Continuing our series of 2018 NBA Playoffs first round previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - After a franchise-best season, the Toronto Raptors should not be threatened by the Washington Wizards
READ: Part 2 - The Golden State Warriors struggled down the stretch, but so did the San Antonio Spurs, and only one could afford to
READ: Part 3 - The Miami Heat play relentless defence, but the Philadelphia 76ers might have just too many stars
READ: Part 4 - Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans to face off in a battle of guards, threes and Anthony Davis
READ: Part 5 - The Boston Celtics may lack Kyrie Irving, but the Milwaukee Bucks lack for more than that
We talk quite often here at GiveMeSport about 'evolution' in the NBA, and the potency of groupthink, the largely psychological concept by which, when one team discovers a new way of playing or exploits a longstanding inefficiency in a way that is strikingly different and has some success, others copy it.
Usually a phenomenon resulting in negative outcomes for all, groupthink can also be the driving force of positive change, at least when the adopted ideal is as fundamentally correct as it is pervasive. New orthodoxies are found from within new ideas, and the evolution of the league hinges upon the few folk who can both identify worthwhile strategic development, and have the conviction and ownership support to pursue it.
At the turn of the millennium, isolation-style basketball was the thing, particularly from the guard positions. Best embodied by the unique brilliance of Allen Iverson, and ridden to some level of glory by Stephon Marbury et al, lead guards dominated the ball, held it, stopped it, and decided what play was right for the team through what they could create via their own handle, more so than by instinctively reading and reacting. With but the rarest of Jason Kidd-sized exceptions, point guards were invariably either Steve Francis or Rick Brunson. No one was both.
In hindsight, this wasn't fun. Nor was it efficient. And nor was it a good idea. Over the last fifteen years, then, and concurrent with a rising groundswell in the league's overall talent level was the incorporation of the statistical analysis movement, and the heightened focus on efficiency that it brought.
In general, this movement dispensed with much of the isolation basketball that had defined the one previously. As the 2005 draft brought in Chris Paul and Deron Williams, as Chauncey Billups rose to stardom, and as Steve Nash rose to superstardom in winning back-to-back MVP awards, the point guard position was reset once more, and the importance of pace, space and endless spread floor pick-and-rolls became optimised. Notwithstanding the occasional freight train like Russell Westbrook, guards returned to shooting and passing - ball and man movement were optimised, fluidity was embraced as a concept, and no one committed eight-second violations walking the ball up any more. Isolation basketball was very much on the way out.
But then two summers ago came the unity of Mike D'Antoni and James Harden. It was D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns teams, led by Nash, who had taken the greatest step to speed up a league that had been slowing down for a generation. Pairing him with a ball dominant shooting guard in Harden meant pairing D'Antoni's point guard-heavy leanings with an off guard who, as dynamic of a playmaker as he was, was basically a point guard by any other name. What he needed was for that to be fully embraced.
It has been. What D'Antoni and Harden had in common was an understanding of the importance of a green light, and of empowering talented players to do talented things without fear of reprisal. D'Antoni has not tried to change Harden's talents, but embrace them, making his shooting guard into his lead guard, emboldening him to dominate the ball even more. And, perverse as it seems given how counter it runs to the above evolution, that has included not just acceptance of isolation-heavy basketball, but the designing of it.
This was not what the Seven-Second Suns did - this is what D'Antoni has himself evolved to incorporate. We only ever stop accepting, not learning.
Adding Chris Paul (an 'actual' point guard of Hall-of-Fame calibre) via trade this summer did not diminish this, but enhanced it. Not needing to get the ball over halfcourt every trip, and having someone else who could drive the lane and throw lobs to Clint Capela, Harden was now freed up to focus more on that which he does - handling above the break, crossing over, stepping back, dropping defenders, dropping threes, driving around screens into the lane, flailing his hands up looking for fouls, and getting them. He is simply very, very, very good at what he does, and having Paul around allows him to do more of it. He has even picked up the defensive energy, too.
Given its association with the love of the three-point shot, it was a question as to how Paul's mid-range heavy game would fit into a D'Antoni system, and alongside Harden. Paul's superstardom in recent years has been built around defying the orthodoxy, probing the lane, and taking an awful lot of pull-up two-point jumpers. We explored this strategy in our look at the Washington Wizards's first round chances, and at how, by doing this repeatedly while shooting sub-30% from that area, John Wall was playing into the defence's hands. But Paul makes those shots at above a 50% clip, and always has done.
With his ability and willingness to shoot from this area, Paul immediately demands a new wrinkle from defensive schemes that, to all the 434 other NBA players, are designed to let them take that shot. Uncertain defenders might overplay, exposing passing and driving angles for Paul to exploit, or they might sag off altogether, in which case he will take the pull-up. If they stand somewhere in between, he will raise up from three without needing to probe. And as ever, he is fully in control of that decision making process at all times.
Further in keeping with his philosophy of empowerment, D'Antoni has not shut that down. Although Paul is shooting a career-high 6.5 three-pointers per game - up from his previous career-high of 5.0 last season and his fifth consecutive seasonal increase - he still does that . He has not much changed his game to accommodate pairing with Harden, and what little change he has made has been for the better.
Everyone around them knows what do to, too. Trevor Ariza gets 11.7 points per game on about four dribbles. Clint Capela catches the ball only to dunk it, and Nene and Tarik Black know to only do much the same when backing him up. P.J. Tucker mostly stays out of the way. Gerald Green is the most aggressive shooter in the West, and Eric Gordon is not far behind. As a team, their 114.7 offensive rating ranked not only first in the league this season, but the joint tenth best of all time.
The very best of luck, then, to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are going to have to stop this particular train with a fishing rod.
A pioneer of his own new orthodoxy on the defensive end, Tom Thibodeau was brought in with the expectation of being able to harness the athleticism and talent on the Minnesota roster, and turn it into a decent, then good, then excellent defensive unit. Two years in, however, and they have still not reached stage one.
This season, Minnesota were the fourth-worst defensive team in the league, just as they were last season. It would be quite sadistic to point out that this is still better than the third-worst that they ranked in the season before Thibodeau joined - it is clearly not good enough. And when combined with a historic offence, the sweep looks like a real possibility. When three key cogs in Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins are regrettably known for a lack of competitiveness at the defensive end, the remedy is at least in house, but having failed to tap into it in two years, it seems unlikely Thibodeau can do so with merely two off-days.
The Timberwolves are still young, and improving overall year on year. It is to their credit that they were able to make it into the playoffs this year, despite how stern the competition was, and it is surely a great relief that in doing so, they ended a 14 year playoff drought going back to the days of Kevin Garnett. They have two All-Stars, young veterans with more to offer, and a real future still.
This season, though, looks like it is about to end pretty quickly. No one found a remedy to the Rockets' predictable yet unstoppable offensive force, and one of the league's worst defensive teams is surely not about to rustle up a miracle formula. So what if they know exactly what's coming - what are they going to do about it?