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Smashmouth on the Hard Court

How the NBA's aggressive new defensive strategy — packing the paint — has forced coaches to reimagine scoring. Plus: the Cavs' pitiful D, in praise of pregame intros, and what happens when shooters get cranky.

It’s on almost every locker-room whiteboard, and it’s shorthand slang among NBA players and coaches. But one of the wonkiest phrases in the league has yet to penetrate public discourse about the NBA: “to 2.9.” Coaches want players away from the ball “to 2.9″ on defense, and the meaning is simple: Stay in the paint for as long as possible without committing a defensive three-second violation. It’s a tenet that has swept across the league during the last few seasons in the form of ultra-aggressive help defense, a sea change that has inspired a slower but perhaps more important evolution in the way NBA teams approach offense.

In short: If defenses pack the lane to take away an offense’s first option, that offense better be creative enough to adjust. “Getting to the hole is getting harder and harder,” says Chicago’s Carlos Boozer, who should know, considering the identity of his coach.

“A lot of the defensive strategies you see now are a natural evolution from rule changes,” says Houston GM Daryl Morey, in reference to the league’s decision a decade ago to abandon illegal defense rules and essentially allow zone defenses. “First the defense evolved by overloading the strong side, and now the offenses are evolving to beat that.”

The Heat are the most obvious example of a team that has torn down and rebuilt its entire offense over 18 months to counter defenses committed to clogging the lane, sending an extra defender toward the ball, and forcing offenses into second, third, and fourth options. It’s no coincidence Miami plays in the same conference as Boston and Chicago — the two teams most associated, via Tom Thibodeau, with that strangling defense. Thibodeau didn’t invent this system, and he’s loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA’s newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses.1 Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt. The evolution will have long-lasting consequences on multiple fronts — on the league’s entertainment value, the importance of smart coaching, and the sorts of players that GMs seek out in the draft and via free agency.

“There are a whole bunch of new-wave things teams are doing to beat that ‘Pack the paint’ mentality,” says Dwane Casey, who has tried to turn Toronto into one of the league’s most aggressive help teams.

“When I study all the things these coaches are doing, it’s like calculus sometimes,” Denver GM Masai Ujiri says of the lengths to which coaches are now going to deal with better NBA defenses. “You sit in those coaches meetings and just try to absorb.”

It’s no longer accurate to reduce NBA offense to truisms like “Everybody runs the same stuff” and “The NBA is a pick-and-roll league.” Offenses are more complex now than they were even at the start of last season. The NBA may still be a pick-and-roll league, but the pick-and-roll a team really wants to run might come after several different “fake” actions designed to confuse defenders or get their momentum moving in the wrong direction. Predictable offenses just aren’t good enough anymore against elite competition; that’s why Miami no longer runs simple LeBron James–Chris Bosh pick-and-rolls while the other three Heat players just stand around — something that happened a lot in the 2011 Finals against Dallas.

Predictable offenses with otherworldly talent can still get a team far; the Clippers can win a lot of games with 45 Chris Paul–Blake Griffin pick-and-rolls and 45 Griffin post-ups. And no amount of X’s-and-O’s brilliance can make up for the absence of a top-15 overall player. Morey concedes the Rockets might have to add some spice to their simple high pick-and-roll system next season. “I do feel like in a playoff series, it might put us at a disadvantage,” he says, “because we’re a little less sophisticated.”2 (The Rockets’ high pick-and-roll offense ranks as one of the league’s half-dozen most efficient, and Morey says the relatively simplistic style is mostly the result of the organization’s focus on acquiring James Harden in a trade finalized just before the season.)

The margin for error drops in the playoffs against elite defenses geared toward a single opponent; stagnant predictability in that context can cost an offense just enough points to swing a game, and then a series.

“The bad teams in our league are the ones who don’t pass the ball well,” says Kelvin Sampson, the Rockets’ lead assistant. “Teams that just play on one side of the floor are going to struggle against defenses that load up on that side.”

The league overall understands this, though some coaching staffs have been quicker than others in adjusting their systems. The percentage of offensive possessions that end with isolation plays and post-up shots has declined every season for the last five years, per Synergy Sports. In 2008-09, the year after the Celtics used a Thibodeau-designed system to create one of the stingiest defenses ever, 27 of the league’s 30 teams still finished at least 9 percent of their offensive possessions via an isolation play, according to Synergy Sports. The Magic, at 7.4 percent, were the least isolation-prone team in the league that season.3 This season, 15 teams — half the league — are below that 9 percent isolation mark, and a whopping 11 have lower isolation shares than Milwaukee’s league-low number from 2008-09. The drop in post-ups has been similar, and the numbers would seem to indicate an increase in ball movement.

