NBA fans love to live in a best-case scenario world. A world where if everything goes their team’s way, that means their team will win the championship.
Here’s the thing though, titles aren’t won in best-case scenarios.
The teams with one great pitch time and again fall short in the playoffs because over the course of four rounds of seven-game series, eventually, somebody is going to figure you out. Teams are too well-coached and too talented nowadays to rely on one single way to play to win a title.
What exactly do I mean by this?
Well, take the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks of recent years as examples. Both teams have been varying levels of dominant in the regular season, built around one superstar’s greatness and filled with a series of role players with very specific jobs.
Giannis and Harden’s talents have in some ways become detriments to their respective teams though.
To maximize each guy, they’ve been surrounded by these shooters who create space for them to operate. In a one-game, regular season style format that’s damn hard to deal with because there are so many advantages on the floor for them going on from the spacing.
As a series unfolds though, it extends the likelihood of exposing one’s weakness and when a vast majority of your rotation is full of one-dimensional players, you can see how that’s an issue. Sure they may have the best-case scenario 55 per cent from three-night but they may also have one where they miss 27 straight looks (sorry Houston fans).
Regardless of how you look at it, this style of team building is incredibly beholden to a series of role players. For 90% of this league at minimum, the way you’re perceived is largely for a good reason. So if you’re a $35 million a year star we know why and the same goes for a $10 million a year role player.
In the case of role players, that reputation often comes from having some downfall to their game that keeps them from the top and Milwaukee and Houston are essentially relying on those guys to win them a title. Sure in some ways it’s up to Giannis and Harden but this is a team game first and foremost and the more iterations that team can play, the better.
Take this season’s champion, the Lakers.
They had games where Anthony Davis started at centre, either Dwight Howard or Javale McGee started at centre and played a lot of minutes with Markieff Morris at centre as well. The Lakers could go big with Davis and Howard or McGee or they could go small with just Davis and LeBron.
No matter the style of the fight, they had some type of answer and that’s really the secret to winning a title.
As the saying goes, styles make fights and the more styles you have in your bag, the more fights you can win. Going back to Milwaukee and Houston, their one-dimensional reliance on math, role-players and individual stars is just not a winning combination.
We’ve seen time and again how these single pitch regular-season juggernauts become mortal in the playoffs when everyone knows your stuff. Giannis may be great but if I know that to stop his team I have to slow the game down, keep him from the paint and force his teammates to beat us eventually you’re going to run into a team that can do it.
Now I’m not saying a weak Orlando team can but all of a sudden when you face a well-coached Heat team this year or Raptors team last year with the right personnel, all of a sudden they have the style to match your fight.
So the question becomes, how do you avoid being one-dimensional?
The answer to this is part of what makes this sport so fun. In the Lakers case, their overwhelming options of size and ridiculous higher-end talent was obviously the difference-maker. However, when you look at the Warriors dynasty and the 2019 Raptors, they were different due to the number of shot creators they had.
Instead of having those role players whose holes in their game are they can’t create like the Bucks and Rockets, Golden State and Toronto had to varying degrees a plethora of guys who could make you pay on a poor rotation from ball movement. Now obviously there’s a difference between the ball swinging to Steph Curry on a bad rotation and Fred VanVleet but the point remains, those teams showed the unique ability they could offer with their shot creation.
Houston on the other hand this year would swing the ball outside of Harden’s possession and be beholden to either a great Russell Westbrook decision or someone like Jeff Green or PJ Tucker making a play. Now sometimes they obviously can as NBA talents but the reality is over the course of a series, those guys just aren’t going to have it enough times to beat a great opponent.
The regular season has in many ways become a funhouse mirror from the truth. Throughout NBA history from the 90’s Jazz to the seven seconds or less Suns to the 90’s Knicks to modern times Bucks and Rockets, these teams that are built for January and February get exposed in May or June (if they even get to June).
This league is about having as many ways not to lose as it is one great way to win. Sure the Lakers, Heat, Nuggets and Celtics this season may not have had the prowess in the normal calendar Houston and Milwaukee did but those teams had multiple clubs in their bag. When things got tough for them, their caddie had options to give them in the rough.
Meanwhile, the Bucks and Rockets were stuck in a US Open style rough with only a driver, a single iron and putter to their disposal. They looked great on the holes where they stayed on the fairway but to win that major, those pesky USGA employees won’t let it be that easy.
It takes a little diversity to your approach for when things get hard. To win in any sport it’s not the person or team that thrives at the best of times.
We’ve seen it too often now to deny the fact it’s the one who has the answer for the worst-case that comes out on top.