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.