But those plays aren’t really disappearing from the league at that rate, according to coaches and general managers. Teams instead are using them at the start of possessions, in order to suck that extra defender toward the ball, pass it to the other side, and get a defense scrambling until it cracks. Teams used to drive the strong side and post up there in order to score; now they’re doing so in order to pass, knowing the lane will be too crowded on one side of the floor for that simpler attack. Posting up isn’t a dying art; it’s still enormously important, only now it’s as a means to start a cascade of events all over the floor.

Tyler Zeller

“Players are penetrating now with no intention to score,” Casey says. Post-up players, including James and Carmelo Anthony, have gotten better at reading help and skipping the ball immediately to the other side of the floor instead of just hitting the closest player and starting a series of passes, Casey and other coaches say.

“Guys like Andre Miller and Kevin Garnett — they’re posting up hoping a second guy will run at them, so they can pass,” Sampson says. “You’re better just playing one-on-one in the post if you can.”

Teams are also better at disguising their true intentions. Ray Allen running across the foul line to the left side of the floor might be just a decoy designed to get the defense to bend to that side right as Miami runs something deadlier on the other side. And a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor with 15 seconds on the shot clock might represent the first in a series of pick-and-rolls rather than a scoring attempt in its own right.

Every coach has his own terminology for this kind of thing. Jim Boylan, the Bucks’ coach, wants his offense to get the ball to the “third side” of the floor — to move the ball from the left side to the right side, and then back to the left side (that “third” side) before shooting.4

“The league has gotten so different today,” Boylan says. “You just have to move the ball from one side to the other against the really good defensive teams.”

Smart defensive coaching has put a premium on smart offensive coaching. Several sources at all levels suggest the NBA is becoming more like the NFL — with more of an emphasis on trickery, scheming, and anticipating how teams will respond to particular actions.

“There is a lot of misdirection, and it’s a lot of fun to watch,” Sampson says. “Coaches are getting a lot better, and a lot smarter, and they’ll have to continue to do that.”

Coaches with stale offenses — think Utah, Brooklyn, the Clippers — are hurting their teams, even if those teams have enough talent to produce some solid overall scoring numbers.

It has only been three years since Boozer left Utah, but from his perspective, the league in 2013 is almost unrecognizable from the one he left behind in Salt Lake City in 2010. “It’s extremely different,” he says. “In Utah, you were kind of on your own on defense. It was almost just one-on-one. There was no help concept. Here, there’s a help concept, and it works.”

Boozer has watched offenses adjust to Thibodeau’s trendsetting defense. “Teams try to set us up now,” he says. “It’s like football. You gotta give ‘em one play that’s like a decoy, when you really want something else on the other side. It’s like a magic trick.”

Casey warns his Toronto players about the “fluff” in opposing offenses — all the decoy “plays” an offense will cycle through before arriving at the “real” play. Good defenders must be smart enough to separate the fake stuff from the real thing — to avoid taking the bait on the first pick-and-roll in a way that would get that defender out of position for the second and third pick-and-rolls that are coming soon.

“You gotta be able to tell the fluff from the real,” Casey says.

Coaches have a stake in making their game sound more complicated than it really is. But players also agree defense is more demanding now, and that offenses have become more complicated as a result.

“Coaches all want you to 2.9 now,” Ben Gordon says. “And offenses have had to adjust to that.”

Coaches and GMs are looking harder for specific skill sets that fit within this evolution:

• Brains. Players have to understand a five-man team scheme on defense, and, if they manage to get that down, how to react almost instantly to dozens of different variables that govern how they should react at any given moment. Monty Williams, the Hornets’ coach, has his young team packing the paint more aggressively this season, and opposing offenses have responded by using an inside-out attack to shoot a scorching 37.5 percent from deep on a ton of attempts. Williams says he knew he was risking that kind of long-distance death, because so many of his players are young and don’t yet understand basic NBA things — how to rotate on the spot, which shooters demand closer attention, etc. “We just had to get back to ground zero and protect the rim,” Williams says. “We’re not trying to give up 3s. But sometimes you give up 3s due to lack of experience and mental breakdowns. My first two years, we had guys who had been on teams where they really defended. Now you bring in young guys who played AAU and all these college zones, and it’s just a work in progress.”

Look at the various open 3s the Warriors might have gotten here, with all five Hornets in the paint, had Jarrett Jack passed the ball:

You have already seen teams dump players with surface talent in part because people in charge of those teams have deep concerns about that player’s basketball intelligence. That’s not the last you’ll see of moves like that.

