As the NBA season nears the All-star Break, it is clear that for better or worse, “times are a changing”. Even if they were never meant to describe Basketball, the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s 1964 song ring true for the current state of the NBA, especially considering what teams, players, and strategies are establishing a new normal.
The heirarchy of NBA teams is evolving. Currently six of the teams eligible for the playoffs have never won a championship. For example, the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors are strong contenders. Both teams lead their divisions and are second in their conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers could also win for the first time. These teams are taking the spots of 3 elite franchises who together hold 36 of NBA’s 67 total titles yet are not in playoff contention: the Lakers, Celtics, and 76ers. For the sake of exciting basketball, I hope a new team wins this year.
This NBA season has been less than predictable. Under dog teams have defied the odds and climbed to the top of the standings, proving that the league is more competitive than ever. Like Dylan said, “if you don’t “start swimming, you’ll sink like a stone.” Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers who, due to injuries to stars such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, have dropped from finishes in last season’s quarter-finals to winning percentages below .500. But the worst fall from grace belongs the New York Knicks who slipped from the second best record in their conference in 2013 to the worst record this season.
How has the landscape of the NBA changed so rapidly? New game plans and player acquisition strategies have taken the league by storm. New strategies center on the three pointer, a shot that has only skyrocketed in use over the last three seasons. In the 2013-2014 NBA season, more 3-point shots were attempted than ever before, and the record is likely to be broken again this season according to Bleacherreport.com. Sharp shooters like Kyle Korver, Courtney Lee, and Klay Thompson lead this trend and show no signs of stopping. These shooters unsurprisingly play on the NBA’s best teams, Golden State, Atlanta, and Memphis.
Yet the best sharp shooters usually depend on a strong inside presence to relieve defensive pressure and provide more shooting opportunities. Shooters are more comfortable sinking the long ball if opposing defenses have to focus on threats near the basket as well, helping spread defenses out. The Memphis Grizzlies execute this strategy to perfection as their bigs, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, 6 foot 9 inches and 7 foot 1 inches respectively, demand the attention of defenses and create double teams that leave Courtney Lee open for easy 3-pointers. The Portland Trailblazers who rank 5th in three-point efficiency follow a similar strategy that is effective thanks to strong inside scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge, who averages 23 points a game.
What makes spreading the floor so deadly in the NBA is the success of inside finishers increases with the success of outside shooters, leaving no escape for weak defenses. In the same way that an inside threat can open up outside shooting as seen with Memphis, outside shooting can improve a team’s scoring opportunities near the rim as well. Led by Stephan Curry and Klay Thompson, the Golden State Warrior’s 3-point accuracy is the best in the league, a fact that draws NBA defenses outside, allowing Marreese Speights to reach career scoring numbers. Golden State’s center has improved and almost doubled his points per game average from 6.4 to 12.4.
One aspect of the current NBA that cannot be ignored is that of the teams who posses the top 4 highest paid players. None are currently playoff bound. As the hierarchy of teams evolves, so does how teams reach success. Spending the mountain of money required to sign superstars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or even Kevin Durant seems less viable. Teams that draft and develop their own talent spend less money and have become more successful. The Kobe Bryant era of the 2000s that depended on the ability of ultra talented super stars to dominate is giving way to team-based attacks composed of lower-paid, disciplined players that can’t do everything but successfully fill their role. The best NBA franchises attack and defend as a team, and though it might be less exciting than one player dominating every statistic, the teams records display that it is definitely effective.
Undeniably the “times are a changing” for the NBA, and though this might be scary for many, I am embracing the three pointers, balanced offensive threats, and a new hierarchy of teams. Because what is change if not exciting?