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Paul Flannery | April 12, 2015

Sunday Shootaround

In the NBA, the stars make the system

The Star System

The most important moment of the NBA season occurred last July when LeBron James announced that he was leaving Miami for a Cleveland homecoming. LeBron’s move did more than just swing the balance of Eastern Conference power north. It also had a ripple effect throughout the league as players shuffled teams and franchises recalibrated their place in the pecking order.

If LeBron doesn’t go to Cleveland, Andrew Wiggins is still a Cavalier and Kevin Love is playing somewhere else. Those are only two of the most obvious consequences. You can go up and down rosters and find similar examples. No player in the league yields as much power as James, which was also in evidence by the slow free agent movement that preceded his decision and the flurry of activity that followed. Everyone was waiting on the King.

A few weeks earlier, another important moment took place when the San Antonio Spurs won their fifth championship, knocking off LeBron’s Heat squad in a shockingly easy five games. The Spurs’ title was viewed as a crowning achievement for the entire organization and a testament to the longevity of Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

As gratifying as it was for them personally, the Spurs’ triumph had implications that stretched far beyond San Antonio. It proved that a team seen as the embodiment of old-school traditionalism could adapt and modernize itself while playing a far more entertaining brand of ball than it had previously. It also showed, perhaps unfairly, that a well-executed system could beat the league’s reigning star in his prime. The rest of the league took note on both counts.

If we were making a list of words that have entered the basketball lexicon in recent years, none have as much currency right now as "pace and space." That’s shorthand for crisp offensive execution that relies on ball movement, outside shooting and smart decision-making.

No one does it better than San Antonio. The Spurs’ system has not only paid dividends on the court, it’s helped lengthen the careers of their franchise stalwarts and made folk heroes out of role players like Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli. You may not be able to find the next Duncan, but you can always get yourself a wing.

There is nothing revolutionary about the way the Spurs play, nor is it unique to San Antonio. The very same Heat team they so easily vanquished had their own version of pace and space that they used to win back-to-back championships. But the Heat also had LeBron, whose individual brilliance overshadowed strategic innovation in the popular imagination.

Pace and space is rooted in the age-old "four-out" formula that coaches have used for generations where teams spread the floor with shooters and leave the middle of the floor open. The approach was updated by Mike D’Antoni in the 2000s whose Phoenix teams played at breakneck speed. Put them together and you have the system du jour. It’s not a panacea; simply watch teams that struggle to get into sets and pass the ball with little rhyme or reason.

But several other teams have adopted the approach with great success. Former Pop disciple Mike Budenholzer has reinvigorated the moribund Atlanta Hawks and turned journeymen into All-Stars. Out West, Golden State has transformed itself from a good, but hardly great, offense into a hyper-efficient scoring machine and made an MVP candidate out of Stephen Curry. Then there are the Celtics, who have made an unlikely run to playoff contention under coach Brad Stevens with a roster that is notably lacking in stars. The Spurs, of course, are peaking as the postseason beckons.

The regular season may have validated the system, but many are still wary of its ability to overcome pure, raw star power in the postseason. That’s especially true in the East where the Hawks and Cavaliers seem headed for a conference finals showdown that will pit Atlanta’s balanced attack against the full might of LeBron. There’s good reason for skepticism.

Championships have almost always been won by the team with the best player, or ideally players. Systems come and go with the times, but stars ultimately win. What we think of as a triumph of system over talent is more likely rooted in advantages beyond the obvious matchup.

Systems come and go with the times, but stars ultimately win.

Bill Russell’s Celtics had a wealth of options that Wilt Chamberlain’s teams could rarely match. The 2004 Pistons were far deeper than the top-heavy Lakers. Even the Spurs had a surplus of quality players over the injury-ravaged Heat once you got past LeBron.

There are several moments in league history that do stand out as victories for team-oriented systems over individual talent. The 1970 Knicks, who thrived on finding the open man, beat a Laker team that featured Wilt, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers overcame Dr. J and the star-crossed 76ers with Bill Walton commandeering a ferocious fast break that helped neutralize Philly’s halfcourt advantages. More recently, Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks schemed their way past LeBron’s Heat, and helped transition Miami away from isolation-heavy sets to yes, a pace and space system that emphasized smaller lineups.