Smart perimeter defense matters, even if it might matter a bit less than smart big-man defense. Perimeter guys need to know how to slide into the paint, deter some penetration there, and sprint back out at their original mark — a guy who can presumably both shoot and attack off the bounce. That’s not easy. “The hardest thing to do in the NBA,” Boylan says, “is to help in the paint and then rush back out to the 3-point line to get your guy.”

• Versatility. Ask coaches what the next logical step in the evolution of defense might be — the counter to the counter, so to speak — and many of them will suggest an uptick in switching, both on and off the ball. There is almost a reflex distaste for switching, among both coaches and fans; it just looks so obviously stupid to voluntarily get yourself into a situation in which Kevin Durant is posting up Ty Lawson. But switching can be a natural antidote to offenses designed specifically to bait defenses into help contortions and uncomfortable rotations; defenses that switch everything can avoid overhelping and/or sending two defenders to contain one player — or at least avoid such compromising moves until late in the shot clock.

George Karl has told me he would like to switch even more than Denver already does, and several coaches agreed we’ll probably see more of it going forward. In the last week, the Knicks have unveiled a switch I don’t ever recall seeing in the last five years or so as part of a consistent and coordinated scheme. Watch in the below clips as the player guarding the shooter in the corner jumps out to stop a ball handler, while the guy guarding the ball handler darts immediately to the corner shooter:

This is a novel attempt at protecting the rim — stopping the drive — without yielding an open 3. It’s a way of trying to contain two offensive players with just two defensive players, instead of adding a third defender to the equation and opening up a hole someplace else.5

This would mark almost a selective reversal to the aggressive, Thibodeau-style help concepts that have troubled offenses over the last half-decade.

• Shooting. The cat is out of the bag on this one. Players who can’t shoot will find it harder and harder to get minutes, unless they bring an elite brand of defense or some other rarely found skill. There are lots of reasons that coaches place greater emphasis on shooting and spacing now, the simplest one being that three is greater than two. But those Thibodeau-style defenses are near the top of the list. Defenders can’t stray quite as far off of knockdown shooters, or they might be afraid to do so, even when a team’s defensive scheme suggests they should.

“Players are sometimes afraid to leave their own guy,” says Micah Nori, a longtime assistant with the Raptors.

• Passing. This is the one that came up over and over in conversations with coaches and executives. Passing is obviously a good thing, and always has been. But the people running teams increasingly value above-average passing at every position, and express a deeper distaste for players — again, at any position — who are either unwilling passers or just don’t show a sophisticated understanding of passing, timing, angles, and reading layers of defense. “Passing is just becoming so, so important,” Boylan says. “If you want to be a good offensive team, you have to have good passers.”

The league, as always, is evolving. No sort of evolution will ever change the fact that All-Star talent is the most important ingredient in building a champion. But evolution will make subtle changes in what defines a real top-10 or top-15 player, and teams that understand and exploit long-term changes the fastest will gain real competitive advantages when the talent gap narrows. The smartest teams are already thinking ahead to what the next changes might be — even if we haven’t seen them on the court just yet.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

Maurice Harkless

1. Cleveland’s Hurt-the-Helper Defense

If Byron Scott is really on the hot seat, even though he’s on the books for $4.5 million next season, it will be because the Cavaliers’ defense has shown zero improvement. They’re 27th in points allowed per possession after finishing in the same spot last season, and though it’s tempting to blame the Anderson Varejao injury, the difference defensively without him on the floor has been negligible, per NBA.com.

There are obviously some mitigating factors. The Cavs are young, and young players are generally overmatched on defense in their first couple of years in the NBA. Starting Tyler Zeller at center is a big disadvantage; bullies can push him around, and like most rookies, he has found NBA-level help-and-recover stuff confusing.

But the lack of improvement in the big picture is alarming. Kyrie Irving is almost no better in Year 2 than he was in Year 1 (which is to say, he’s not good), and there is just a general lack of coordination to Cleveland’s defense that would worry me if I worked for the team. The Cavs can usually execute the first step of help defense without any problems, but the steps that must take place behind that first line of defense are a complete mess. Nobody helps the helper at the right time, guys are way out of position, miscommunication is rampant, and teams generally score easily against them.

Again: Bad defense from inexperienced teams is expected. But the Cavs haven’t shown any improvement, and mass confusion of this sort is alarming.

2. Tobias Harris Attacking Close-outs

Harris shouldn’t be shooting quite this much, especially from 3-point range; he’s often one or two confused steps out of position on defense; and he’s totally unproven as a pick-and-roll ball handler. But he’s done well in Orlando overall, and he’s especially effective as a scorer when he attacks the rim after someone else has done some legwork for him. One example: When Orlando runs some action that sucks Harris’s defender into the paint and then kicks the ball to Harris, he’s shown a real knack for catching the ball, reading his defender rushing back out toward him, and then blowing by that defender with a well-timed drive. And once he’s in the lane, Harris can finish with both hands, rip off a nasty dunk, or unveil a surprisingly nifty floater.

