May 12, 2016
The NBA: Where are we and how did we get here
As we gear up the 67th NBA Finals, it's become clear the landscape of the game has changed. The approach taken by a general manager, when building a roster, has had a complete shift in priority, and over the past few decades the traditional strategy used to run an effective offense has been flipped on its head. It is no longer big men who are the focal point of an offense, the game is now being played further and further away from the basket. The NBA has become a guard dominant league, as evident by the MVP race this season, with 7 of the top 10 vote getters being guards. There are several factors that have caused this shift in the game. The most impactful and obvious change came in 1979, with the introduction of the 3-point shot. Another major factor is the way the rules have been adjusted over the years encouraging perimeter play, namely the hand-check rule and the illegal defense rules. The major influx of foreign born players, especially front court players with the ability to shoot from long range also helped change the way coaches design their game plans. As a result, today's NBA is no longer your father’s NBA. To get a full understanding of how the NBA has evolved to this point, we must first understand where it came from. Imagine, if you can, a 1946, post World War ll America. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing are the predominant sports in the United States, with athletes like Ted Williams, and Sugar Ray Robinson being the sports heroes of the time. In New York City, there are a group of hockey arena owners discussing the idea of creating a professional basketball league. On November 1, 1946 these businessmen brought their idea to life. They formed the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which would merge with the National Basketball League (NBL) three years later, and become what we now know as the National Basketball Association. The infancy of the NBA saw George Mikan emerge as the league’s first dominant player. Mikan won 5 championships and 3 scoring titles in the first 8 years of the league’s existence. At 6’10”, Mikan became a sort of prototype for what was needed to win NBA championships, and that gold standard stuck for generations to follow. At the time, it was not known just how impactful Mikan would be to the game of basketball, but it was universally understood that he was the primordial beast of the NBA. In the decades following Mikan, imposing big men like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the predominant players in the game, all following the Mikan mold as oversized athletes, rendered unguardable when close to the basket. For decades, the overriding consensus was, to be successful in the NBA you must run your offense through a towering big man, and surround him with players capable of getting him the ball close to the basket. Fast forward now to the1960’s. This is where we see the birth of change that would shape the NBA into its current form. The NBA is still the premier basketball league in America, but not the only show in town. Throughout the 60’s, other organized basketball leagues began to take form, including the American Basketball League (ABL). In 1961, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant, the ABL added a 3-point shot to its game. Most fans viewed this new shot as a gimmick to help a floundering organization, and in turn, the 3-point shot became a joke. The stunt failed and the ABL suffered, ultimately going under the following year. However, unknowingly, the groundwork for the future had been laid. In 1967, another new league, The American Basketball Association (ABA) was founded, and began to compete with the growing NBA. As fate would have it, one of the Co-founders of the ABA was none other than George Mikan. Mikan knew he had to be creative and innovative to compete with the already popular NBA, so the visionary went to work. As ABA commissioner, Mikan instituted some groundbreaking ideas, including the famous red, white, and blue basketball, a 30 second shot clock, and the old ABL 3-point line (which would prove to be a major game changer for the sport.) Mikan had high praise for the 3-point shot, calling it a “homerun”. Mikan’s excitement over the idea didn’t stop there though, when describing the 3-pointer, he said it would give “smaller players the chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.” Boy was he right! And quite ironic that basketball’s first “real” big man would have such sympathy for the little guys. With Mikan helping lead the way, the ABA lasted for 9 years, during which they helped push the NBA to become a more progressive league. The ABA was littered with super star players, including Julius Erving, Rick Berry, George Gervin, and Moses Malone. The ABA brand of basketball was a much faster paced game, a much more exciting product for its fans. The 1975-76 ABA all-star weekend saw them bring another tradition to the table that would ultimately change the culture of basketball: the Slam Dunk Contest. With things like the 3-point shot and the Dunk Contest, the ABA was a new and fun kind of basketball, a change from the traditionally slow, midrange/low post NBA of decades past. During the mid 1970’s the ABA began to see some of its teams fold due to financial struggles. By 1976, the writing was