All of those teams are revered as much for what they were about as for who they had on their rosters. Not surprisingly, the coaches -- Red Holzman and Jack Ramsey -- became as iconic figures as the players. (Carlisle may be in that company one day. He’s already viewed as one of the best tactical coaches in the game.) As David Halberstam wrote in The Breaks of the Game, his seminal ode to Ramsey’s Blazers:

"When Portland won, the phone rang off the hook in the Portland’s coaches office with congratulations from other coaches, professional and college. There were hundreds of telegrams and letters thanking the coaches and players for making it easier to coach basketball the right way."

The systems may have made the coaches, but it was still the players who made them successful. Those moments are significant, not because of their allusions to purity and unselfishness, but because they rarely happen.

The 1980s were blessed with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, each playing for supremely talented teams. The 90s had Michael Jordan and his Bulls, who monopolized the Finals. When Jordan retired for the first time there was room for Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream, incidentally, proved the best player theory as much as Jordan, considering his supporting cast. The 2000s were the era of Duncan, Kobe and Shaq, who combined to win eight of the 10 championships.

All those teams had their own systems, from the Triangle to the Showtime fast break. They were all predicated on putting their star players in the best position to succeed, but they were successful mainly because of those singular talents. Just as pace and space sputters when run by ill-fitting personnel, so too has the fabled Triangle failed miserably without superior players.

The Cavs’ revolve around LeBron, who recently revealed that he calls the plays as he has for years. While not as fast-paced as their competitors, their offense generates points at a remarkably efficient clip. The Spurs, meanwhile, are rolling at exactly the same time that Kawhi Leonard has become the focal point of their offense. The stars make the system, not the other way around.

"It’s just like with me and Manu back in the day," Tony Parker recently told the San Antonio Express-News. "You have to share and wait your turn. Sometimes I don’t see the ball for a long time, but Kawhi is playing unbelievable. And it's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it’s going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I’ll try my best to be aggressive and stay involved, but Kawhi's going to be the man."

Had he been healthy for the entire season, Leonard would be right in the thick of the Most Valuable Player race. Consider that the next time someone tries to sell you on the notion of the Spurs lacking top-10 players. Leonard’s emergence is just one of the fascinating subplots this season.

We’ve also had wide-open playoff races that will come down to the final days, a fascinating MVP debate with a new generation of stars and genuine surprises like the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are the antithesis of pace and space offensively, but they offered a glimpse of an antidote. While still in their infancy, they have assembled a position-less team filled with rangy, versatile players who can switch defensive assignments without yielding mismatches.

Through it all, pace and space has defined the 2014-15 season. The stars, however, will ultimately decide its fate.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

The MVP race has received much of the attention, but it’s hard to remember a time when every single award was closely contested like this season. Maybe that’s a testament to the sheer amount of media scrutiny, or perhaps it’s a reaction to our ever-evolving relationship with metrics that test our biases. As a reminder I don’t have a vote, so these are for amusement purposes only.

MVP: Stephen Curry, Golden State. Covered this in the Shootaround last week. This is one of great MVP races of all time. For the record: Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Anthony Davis in that order.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Steve Kerr, Golden State. The Warriors won 51 games last season with Mark Jackson and finished with the sixth seed. With largely the same cast of players, but in different roles, they led the West almost wire-to-wire. Kerr has gotten the best out of his players and his team. There have been tremendous coaching performances by Mike Budenholzer, Brad Stevens, Jason Kidd, Brett Brown and Quin Snyder to name a few. No one has had a bigger impact on his team’s success than Kerr.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota. We need to talk about the term ‘rookie’ for a moment. It’s an odd classification when it includes a player who was drafted the year before and spent a calendar year acclimating himself to the NBA before taking the court like Nerlens Noel. It also includes an international veteran who honed his game in the Euro League until he was 23 like Nikola Mirotic. Both have interesting cases, but Wiggins has been the best true rookie this season and he gets the nod here. Orlando’s Elfrid Payton is the other serious contender in a thin field. Like all rookie classes, this one will take at least three years to develop.

