It might be beautiful to move the ball, but there are other ways to win in the NBA.
Winning basketball games is a bit like making good music. There are a variety of styles of play, just like there are a variety of musical genres. Teams, like musicians, can play fast or slow, can be loud and abrasive or smooth and peaceful, and can be a harmonious effort, like an orchestra, or an effort centered around a star, like a band with a frontman. One thing is certain: There is more than one path to victory.
Sometimes, it seems like this isn’t the case. The Warriors are so good right now and they were so good last year that they’re making it seem like they’ve found the key to winning. The fact of the matter is that the run-and-gun, volume jump-shooting style that they play is just one way to win. It just happens to be that when you have two of the best three-point bombers of all time and one of the most versatile playmaking power forward/centers of all time, it makes a ton of sense to run-and-gun. Since I’m already spoiling what this guide is going to be about, I guess I’ll just get started.
This is a guide that will show you how to win like the NBA’s top teams. Other than the variety, something that sets each team apart is that their style of play perfectly fits their personnel, which makes a ton of sense. If you have Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, you don’t stage an opera — you rock out. Likewise, if you have a slew of world-class orchestra members, you don’t throw them in a garage and let them jam. You send them to the Met.
Golden State Warriors
At 44-4, the Warriors are in the midst of an all-time great season. They’ve got the best offense and the second-best defense in the league, and they’re killing teams. They’re plus 12.7 per game and by now, most people have probably seen the montage of Draymond Green and Steph Curry hanging out on the bench for fourth quarters.
They do it with pace, ball movement and shooting. They’re the second fastest team in the NBA at 101.7 possessions per game, and they lead the league in pretty much all measures of shooting percentage (TS%, eFG%, FG%, 3P%) as well as assists per 100 possessions.
Draymond Green is the key to the full court offense, allowing the Warriors to play at their sweltering pace. His length, size and tenacity allow him to lead the team in rebounds and defensive rebounds at 9.5 and 7.7 respectively. But the sight of Draymond’s hand snatching the ball off the glass is only the beginning of the highlight. With Green, there is no need for an outlet. He just puts the ball on the floor and sprints it up the court. Elite shooters and slashers fill the lanes, and the scariest fast break you’ve ever seen is born.
In the half court, it all starts with the MVP. Steph Curry demands a double or at least a hard hedge every time he sprints off of an off-ball screen or worms his way around an on-ball one. As soon as you double, it’s over. Boom, boom, boom, whip it around, layup. Everyone can finish and everyone can pass. Hence, the most assists per 100 possessions in the league.
San Antonio Spurs
Like the Warriors, these guys move the ball and shoot it well. The Spurs are second to Golden State in assists per 100 and tied with them in FG%. But unlike the Warriors, they slow it down like crazy, and they’re frugal with their three-pointers.
Offensively, the Spurs have some turn-back-the-clock tendencies. Basically, they shoot the midrange jumper, and they shoot it well. They take the fourth most shots from 15-19 feet at the fourth-best percentage. They hit the three at a high rate, 38.7%, but they take the fifth-fewest threes in the league. The reason that they have this style is because they’re chock-full of mid-range maestros: Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Kawhi Leonard, you get the picture. The game has to fit the player.
They also slow the game down to a bottom-ten pace with 96.1 possessions per game. Don’t mistake slow pace of play for lack of ball movement though. They are second to the Warriors in assists per 100 and third in the NBA in total passes per game. Spurs’s possessions go something like: feed the post, kick it out, drive, kick, swing, swing, swing. Then you think Patty Mills is going to shoot, but instead he pump fakes, drives, kicks again, three more swings, and Aldridge gets a wide open 17-footer. It takes 19 seconds, and it almost always results in a crystal-clear look at the rim.
