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Have Mindless Robots Taken Over the NBA?

  • NBA basketball is not homogeneous, as is widely believed.
  • This is a golden era for diversity in playing styles
Adithya Ravi
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
Modified 24 Mar 2020, 09:51 IST

One of 27,955 threes made in 2018-19
One of 27,955 threes made in 2018-19

The NBA's had a curious year, preceded by many star players getting hurt, the bad publicity from the mess with Daryl Morey’s comments on Hong Kong, and ratings that continue to fall, even as the season is in danger of being suspended. While a big factor in ratings going down has been the absence of said star players, there are other reasons that account for the same.

Many believe that the league hasn’t done the best job of marketing itself to potential viewers. And a big part of this is the narrative that the league is too homogeneous now, too uniform, that there’s no differentiation between playing styles (‘Everyone’s taking ONLY threes and layups!’). The issue has been exacerbated by this data visualization created by noted basketball analytics pioneer Kirk Goldsberry going viral:

This led to some curious takes on the internet, one of which was:


(Disclaimer: this piece isn’t a pushback against Marxism nor is it an endorsement of capitalism. It just objects to applying the “capitalism has made us all mindless zombies doing the same thing” argument to NBA basketball as it’s currently played. Of course, you’d expect an NYU stats professor to know how to interpret data, which is disappointing)

The narrative promoted by this chart is that homogeneity in shot locations is equivalent to homogeneity in playing style. This is obviously a false equivalence, as the chart merely says where these shots were taken, not what actually led to those shots being taken. A meal at a South Indian restaurant and one at McDonald's both fill your stomach, but are vastly different meals.

In my opinion, the direct opposite of the above-mentioned claim is true: there has never been an era in the NBA that is more competitive, that has more varied playing styles than now. The pure aesthetic of the game is a fine product, just one that doesn’t have the right marketing machinery behind it. Shaq and Charles Barkley talking about the old days certainly doesn’t help matters one bit.

One way to think about this without a deep dive into the film is to take the current roster of superstars (say 10 of them) and look at the sheer variety of playing styles among them. Comparing this to the 90s, this was certainly not the case, with a good fraction of the dominant players being bigs with not as much of a difference in playing styles. Of course, the 90s also had its own diversity, featuring star guards like Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Reggie Miller apart from bigs like Hakeem, Shaq and David Robinson, but that was nothing compared to the diversity we have on display today.

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The general consensus of who today’s top players are usually goes something like: Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, Harden, Curry, Durant, Luka, Jokic, and Anthony Davis among others. The differences in offensive play are immediately striking.

One of these players can’t shoot threes.

One of them can’t post up.

One of them mostly posts up.

Two of them don’t use the midrange as much.

Two of them are the best midrange artists of this generation.

One of these is a 7-footer who actually brings the ball up the floor as the point guard, and conducts the offense from the elbows, quite unlike most 7-footers.

(I’ll leave the reader to guess which players I’m referring to).

Now this isn’t definitive proof, though it certainly is a compelling argument, as elite players generally dictate the offense or defense, as the case may be. A look at the film also supports the argument though.

Here is a comparison of 2 of the most dominant offenses in the league in prior seasons on the excellent Thinking Basketball channel, the Rockets and the Warriors. Both teams generate a lot of threes and layups, but the ways they do it and their underlying offensive philosophies could not be more different. The former uses James Harden’s insane isolation skills and players being stationary outside the perimeter to generate shots, while the latter uses player movement in the form of screening and frantic passing to generate their shots.


Thinking Basketball is a gift that keeps on giving. This video is a discussion on the Mavericks’ offense captained by Luka Doncic. Note the use of staggered screens and 2 bigs (Porzingis and Powell) simultaneously popping out to 3 and rolling to the hoop.


Here’s how Jokic does it in Denver, with the offense starting at the elbows (via SB Nation).


This isn’t an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.

It is of course true that this era has been largely defined by the rise of the 3-pointer as a method of attack, with most (not all) teams optimizing for layups and threes to generate record-breaking levels of offense. However, your strategy to do so changes with the personnel you have, who happen to be extremely diverse in terms of skillsets.

As for the countless tears shed over the lost art of the midrange, Seth Partnow of the Athletic says it best.

The argument is that the vast majority of those midrange shots that have now become (widely despised) threes, were those taken by role players in the past, who have now spaced out behind the line, realizing that 3 points are greater than 2. Elite players still shoot the midrange (necessarily), and these replaced shots don’t change much in terms of aesthetics.

So, there you have it. The NBA needs to figure out a way to market the top-notch product that it possesses. Not doing so, when the league has never been more competitive or more skilled overall is a travesty that may end up having wider repercussions down the road.


Published 24 Mar 2020, 09:51 IST
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