SIXTH MAN: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago. I considered almost a dozen players from microwaveable guards like Isaiah Thomas and Lou Williams to versatile wings like Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala and productive bigs like Chris Kaman and Tristan Thompson. I’m going with the guy who’s a mix of all three in Mirotic who has had the biggest impact on his team’s fortunes. The Bulls can play big or small with Mirotic and he changes the scoreboard favorably when he’s in the game. That’s the nature of the sixth man role in a nutshell.

MOST IMPROVED: Jimmy Butler, Chicago. The word ‘Improved’ is even more problematic than ‘Valuable.’ Does it mean getting more minutes like Rudy Gobert, or getting a bigger role like Draymond Green? You can make the argument that the toughest jump is from good player to All-Star (like Klay Thompson and Jeff Teague) or from All-Star to superstar like Anthony Davis. Jimmy Butler is a mix of all those things. He was asked to play a more significant role for the Bulls and thrived. He went from dependable starter to All-Star and if he hadn’t missed so much time down the stretch, he might have even cracked the top 10 in MVP voting. Playing 60-odd games may be a detriment in other categories, but it’s more than enough to satisfy these requirements however you define them.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Draymond Green, Golden State. Traditionally an award for big men, this has been the year of the defensive wing. Space-destroying rim-protectors will always have their place in this discussion, but today’s game is as much about the ability to play small lineups as the traditional reliance on size. We tend to think of offensive production in these configurations, but without a solid defensive presence all that shooting and space is neutralized. Green successfully guards up to bigs and down to wings, which is key to the Warriors top-ranked defense and offense. He gets the nod over Tony Allen and Kawhi Leonard because he’s played significantly more minutes.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Danny Ainge, Boston. This really shouldn’t be a year-to-year award since team building requires several layers of planning and execution. Consider this an acknowledgment of the work Ainge has done blowing up the Big Three and beginning the rebuilding process. Since the end of the 2013 season, Ainge has acquired six first round picks and a mess of second rounders, while clearing cap space and bringing in talent like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Tyler Zeller. The big payoff may takes years, or it may not even happen at all, but Ainge nailed the first step. Cleveland’s David Griffin and Houston’s Daryl Morey were both strong contenders in my view.*

*Note: This is the one award the media doesn’t vote on, but it’s fun to debate so I included it here. If executives can have a role in judging their peers, why shouldn’t the players have a say in their awards?

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Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"I got a sense of a whole lot of them I wouldn’t want to be in a fox hole with. I think they'd end up shooting me in the back. So I’ve got a pretty good sense of the guys that I think are going to be around, that we will build around, build together in this process and go through it." -- Lakers coach Byron Scott.

Reaction: Perhaps one way to engender loyalty among your troops is to refrain from calling them soft or questioning their professionalism at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, Scott walked back those comments the next day.

"I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m arrogant. I’m just confident. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an asshole. I just don’t take no shit. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m disrespectful. You’ve just got to earn my respect." -- Warriors forward Draymond Green.

Reaction: Draymond Green is the clear choice for Most Entertaining Player.

"I was never intending to sell the team. If somebody wants to send me any kind of proposal, why not? Just to have a look. But we're only speaking about minority stakes in the team." -- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Reaction: I still think Prok could be a good owner, but he needs to realize that simply spending money won’t guarantee success.

"It’s horrible. It’s ridiculous. It’s worse than high school. You’ve got 20 to 25 seconds of passing on the perimeter and then somebody goes and tries to make a play and do something stupid, and scoring's gone down. The referees couldn't manage a White Castle. Seriously, the college game is more physical than the NBA game, and the variation in how it's called from game to game [is a problem]." -- Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on the state of college basketball.

Reaction: He’s right, but until the college gatekeepers get serious about modernizing their game, Cuban is just one more voice wailing at a brick wall.

"Us making votes, you'll have people saying they're MVP, they're the best player in the league. It will never be a fair race in my opinion." -- Wizards guard John Wall on the Players Choice Awards.

Reaction: All award voting is biased to some degree. Beat writers are more familiar with the teams and conferences they cover. We have radio and TV people employed by the teams casting votes, for goodness sake. The solution seems simple: Give everyone a voice: media, players, coaches and execs. You know what would make player voting fun? Public ballots.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

"He just goes in the other direction like he’s bored to death."

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.