An interesting thread of the years-long discourse on the increased prominence of quantitative analysis in the NBA has focused on whether the entertainment aspect of the game is in jeopardy. It has become increasingly — almost universally — accepted that most teams will be most efficient by focusing on creating the most efficient shots in the game: catch-and-shoot three-pointers, free throws, and shots at the rim.
We reached the tipping point on the three-point boom in the last couple of years as Stephen Curry and the Warriors began setting fire to the record book. The mid-range jumper is quickly becoming a novelty. Even three successful teams who shunned the triple through last season — the Raptors, Thunder, and Grizzlies — have bought in. It’s commonly accepted that only players with a high conversion rate should take long two-pointers, and only when they are open (through the pass or a move that creates their own open look).
This sucking vacuum in one area of the floor threatens to make the game less dynamic and more monochromatic. That is the fear, at least. Isiah Thomas, the legendary Pistons guard and longtime analytics skeptic, put voice to this concern on NBA TV this week in a quote that was shared widely across the basketball ideological spectrum.
Thomas is saying a couple different things here. He’s expressing concern that the league has become cookie-cutter over recent years, owing to wider acknowledgement and adoption of the most efficient plays and shots. In the next breath, he is crediting modern original players who are daring to be unique.
But really, this is twisted up a little. The players we consider modern originals — the unicorns, so to speak — are largely embracing the analytic learnings of the modern era. This is why the 7’3 Kristaps Porzingis is taking five three-pointers per game. Meanwhile, the most prominent idiosyncratic players doing their own thing — think DeMar DeRozan — are not really expressing uniqueness and creativity. They are idiosyncratic because they are rejecting the modern efficiency scheme and playing like NBA players have for decades!
The new originals are original precisely because they are embracing modern NBA philosophy to the extreme. That philosophy has been adopted so thoroughly that the relatively few players abstaining from joining the revolution now look unique, though they are really just throwbacks.
What’s great — and where I agree with Thomas — is that there appears to be room for both in today’s NBA. DeRozan hit 33 three-pointers in the entirety of last season and made the All-NBA team as a shooting guard. That’s incredible! His craft is so strong, his footwork so deft, and his mid-range game so impressive that he thrived in spite of a rejection of basketball modernity.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is also central to these concerns. Heralded as the future of the NBA and one of the Wild Giants, Giannis does not actually buy into the modern philosophy all that much. He’s averaging 30 points per game while taking only two threes per night. Like DeRozan, he does attack the rim with regularity. But his unique spin on being an exceptionally large human has not been to extend his range as Porzingis, DeMarcus Cousins, or Joel Embiid did. Instead, it has been to be extraordinarily nimble, agile, and slippery. Really, there is nothing possibly cookie-cutter about him.
But even if DeRozan did abandon the mid-range and Antetokounmpo did embrace the triple, there’s little to fear. The focus on efficient shot-taking demands threes, free throws, and shots at the rim. How many dozens of different ways are there to get those?
The Warriors famously earn those looks through incredible team-wide passing and a brutal pace. The Rockets — at least until Chris Paul arrived and while he is recovering from injury — let one maestro, James Harden, unleash every aspect of that strategy through a series of pull-ups, probes, and outrageous lobs. The Cavaliers exploited the new math last season with a G.O.A.T. candidate keeping defenses at red alert, a master dribbler in Kyrie Irving improvising the solos, and shooters galore.
Defensive coaches are constantly iterating new schemes to take away the cleanest shots and force these smart, modern offenses into tougher looks or turnovers. This will continue as teams continue to increase their rates of three-pointers and lay-ups. Commitment to switching coverage on picks-and-rolls has already been in and out of vogue. The Bucks’ trapping scheme is the next hot style. Defenses keyed up to encourage opponents to take open mid-range shots in order to avoid the triple date back at least a decade — the Spurs used to do it to the Ray Allen-Rashard Lewis Seattle SuperSonics (R.I.P.). There are yet innovations in defense to be made in addressing the new world order.
Stylistic diversity is a key ingredient in keeping pro basketball interesting. We need to be able to see and appreciate different approaches to common goals. To date, there is nothing to suggest that everyone recognizing the value of the three-pointer is leading to aesthetic homogeneity. Competitive balance — or, the lack thereof — is a bigger issue for the entertainment value of the league at the moment than cookie-cutter style of play.