Phil Jackson took an apparent shot at the teams relying most heavily on three-pointers over the weekend and was immediately met with derision. This is not uncommon for those in the basketball world who don't tow the line with current thinking. Is that okay?
In this latest edition of FLANNS & ZILLZ, we discuss deference to expertise and the problems of a monopolistic theory of basketball. Enjoy!
FLANNERY: So, Phil Jackson kicked up a Twitter kerfuffle last weekend when he wondered how 3-point teams were doing in the playoffs. As it turns out, not bad! Our friend Jared Dubin pointed out the other night that teams who shoot more threes were winning about 60 percent of the games. Of course, most of the teams who are still competing in the playoffs are three-point oriented, so this is also a matter of natural selection. (I'm including the Wizards in that group since they finally got religion on the three-point line at the right time.)
But there was something else in that tweet that was interesting. Let's assume that Phil was being salty or, in his word, 'cranky,' about the perimeter shift in today's game, which aligns him with the other generational cynics who are skeptical about the Warriors, et al. What amused me was the general reaction of the Twitter intelligentsia who jumped all over him. Seems to me like a lot of people are completely convinced this current three-point trend is here to stay.
But styles change over time for many reasons. What works today is outdated five years from now. There's more to it than just crafting the perfect equation, yes?
ZILLER: There are two strains of belief in the three-pointer offense. One is that threes are so much more valuable at average efficiency levels than most flavors of twos that this shift was inevitable and permanent. Ignoring fouls and turnovers, you need 50 percent on twos and 33 percent on threes to hit one point per possession. There's a lower bar for success and better upside. It's simple math that the NBA has just now embraced.
The other line of thinking is that threes just hadn't been properly valued until recent years, creating a market inefficiency that the Rockets and Warriors have exploited most boldly. I find this to be a tougher argument because of the huge contracts sweet-shooting big guys like Rashard Lewis and Peja Stojakovic got almost a decade ago. But the current vanguard of teams have made a reliance on threes more of an organizational purpose than a talent criteria.
If you think this is a Moneyballesque market inefficiency, then at some point shooting will be overvalued and a team can exploit good value in other skill categories. The Grizzlies and Jazz are two teams that have done this in a way.
Something that kills me in this particular situation is the lack of acknowledgment from both sides that the three most three-happy teams -- Houston, Atlanta and Golden State -- are really good on defense. We focus so much on offensive style that we ignore how these teams actually got here.
FLANNERY: That manifests itself in other unkind ways, as well. For example: "The Warriors are soft." I suppose that stems from the fact that Stephen Curry is a baby-faced shooter, but that doesn't mean he's not an assassin. Really now, a team with Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green is soft? OK, sure.
One thing that's worth considering is regular-season success versus postseason play. I know, it's the oldest cliche in the book, but the playoffs are different. There are some really smart people around the league who have doubts about the Hawks and even the Warriors to some degree. In Atlanta's case, it's a lack of starpower, especially in a matchup with LeBron James. For Golden State, it's the lack of a scoring big man a la Tim Duncan, or perhaps a more apt example would be the Phoenix version of Amar'e Stoudemire.
The obvious problem there is there's only so many of those guys to go around. Failing that, do you build for regular season success and take your chances ... or wait until the right guy falls into your lap? The space-and-pace model combined with defensive effort gives you a chance to win games from November through April. Isn't that the primary goal?
ZILLER: I'm starting to believe offensive style is meaningless in the macro view, yet incredibly important in a micro sense in terms of series matchups. Consider Memphis, whose offensive style is unique and anachronistic. They force you to be able to bang inside and defend a smart, quick point guard. Defending the three-point is not a priority. If you can meet their challenges and your offense can put up some points on that defense, you can beat them. It took a major adjustment for the Warriors to do that. The other offenses alive in the West all require other priorities.
There's a question as to whether increased homogeneity will make it easier to defend the pace and space motif. As shooting is at more of a premium and occupies a greater share of offensive emphasis, long defenders adept at closing out and blanketing the Currys and Korvers of the league become more valuable. And strategies to cope will be mimicked; certainly teams next regular season will rove on Tony Allen. Perhaps we'll see a great defensive scheme to combat pace and space soon and that will take the league by storm next regular season.
I also feel like we need to overtly acknowledge what we're thinking: the Spurs won the title convincingly playing this style just last year. Do they not count due to Duncan and Pop?
FLANNERY: Oh, the Spurs count. It just depends on who's doing the counting. Those who acknowledge their stylistic turn at the beginning of the decade saw their championship as a culmination of a longer journey. Those who simply see Pop, Duncan, Manu and Tony just viewed it as an extension of their legacy. That's what's so frustrating about the debate.
There are a couple of points you made that are worth highlighting. One, an adjustment is not a tacit acknowledgment of failure. What impressed me most about the Warriors in Game 4 is switching Andrew Bogut onto Tony Allen was not only inspired, it also helped their offense via cross matches in transition. They got down in the muck and still played their game.
Two, your point about inefficiencies is well taken. Look at the Bucks, who are loading up on long, versatile defenders. There will always be counters as long as smart teams are willing to take the risks. In a league like this, going against the grain is necessary for survival if you lack top-tier talent.
I want to go back to something. Do we run a risk by dismissing wise old heads like Phil Jackson simply because they don't conform to the style of the day?
ZILLER: Absolutely! It's easily one of the most dangerous facets of the New NBA, where an increasing share of decision-makers come from business or law school in lieu of a fuller basketball background. We as a chattering class are, at this point, so much quicker to wax skeptical about Phil Jackson's positions than those of Sam Hinkie. We've joked before that the nerds won. It's legitimately true.
I feel guilty for ridiculing the concept of the Basketball PhD and the theory of its demise as a professional credential in the NBA. The presentation of the concern was worth ridicule; the concern is not. There is knowledge gathered from learning and excelling in a field that cannot otherwise be obtained. That doesn't mean we need ex-players running every team, but it speaks to the value of their voices and theories.
Every theory ought to be judged by its merits, not by the ideology it fits within or the orientation of its presenter.
FLANNERY: It doesn't help that each side can drip with condescension when it wants to either. There are insights and intel to be gleaned from vets, quants, scouts and cap gurus. Sometimes it doesn't jive with a preconceived notion, but that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. It should be embraced. I feel like the best organizations are the ones that blend all that stuff together into a basketball bouillabaisse. Of course, there's a difference between having all those people on staff and giving them all a voice.
I guess that's my point. We really need to do a better job of listening to one another and hearing each other out. No one has this game mastered and no one ever will. If we did, maybe we'd be able to explain that goofy Hawks-Wizards series.
ZILLER: Hey, real talk: bouillabaisse is gross. But basketball bouillabaisse sounds pretty good. No beard hair, though.
All we can do is admit we know nothing and seek knowledge from all credible sources. To think Phil Jackson or any former player and coach isn't credible on the topic of basketball just because their ideas don't align with the vogue is to shoot ourselves in the foot.
FLANNERY: Which is still better than shooting a long two, to hear some tell it.
I do get a kick out of Phil and his Triangle being marginalized yet again by the establishment. Once again, he's a basketball radical. What's new is old and what's old is new.