on the wall; and the ABA and NBA would soon merge together. In the end there were only four teams left from the ABA who joined the NBA. The ABA players were placed into a dispersal draft, and the four ABA teams were forced to join the NBA as expansion franchises, rather than be acknowledged as products of the merger. Even though the ABA teams were ultimately absorbed by the NBA, the style of play in NBA basketball was changed forever. After the merger of 1976, NBA traditionalists were hesitant to use what they viewed as “ABA gimmicks.” Things like the 3-point line, and the slam dunk contest, which were thought of as silly then, are now driving the NBA’s popularity. A faster, more uptempo style of play was also something that transferred over with the ABA. The run and gun style of offense, along with pressing defenses were something new to the NBA landscape. Billy Cunningham of the Philadelphia 76ers said, "When the [1987-1990] Knicks were pressing and shooting 3-pointers and all of that under Rick Pitino, people acted as if that was something new. Hey, half the teams in the ABA played like that." Former ABA and NBA head coach Hubie Brown said, "We (the ABA) were ahead of the NBA in so many different ways. We had the 3-point shot. The NBA said it was a gimmick; now it's one of the most exciting parts of the pro game... About everything we did in the ABA they do now in the NBA.” It wasn’t until three years after the merger, in 1979, that the NBA finally decided to institute the 3-point shot, and initially when attempted, it was viewed as a lazy, ill advised offensive possession. Simple minds thought, because the distance of the shot was farther from the basket, it was not a shot worth taking, even if it was worth one extra point. From 1979 through 1984 the three-ball was seldom used as a strategic weapon. During its first five seasons in existence, teams attempted only 2.3 threes per game, and connected on only 25 percent of them. To put that into perspective, last season, teams shot 22.4 3-pointers per game, and connected on 35 percent of them. Clearly the value of the shot has changed. Once accepted, coaches began to find new and effective ways to incorporate long range shooting into their offensive schemes. As we got into the late 80’s and early 90’s, the “3-point specialist” became a legitimate asset to a team’s attack. Players like Dale Ellis and Craig Hodges helped lead the way for spot up 3-point snipers, and an offensive attack that was predicated on stretching the floor with 3-point shooters was being recognized. This offensive strategy was first used effectively in the NBA in the late 1980’s, by long time college coach, Rick Pitino. After taking Providence College to the final four in 1987, Pitino was hired to bring his shooter friendly offense, and new style to the Mecca of basketball, New York City. Pitino took over a last place Knicks squad, and turned them around in a hurry. It didn’t take long for his out-of-the-box coaching philosophy to be proven effective. In his first season the Knicks made the playoffs. Patino changed the perception of what a 3-point shooting team could accomplish with his innovative motion offense, predicated on spreading the floor, and shooting threes, and in turn opening up opportunities down low, basically, Patino began playing from the outside in rather than inside out. Patino’s rookie season saw the Knicks finish in the top 3 in 3-point shooting, the following season the Knicks would demolish the NBA record with 386 3-point baskets. ( Could this trend continue? Spoiler alert, Steph Curry alone, hit over 400 3-pointers this season.) As the 90’s began to get underway it was undeniable that this new offensive gameplan, although certainly not embraced by every team, had made its presence known in the NBA. The 3-point shot added another dimension for all teams; those who lacked any sort of interior play, those who had deadeye shooters, and those who wished to take on an outside-in style now had justification that it could work. The NBA was really growing in popularity during the late 80’s and early 90’s, players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan were taking the game to new heights. The 1992 US Men’s Olympic team, known as, “The Dream Team” also played a big part in spreading the NBA’s popularity across the world. Players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson became basketball’s global ambassadors. Children around the world wanted to “be like Mike.” As the next generation of basketball players came into their own in the early 2000’s, it was clear the increased 3-point shooting in the 90’s had an impact on their style of play. Numerous foreign born players have made it into the NBA since the late 90’s. Not surprisingly, many of them possess great 3-point shooting skills. