Analysts for the NBA are perpetually jealous of their NFL counterparts, who always seem to be writing about some new on-field tactic — The Spread, The Wildcat — that resonates with fans because of how obviously visible it is. The NBA is always innovating, but the innovations tend to be subtler and of less interest to casual fans. How many people understood what a Tom Thibodeau defense was as it swept from Boston and out across the league? Smart fans are starting to understand the importance of the corner 3, but those fans constitute a small minority, and that innovation is done.
This is one reason fans go crazy when the Sports Guy writes about the possibility of an NBA team pressing, something no team has done on anything like a full-time basis since the Rick Pitino Celtics — a team that in 1997-98 forced the most turnovers, per possession, of any team in the 3-point era while nonetheless floundering on both ends. Fans can see a press in a way they can't really see the Spurs working for corner 3s, or the Bulls' defense overloading the strong side of the floor.
Sources around the league think the NBA is immune to the most gimmicky innovations. Teams are too talented to be fooled, and in a macro sense, they're close enough in talent level that there are no massive night-to-night underdogs who might tilt the scales by going way out of the box. Also: No innovation is ever going to change the fact that a top-10 player is the most important ingredient in team success.
But creativity can still bring small advantages — edges that can shift games and even playoff series. Here's a look at where those edges might be over the next half-decade, based on research and conversations with folks all over the league.
Small Ball and Size
The 2012 Finals allegedly heralded the triumph of a new era in the NBA, with two wing players — LeBron James and Kevin Durant — logging heavy minutes at "power forward" in non-traditional lineups that broke opponents with speed and shooting. Two months later, an injury-depleted Team USA won the Olympics almost exclusively with lineups featuring one or zero traditional big men.
The next half-decade or so will answer the question: Was this the acceleration of a long-term trend, or just the impact of two all-time great players who happen to be wing types capable of shifting to power forward?
The league is not getting smaller in the most literal sense. Player height by position hasn't changed at all since the early 1980s, save for a Gheorghe Muresan–driven increase in the mid-1990s, according to Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference.com, who performed a data dive for Grantland. And teams still almost universally start lineups featuring five players who fit neat traditional positional categories, per Paine's research. (The Heat appear ready to diverge from that trend this season).
Positions themselves are dicey. There are power forwards who stretch the floor and generally have power forward height — Rashard Lewis, Matt Bonner, Ryan Anderson, etc. Lineups with such players at power forward play "small" in terms of generating shot attempts far from the rim, but those guys don't bring the ballhandling skills or quickness we associate with "small forwards"/wings. The Lewis/Anderson types have been playing power forward for a long time, dating to Robert Horry, Toni Kukoc, and even earlier; they are a natural evolution linked to the 3-point shot.
Lineups with Durant and James at power forward are a different beast, even if those guys have the height and (for LeBron) strength of "traditional" power forwards. This is a new, more dangerous brand of small ball.
But is it the future of the league? That's up for debate. "We want to be as big as we can be — from guard to center," says Bob Myers, the Warriors' GM. "Most teams don't have LeBron James, and for those teams, the rule will always be that size is important."
"Talent is always the most important thing," says Rod Thorn, formerly the GM of the Sixers, Nets, and Bulls. "But all things being equal, having size and length is always going to be a huge advantage."
Another high-ranking league executive, who wished to remain anonymous, added that size has historically mattered more in the postseason.
The evidence is scattered, but in general, smaller lineups score more efficiently than traditional units but give up more points per possession on defense, per lineup data at 82games.com and Basketball Value. And few teams have shown a lasting commitment to playing wing players at power forward. The Pacers played Danny Granger there a lot in 2009-10 and the following season, but stopped when they acquired a second productive big in David West. The Bulls have used Luol Deng there only when injuries create a big-man crisis. The Blazers briefly thrived with Gerald Wallace as a small-ball power forward, but in drafting Meyers Leonard and signing a few other bigs, they've made it clear their wish is to flank LaMarcus Aldridge with a traditional big man. Even the Spurs scaled back small ball last season until matchups and roster realities allowed for more of it in the playoffs.
You could do this exercise for every team in the league, and you won't see much long-term commitment to this kind of lineup. Lots of wings are reluctant to take the increased banging that comes with moving up a position; Wallace, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron, and lots of others have expressed a preference for small forward, and executives are skeptical that any kind of major innovation is possible without player buy-in. And players buy in when they think doing so will get them paid. That's one reason a press is such a tough sell — it's a frantic, egalitarian system that requires starters to accept a cut in minutes, and possibly in points.
Teams love to go against trends, and lots of them see a chance now to do so by going bigger instead of smaller. There is even hope that a rush to small ball will depress the market for defense-first centers. That would seem unlikely in the wake of Omer Asik's three-year, $25 million deal in Houston, but people are watching to see if a deal like that might actually undervalue a true game-changing big-man defender. We'll see. But anecdotally, the emphasis on superstar small forwards has obscured the fact that an agile 7-footer capable of protecting the rim remains the most valuable commodity in the sport outside of a top-10 superstar. Tyson Chandler propped up defenses in Dallas and then New York. The Pacers outscored the Heat in the playoffs when Roy Hibbert was on the floor and wilted without him, per NBA.com. Boston and Orlando ceased to exist as quality teams without Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard, respectively. (Howard, of course, is a top-five overall player.)
The league has smartly weeded out the incapable stiffs, at least when it comes to doling out major minutes. But good luck winning in the NBA without multiple quality bigs.
