with talent. A lot of the questions about how good a coach he really is are well on their way to being answered.

In contrast, Mike Brown is probably my least favorite coach. I appreciate that he's imparting defense to LBJ, but a good defensive coordinator can do that. Brown's inability to develop an offense that takes advantage of the skills that his players possess--particularly those of LBJ himself--is depressing in its ongoing squandering of James's brief time upon the court.

And I've actually been wondering if the Rockets's problems have less to do with Adelman and T-Mac, and more to do with Yao's inability to adapt. When they hired Adelman, I envisioned Yao playing in the high post like Vlade and C-Webb, taking advantage of his similar passing abilities. But he seems to want to play lower in the post and pass out rather than to cutters.

At 1/23/2008 9:45 PM, Blogger T. said...

Mr. Six - I'm not sure if that's a Yao choice or an Adelman choice, however, I do know that under JVG Yao was a low post beast (last season before the knee injury he was putting up 25 and 11(?) and fouling opposing centers out) - if he moves to a Vlade/CWebb role he merely becomes a very good jump shooting center. And Rik Smits won't win you a championship. [Yes, I know Smits got to the Finals though]

At 1/24/2008 1:28 AM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

T--Don't get me wrong, Yao is awesome in the low post. But his prowess in that location earned the Rockets exactly the same number of rings as Herr Smits. On the other hand, Walton and Sabonis did pretty well alternating between low and high. Of course it could be Adelman's directions as much as Yao's desires ...

And I should have been clearer that the fault lies not only with coaches who can't adapt to new rules, but also with those who insist that players adapt to their system, rather than adjusting the style of play to the players. Basically, ossification and lack of imagination.

wv: tmwzy--too much weezy

At 1/24/2008 3:13 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

I tend to think a lot of the high praise that is showered on Nellieball and the Phoenix Suns around here is misguided due to the fact that these systems have as of yet not proven that they can work very well in the playoffs. Those schemes flounder when they are put to the test against teams with the more traditional post presence. Further, I think the issue with Yao is the same problem that Amare has: neither is good defensively in the post.

You say: "having an offense built around a big man scoring 25+ points a game on post-ups is no longer the best way to score and big men are now even more important defensively, as perimeter defenders now have almost no chance of shutting down elite perimeter scorers off the dribble, meaning the only way to stop them is to have a big man who can defend the rim." I agree with the second part of this statement, but I disagree with the first part.

The main reason the Spurs and Jazz were in the WCF last year is because of Boozer and Duncan and their ability to post up the soft-centered Warriors and Suns, respectively. Sure it's not the only way the Spurs and Jazz could score last year, but against teams that just could not defend the paint, it really is a very easy way to get points. Look at how Phoenix lost for the 2nd time this year to Minnesota last night, due almost entirely to the fact that their awful post defense allowed Al Jefferson to shred them all night long. This is why the best teams in the league still remain the ones that have speed at times, can shoot well and most importantly have a solid presence in the post at both ends of the floor. Without it you just can't win titles.

At 1/24/2008 8:28 PM, Blogger T. said...

WY - Yao is a decent enough post defender - what he can't do is defend Pick and Rolls or players who can face up and shoot or drive from about 15'. See what Boozer did to him last year vs. what Howard does against him. Dwight never really has too many good games - but Boozer kills Yao with that 18' jumper.


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