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, Peja Stojakovic, and Andrea Bargnani are prime examples of the impact 90’s 3-point shooters had on today's game. As the 90’s unfolded, the NBA began transitioning from the “Magic and Bird” era to the “Jordan” era, and by 1993 there was no question, the league belonged to Michael. However after the 1992-93’ season, Michael chose to step away from the game of basketball and pursue a career in Baseball. With this choice, Jordan inadvertently put a new pressure on NBA commissioner David Stern. Jordan was not only the greatest player in the game, he was also its most globally marketable player. Stern was now faced with the challenge of keeping the NBA popular, while losing arguably the three biggest stars the game had, in Bird, Magic, and MJ. To preemptively address the issue of potential fan loss, Stern decided the NBA needed to push point totals higher, and to do so he encouraged more 3-point shots. Before the 1994-95’ season the NBA moved the 3-point line closer, from 23 feet 9 inches, (22 feet in the corners) to 22 feet all the way around. In a way the move backfired. Stern did not get his desired results, and ironically, but somewhat obviously, the league scoring average actually dropped by almost two points per game the following season. The rule change did, however, have a permanent impact on the game and how the 3-point line would be viewed. During the first year of the shortened 3-point line, the league average for threes attempted increased by nearly 50%. John Starks led the NBA in 3-point attempts that season, shooting over 100 more threes than the leader in the previous year. The trend continued in the 1995-96’ season. George Mcleod set the single season record with 678 attempted 3-pointers, a record that stood until 2015. With this new, shorter 3-point line, many players began to think they could be the next great long range shooter. Shooting percentages went down across the board during the brief era of the shorter 3-point line, and the game got muddled up with many players hoisting up long range shots simply because the line was 21 inches closer. Prior to the 1997-98’ season Stern and the NBA admitted their mistake and decided to change the distance back to the original 23 feet, 9 inches, and 22 feet in the corners. An interesting stat came to light during the mid 90’s. Starting in the 1994-95’ season, points per 3-point attempt became higher than points per possession. What this meant was that teams, on average, scored less points on a regular possession (one that ended in a 2-point shot attempt, a 3-point shot attempt, a free-throw, or a turnover) than if they attempted a 3-pointer on that possession. There was now statistical evidence showing that schemes based on 3-point shooting rather than 2-point shooting could be a more efficient way of scoring. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s the game continued to trend in the ABA direction of court spacing and fast-paced, uptempo offenses. In 2004, the NBA made some rule changes that would, even further, tilt the balance of power in favor of 3-point shooters and encourage positionless basketball. In 04’, the league made it a personal foul to handcheck a player on the perimeter. It also became illegal for defensive players to stay in the paint for more than 2.9 continuous seconds. These rules were instituted to help open the game up and create more room for players to create perimeter offense. The first coach to use these new rules to his advantage was Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni took over the Phoenix Suns midway through the 2003-04’ season. The next season, the rule changes took effect and D’Antoni was gifted the perfect point guard for his new “run and gun” offense. Steve Nash signed with the Suns before the start of the 04’ season, together Nash and D’Antoni would set the NBA on fire, and Nash would capture back to back league MVP awards. Not to be forgotten about those Phoenix teams is that Steve Kerr, who now coaches the run and gun Golden State Warriors, was a part of the front office. D’Antoni’s new offense was predicated on an uptempo, “seven seconds or less” style of play that looked to create easy buckets off of fast breaks and pick-and-rolls. The Suns were constantly in transition, even after giving up made baskets, and defenses could not keep up with them. If they didn’t have open dunks or layups, they had uncontested threes. With the hand check rule now in place, it made the pick and roll an even tougher play to defend, especially with Nash and big man, Amar’e Stoudemire, who together perfected the pick and roll. When teams managed to keep the pick and roll in check by using a third defender, 3-point shooters like Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Jim Jackson, and Leandro Barbosa stood behind the 3-point line, waiting for the kick out pass from Nash. Another of D’Antoni’s innovations was the idea of putting an athletic big man (Amar’e Stoudemire) at the center position, and surrounding him with four great shooters. We see this now with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. D’Antoni and the Suns had great successes, although they were never able to capture the ultimate prize of a championship, the legacy they left helped shape the game. Since the great Phoenix teams of the early 2000’s we have seen a major shift throughout the league towards the D’Antoni style offense. The 2008-09’ Orlando Magic were a slightly modified version of those Phoenix teams. The Magic, coached by Stan Van Gundy, made it to the NBA finals, losing to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Orlando was led by a young Dwight Howard who controlled the paint on defense and ran a strong pick and roll game with guard Jameer Nelson. Van Gundy surrounded Howard with dead-eye shooters; guys like Hedu Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, J.J. Reddick, and