Aggression on All Fronts
Nobody seems to care about offensive rebounds anymore. Teams in the 1980s and early 1990s used to rebound about one-third of their own misses, but the league-wide offensive rebounding rate is down nearly 25 percent these days and threatens to reach a new historic low every season. That's in part because of the 3-point shot, which has redistributed shot attempts away from the rim area, where easy offensive rebound chances are born.
But it also reflects a growing conservatism that has swept much of the league. The Spurs, Magic (under Stan Van Gundy), and Celtics are among the teams that essentially forfeit offensive rebounds to run everyone back on defense and prevent fast breaks. This philosophy sometimes goes hand-in-hand with a near prohibition on gambling for steals in favor of staying in front of offensive players and forcing mid-range shots. The two ideas don't always go together, with personnel often dictating how coaches approach these questions. The Lakers, for instance, forced fewer turnovers per possession than any team in history — conservative! — but pounded the offensive glass hard with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Mike Brown Cavaliers had a similar tendency to play conservatively everywhere but on the offensive glass.
And there are exceptions to the general long-term declines in offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. The Grizzlies do both fantastically, but that's due largely to their personnel (Zach Randolph on the glass, Tony Allen and Mike Conley swiping steals) rather than to any larger philosophy.
Regardless: Smart teams are asking whether they are making the right choices here. There might be situations in which it makes sense for teams to amp up their offensive rebounding, depending on the score, the shooter, the location of the shot, and the lineups on the floor. Teams might be too cautious when it comes to going for steals, which both end an opposing possession and result in easier fast-break chances.
At an advantage in starting to answer these questions: the 10 teams who have been long-term subscribers to the STATS, LLC camera-tracking system, which records every movement of the ball and of players on the court.1 Three other teams will start using the cameras this season, a source says: Phoenix, Orlando, and the Mavericks.
The cameras can track pretty much everything — the speed at which players run, and how often they hit peak speed (Kevin Love is a machine by this measure); the height of the ball when someone rebounds it; a player's shooting percentage from any spot on the floor, after any number of dribbles; and much more.
Lots of what we'll learn will confirm what we already know: Tony Parker is fast, and guys shoot better off the catch than off the dribble. But some teams are going to learn new things about rebounding and defense, including whether they are missing opportunities to seize easy points. Perhaps teams with certain types of players should allow them more freedom on defense. Perhaps players in a certain position relative to the rim have a better chance at snagging offensive boards than we recognize.2
On a related note, everyone is watching Denver right now. Everyone. George Karl gives his players more freedom than is usual to go for steals and leak out in transition, suggesting Karl is pushing the risk/reward calculus to places other coaches aren't going. It looks chaotic, but there is substance to it, even in the half court, where the Nuggets play a free-wheeling dribble-drive-and-kick style. Denver led the league by a mile in the number of times per game in which a player drove the ball from outside 20 feet away to an area within 10 feet of the rim — a generally very good event, per STATS data. The Nuggets took the fewest mid-range shots in the league despite playing at the league's fastest pace, and both Andre Miller and Ty Lawson ranked near the top of the league in passes per game leading to dunks and 3s.
The Best of the Rest
Rise of the Zone?
There is intrigue about the possibility of a team that specializes in zone, but even the intrigued (including me) understand how unlikely this is. No team played zone on more than 10 percent of defensive possessions last season, per Synergy Sports. Dallas became known as the zone team in 2010-11, but they played a hybrid man zone more than a straight zone, and they did that on a small minority of possessions.
The league overall actually scored more efficiently against zone than man last season, according to Synergy. But some of the teams that faced zone most often — shooting-challenged teams like Utah and Memphis, for instance — struggled horribly against it, putting up sub-Bobcats-level points per possession numbers. That might suggest teams should be better prepared to break out a zone for the majority of a game against the right opponent.
The Nets used zones more often than all but three teams last season (Golden State, Toronto, and Dallas), and it will be interesting to see how much the new-look Nets, sporting the same old shaky front line, use the tactic this season.
The Mid-Range Game
This is one teams are studying, but no solution appears even close to likely. Any smart fan (and coach) knows the long 2-point shot is the worst in the game — not much more likely to go in than a 3, but worth a point less. The hip defenses gear everything toward forcing mid-range jumpers — to both protect the paint and run shooters off the 3-point line.
Which raises the question: Could a team exploit this by building an offense around mid-range jumpers and actually have it work? The Sixers, bereft of both post-up threats and 3-point shooting, essentially tried that last season, and it didn't work all that well; they ranked as an average offensive team, and they were much worse than that after a hot start.
But the Sixers didn't sport a single elite mid-range shooter at any position. Jrue Holiday (40 percent) and Elton Brand (43 percent) were good, but the very best among point guards and big men will jack their mid-range hit rate into the 47 to 50 percent range when left open. What if you had two big guys like that?
Boston had that last season, with Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett, and the Celtics' generally miserable offense jumped all the way to 105.8 points per 100 possessions — a top-five rate — when those two shared the court. Imagine if you paired two such bigs with Chris Paul, or a point guard who could approximate Paul's right elbow jumper. It will be interesting to see how well Boston scores when Jason Terry plays with these two bigs.
In the broader sense, if defenses are conceding the mid-range space, there might be other ways by which offenses can exploit this beyond just engineering pick-and-pop jumpers. Again: Teams are thinking about this, but it's hard to imagine any offense overcoming the reality that mid-range shots just don't pay off as well as 3s and interior shots.
It just seems crazy, and the NBA does not have a lot of history of embracing crazy. But subtler evolutions are always going on, and they are no less important to the look and feel of the game.