You can analyze or overanalyze basketball games with all types of fancy analytics and metrics, but teams that win championships follow two basic formulas: score easy baskets and don’t give up easy baskets.
Basically, to speak in the language so millennials can understand, you want to score in the paint and protect the paint (if your hardwood court has a painted area, of course).
Conventional basketball has always been built on scoring inside, meaning dump the ball inside your biggest or tallest player. Aside from getting an easy hoop, this serves two purposes: 1) collapse the defense and open shots for other players, and 2) rewards big men for all the hard work they do inside. Remember the old Shaquille O’Neal line: “Feed the big dog if you want the big dog to protect the yard.”
It’s a proven fact that big men will work harder if they get their touches on offense, and it will inspire them to protect the basket on the other end of the court.
Shaq subscribes to the inside-out theory because that’s the way NBA championships were won. George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers played that way. Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics played that way. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s L.A. Lakers played that way. Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets played that way.
In the post-Michael Jordan era, the NBA Finals have been dominated by two big men: Shaq and Tim Duncan.
O’Neal and Duncan have been a part of The Finals in 11 of the last 16 seasons, winning a combined nine titles.
There were a few exceptions to the rule. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams were mainly a jump-shooting team. But in the triangle offense, otherwise known as the triple post, Jordan was the post-up player. He didn’t post up in the traditional way, as in planting himself on the low block, but he posted up on the elbows or the pinch post. Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks 2011 championship team used the same concept. When the Mavs needed a bucket, they went to Dirk on the pinch post. And LeBron James didn’t start winning titles until he developed a post-up game when he was in Miami.
This bring us to the Golden State Warriors, the 2014-15 NBA champions.
The Warriors are a basketball anomaly. They are bucking the conventional thinking that you can’t win a NBA title primarily by shooting jump shots. Charles Barkley has repeated said on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” that jump shooting teams don’t win titles. Barkley should know this because his high-octane, 3-shooting teams in Phoenix lived and died by the jump shot in the playoffs.
Golden State’s offense is very similar to Barkley’s Suns. They’re built around the long-range shooting skills of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — also known as The Splash Brothers. They don’t even have a pinch-post player. Everything flows through Curry and Thompson out in the perimeter.
But these Warriors are a different breed. Sure, they win games by shooting lights out from behind the 3-point line and running teams out of the gym. But what made them a 67-win juggernaut during the regular season was defense.
“I know there’s been all this talk this year, especially about the 3-point shot. Can you win shooting it?” Warriors first-year head coach Steve Kerr said. “There’s a lot of different styles that can work. You have to base it on your own personnel.”
Kerr added: “What really wins is a combination of great offense and great defense. We have the No. 1 defense in the league. We had the highest scoring team in the league. We were No. 1 in assists. We were No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense. When you get that combination then you’re going to be pretty good. Whether you’re shooting threes or twos it’s about the balance. To win a title you have to be able to make stops. You’ve got to string together stops at crucial times and you gotta find ways to score. With our depth and our talent we were able to do that and it turned into a special season as a result.”
Golden State arguably has three of the 10 best defensive players in the league. Thompson is an elite perimeter defender, Andrew Bogut is a beast in front of the rim, and Draymond Green finished second to Kawhi Leonard as the defensive player of the year. Add Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala into the mix and you can see why teams struggle to score against them.
Kerr has taken what Mark Jackson built and improved it. The Warriors have largely used a predominantly perimeter attack on offense and a switching defense on their way to the 2015 NBA Finals, using the same concepts installed by Jackson. Kerr has modified a few things here and there, but the Warriors have stayed true to form. They share the ball on offense and they use their speed and quickness to recover on defense. It’s a similar approach that powered the San Antonio Spurs to their fifth NBA title in 2014 with one huge difference. The Warriors don’t have a Tim Duncan controlling the paint on both ends.
Bogut starts at center but he rarely plays more than 20 minutes a game, and Kerr likes to play a smaller lineup down the stretch with Iguodala, Barnes and Green in the frontcourt to go along with Curry and Thompson in the backcourt. This makes the Warriors unique. It’s a style of basketball that court influence a whole generation of coaches and players. It’s comparable to the European League in which the focus is on dribble handoffs and pick-and-pops, and frontcourt players spend most of their time above the free throw line.
Before we crown Golden State as the next NBA dynasty, it needs to sustain this historic run. The Warriors were able to avoid the San Antonio Spurs and L.A. Clippers in the Western Conference, and they ran into a short-handed Cleveland team in The Finals.
The Cavs are a no-nonsense, gritty team that plays defense as if their lives depended on it. If they had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, it would have been a totally different series.
Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov punished the Warriors on the boards whenever Kerr went to his small lineup. And then there is LeBron. The four-time MVP averaged nearly 40 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in The Finals, and he did all this while playing nearly 48 minutes a game.
The Warriors were able to end the Bay Area’s 40-year championship drought. Now, it’s about keeping that No. 1 ranking.