3. MarShon Brooks’s Defense

Oof. Brooks in Year 2 just hasn’t grasped the complexities of NBA defense outlined above, and that’s the primary reason two different Brooklyn coaches have been mostly hesitant to play him big minutes — even though he’s capable of scoring in bunches, as he did putting up 27 versatile and creative points in the Nets’ destruction of Cleveland last week. He too often fails to help in the lane on pick-and-rolls, or does so too late; he has a tendency to open his stance in one-on-one situations; and he can take poor angles when returning from the paint (when he does help) back to his guy on the perimeter. Brooks is never going to be a stopper, but he won’t play much so long as he’s a liability.

4. Washington’s Music for Road Team Pregame Intros

When the Raptors visited Washington on Easter, the Wiz in-arena crew played the theme song from Barney (another purple dinosaur) as their public address announcer introduced the Toronto starters. The Wizards actually have a different mock theme song for each opponent. The Cavs get the delightful Cleveland tourism parody from 30 Rock, the Bobcats suffer through the “Meow Mix” theme song on a loop, and the Wizards pick at the whole Dallas–Washington, D.C., football thing by taunting the Mavs with “Hail to the Redskins.”

The team-by-team approach is so much more fun than using a catchall song, with “Who Are You” being the classic (and rather boring, at this point) example of the latter. Props for creativity, Wiz!

5. Players Mistiming Dramatic Introductions

I’m a sucker for starting-lineup introductions: the more dramatic, the better. It’s the NBA’s less goose bump–y version of a boxer striding to the ring before a big fight. Local feeds should show the intros for every big game (the return of a now-loathed, once-beloved hometown star, for instance), and the league should let teams drag out the process a bit for the Finals. Kobe Bryant’s ultraslow stride through the high-five line is probably a calculated piece of image creation — the stone-faced gunslinger, eerily calm before battle — but I admit to enjoying the showmanship.

And, so, a pet peeve: when players sabotage their own starting-lineup moment by standing up and running through the line before the PA announcer even begins the “and at guard … ” portion of their intros. This is particularly sinful if the player in question is the anchor leg of the starting-five introductions. Some guys almost catch up to the previous player in rushing toward the huddle.

I normally prefer humility and professionalism, but I demand WWE-style spotlight-hogging drama in only this moment.

6. Omer Asik’s Outlet Passing

He’s not quite Kevin Love or Tim Duncan, but a season in Houston’s go-go system has transformed Asik into a very nice outlet passer. Any Rockets game will feature at least two or three of those classic big-man outlet passes in which Asik almost turns upcourt and starts his passing motion in midair after grabbing a rebound.

7. Randomly Tight Camera Angles

I have no idea why this happens on some broadcasts, but I hate when the main camera will zoom in an extra bit for an extended stretch of the game, obscuring part of the action in the process. During two recent games — Atlanta–New York on the MSG Network, and the Houston broadcast of a Pacers-Rockets game — viewers on at least one feed couldn’t even see players moving around a certain distance above the 3-point arc during half-court action. Please, eliminate this.

Ty Corbin

8. Orlando’s Road Blues

It might be time to discontinue my like/dislike of various NBA uniforms, because an obvious pattern has emerged: I generally prefer non-black road uniforms to standard black ones, and most non-white home uniforms to standard home whites. There are exceptions, of course; I’ve given coveted “like” status to Chicago’s black alternates and Brooklyn’s roadies, but the Brooklyn version of the Nets have never presented me with a regular non-black alternative to their snazzy road duds. Beyond those, I’ve given “likes” to blue alternate roadies the Clippers and Sixers wear; the red road jerseys of the Hawks, Blazers, Bucks, and Heat; and the Kings’ purple road uniforms.

Add the Magic blues to the list as a much-preferred alternative to their “blah” black road jerseys. Their Sunday game in Cleveland pitted those pleasing blues against the dynamite Cleveland gold home uniforms — a non-white versus non-black jersey clash that represents the height of basketball fashion. The Michigan-Syracuse national semifinal at the NCAA level was similarly pleasing.

9. When Shooters Get Cranky

Deadeye shooters want the ball when they’re open, and if you look past them a few times in a row, they get cranky. Watch J.J. Redick in the left corner before and after Samuel Dalembert grabs an offensive rebound, looks right at a wide-open Redick, and passes the ball elsewhere:

Fantastic.

10. Ty Corbin’s Handkerchief Game

This is some aggressive fashion from Utah’s head coach:

Boozer-Noah

That has to be the largest in-pocket suit accessory I’ve seen from any head coach this season.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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