Despite the beauty of this offense, the Spurs truly make their mark on defense. With a defensive rating of 94.8, they’re the best in the league by far, beating out the second place Warriors by over four points. They do it by communicating, rotating and assuring that no matter what, no one gets an open look at the rim, or so help me Popovich. Aldridge and Duncan stay vertical and smother anyone who gets near the rim, and Kawhi Leonard takes your best player and turns his arms into overcooked noodles.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder win games in an intriguing way, quite differently from the ball movement-style of the Spurs or Warriors. Defensively, they’re above average. It’s nothing to write home about, but they have good athletes, they make their rotations and Serge Ibaka is always around the rim to clean up perimeter mistakes.
Offensively, it gets interesting. The Thunder are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to assists per 100 possessions, so one would think that their ball movement isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either. The truth is, the Thunder don’t really move the ball at all if you watch them play. They’re not built for it. In fact, the Thunder are dead last in the NBA in total passes made per game. When one watches them play, the explanation of this stat becomes clear.
See, the Thunder can dish assists through really only one player: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is The Creator for the Thunder, and he has a gorgeous set of teammates with whom to work. Obviously, he has Durant, the efficient superstar, who quietly scores 27 points per game on over 50% from the field with tiny volume. Westbrook also has two really solid screen and roll guys in Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams. Both set crushing screens and roll hard to the rim, willing and able to snatch and slam incoming Westbrook lobs.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB2qnLdJLoU
Westbrook The Creator is third in the NBA, behind only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, with an AST% of 45.8. This means that when he is on the floor, Westbrook assists on a whopping 45.8% of his teammates’ buckets. In practice, this basically happens in one of two ways: Either Westbrook steamrolls his man and whips a dime to whoever’s defender comes to help protect the rim, or Westbrook gets a screen from one of his big boys and dissects the rotation to find the open man. Both scenarios have a key element: One pass, one shot. Hence, the fewest total passes in the NBA.
Even the Thunder’s other trademark, the offensive rebound, is an indirect result of Westbrook The Creator. The Thunder destroy the rest of the league, ranking first by a wide margin with an offensive rebounding percentage of 30.5. Yes, one reason why they grab over 30% of their misses is that they often go big with Ibaka at the four and Adams or Enes Kanter, two hawks on the offensive glass, at the five. However, the true creator of all of these offensive rebounding opportunities is Westbrook himself. Even when he misses, Westbrook flies through the paint with such velocity and ferocity that he often takes two or three defenders with him. Enter Enes Kanter for the easy putback.
Yes, I know. I had to pick an Eastern Conference team, and I didn’t pick the Cavaliers. If it were a winning percentage competition or a likelihood of going to the Finals competition, it would be the Cavs. But this is a discussion of identity, and the Cavs don’t really hold one yet. They win because they have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Their offense revolves around LeBron naturally, but there are too many inconsistencies to write a full section on them. Do they want to play slow or fast? With Blatt it was slow, but now apparently with Lue it’s going to be fast. Do they move the ball or isolate? It depends on what kind of mood LeBron is in or whether or not Kyrie is injured.
So I went with the Raptors because they’re good, and they know how they want to play. All of a sudden, the Raptors are a decent defensive team. They went from a putrid 23rd in the league last year to a top ten defense. It’s pretty amazing what the acquisition of a couple of defensively-minded guys and a change in priorities can do. They added Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll and seemed to put more of an organizational focus on defense. Now they’re flying out to shooters and getting their hands in passing lanes.
On the offensive side of the ball it’s about the two dukes of Toronto: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. These guys isolate, and it works. Toronto ranks third-to-last in the NBA in assists per 100 possessions, but sixth in net offensive rating, all because of the career years these two studs are having. Lowry does it all. He drives, he finishes, he passes and he shoots. DeRozan is a driving machine. He leads the league in drives per game and gets to the line 8.2 times per game, third most in the league.
The Raptors don’t move it like the Warriors or Spurs, and they don’t have a distributer as gifted as Westbrook The Creator. But they’ve found a unique way to win, and it stacks right up there with the best the league has to offer.
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