Mickael Pietrus filled those roles beautifully. Although the Magic were ultimately overtaken by the Shaq and Kobe Lakers in the NBA Finals that season, they made it clear that a team can win a title with an offense heavily reliant on 3-point shooting. The evolution continued in 2010 when Lebron James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. As the Heat grew over the four years of the Lebron James era, the Heat evolved into a more positionless offense. Many times the Heat would have a lineup consisting of; Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and either Shane Battier, Mike Miller, or Ray Allen. That is a death lineup; every player on the court can shoot from long range, and guard multiple positions on defense. With this small ball approach, the Heat forced teams to adjust to them, having the best player in the world didn’t hurt either. The 2012 NBA finals pitted the Heat against the San Antonio Spurs, led by legendary coach Gregg Popovich. With these two teams meeting for the championship, it signified a culmination of progress, and the evolution to a 3-point heavy, positionless style game. The Spurs were constructed in a very similar fashion to the great Phoenix and Orlando teams of years past. San Antonio used Tim Duncan as the big man in pick and roll situations. With Tony Parker, the great ball handling point guard on the other end. Those two were then surrounded by three athletic ‘3 and D guys.’ ‘3 and D’ is a term used to describe a player who is a good defender, but also has the ability to knock down 3-point shots. These types of players have become extremely valuable in today’s NBA; players like Danny Green, Harrison Barnes, Matt Barnes and Shane Battier are great examples. We have finally reached the present day, as we look at the dominant teams in the NBA, it is impossible to ignore what the Golden State Warriors have been able to accomplish. But we will get to them in a moment. Let's look at the NBA last season. The Houston Rockets set an NBA record with just over 31 3-point shot attempts per game, and the Golden State Warriors led the league by shooting 39% from long range. The movement to a 3-point driven league has blossomed into what we are seeing today, and it is being led by some of the most prolific shooters of all-time. Evidence shows that the path to success is now obtained by using great shooting perimeter players with athletic big men who have the ability to handle the ball, pass the ball, and shoot the ball, combined with a great pick and roll point-guard, and a supporting cast of versatile athletes who can shoot and play defense. It looks as if last season’s Conference Finals were another affirmation of the change that has been happening over the past 35 years. The final four teams in last year’s playoffs were, not coincidentally, also the top four 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. Just when it seemed that the 3-point shot had reached its pinnacle, this season the Golden State Warriors, namely Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, took things to an entirely new level. The Warriors are a Mike D’Antoni or Rick Pitino dream come true. They have a roster full of athletic, multifaceted players. Players who are unselfish, and have a firm grasp of the type of strategy they want to execute. Led by Steve Kerr, an ex-sharpshooter in his own right, the Warriors began this season 28-0, and ended up setting a new single season record for wins with 73. The things Steph Curry has been able to do this season are the ultimate manifestation of this 35 year progression. The man is controlling the game in ways not seen since Wilt Chamberlain, in a way he is the 3-point shooting version of Wilt. Curry made 402 triples this season, that is 116 more than the old record, which of course was his own record. Curry actually owns three of the four best 3-point shooting seasons in NBA history, and the only guy who rivals curry is his teammate Klay Thompson. Thompson owns two of the top eleven greatest 3-point shooting seasons in NBA history. Both of these players are in the mid 20s and they are only entering their respective primes. In February, Curry had attempted 52 shots from 2850 feet away from the basket. Keep in mind, the 3-point line is only 23 feet and 9 inches away. Of the 52 shots from very deep range, Curry made 35 of them. This means, on those 52 shots, Steph was more efficient from 28-50 feet away, than he would have been had he dunked the ball on all 52 of those attempts. His 35 made threes, out of the 52 attempts, adds up to105 total points; 52 dunks would only be worth 104 points. These numbers are just a small sample of what Steph Curry has been able to accomplish over his short career. We find ourselves at an interesting time in regard to NBA basketball. With the current surge in 3-point shooting accuracy and the increasingly nontraditional rotations used by teams, it is clear that the transition from a post dominant, big man oriented offense, to an athlete driven, perimeter shooting offense has taken place. Over the coming years it will be interesting to see how the brilliant minds in basketball address the current onslaught of long range shooting attacks. As for now we should all just sit back and enjoy the beauty and artistry on display by the greatest generation of shooters the NBA has ever seen.