Saturday, March 30, 2013

Miami Heat and the Beauty of Basketball

When you have Superstars that buy in to the team concept, you get a dominating force
Do yourself a favor and watch as much of the Miami Heat team as possible.  No, this post isn’t really about the Heat 27-game win streak, or its demise to Chicago.  It is about how great this team played, and how historically efficient they have been recently.  It’s about the fact that their three best players are shooting the best field goal percentages in their respective careers. It’s about two top 5 players displaying some of the best chemistry between teammates we have ever seen.  It’s about their “3rd wheel” being insanely unselfish and accepting his role as star, and not pursuing the “Superstar” label that his talent belies.  Yes, this post is just about enjoying the beauty of the sport that Naismith created all those years ago.

You can learn a ton about offensive spacing, interior passing, and defensive rotations watching the Heat play.  When Erik Spoelstra implemented a new philosophy on offense based on the Oregon Ducksfootball offensive tenets, I was beyond skeptical.  The Heat had just come off their epic collapse against the Dallas Mavericks in which their offense (despite having three of the top 18 players in the League) primarily consisted of a high number of isos, and some drive and kick plays.  Spoelstra recognized the severe limitations of his team’s offense and decided to change it.  To Spoelstra’s credit, implementing a new scheme meant giving up some play-calling duties and allowing the players to be more instinctual.  It also meant more off-ball movement.

Moving without the ball is a fundamental part of the game.  Getting in better position to receive a pass, stretching out the defense with positioning, and balancing the floor are all goals attained through effective movement away from the ball.  Moving without the ball is also a skill that star players don’t display a ton.  Usually star players have the ball in their hands and exploit the matchup advantage every night to create for themselves and their team.  With three star players, each had to more regularly practice moving without the ball.  Now LeBron and Wade’s cuts to the basket are like cleavers to defenses around the league.

The Miami Heat Defense is suffocating and leads to turnovers and opponent frustration

Defensively, the Heat are constructed differently from almost any Championship team that I can recall (they vaguely remind me of the Bulls team that won the last two of Michael Jordan’s titles with Ron Harper, MJ, Scottie Pippen, and Rodman).  They have several players that guard multiple positions.  LeBron, Bosh, Battier, Wade, and Chris “Birdman” Anderson are all strong and laterally quick enough to guard different guys on the same possession.  That means that when teams use the Pick and Roll, the staple of every NBA team offensive set, switching is rarely a problem.  More to the point, when offenses get their defense moving and rotating (a position that every defense becomes vulnerable in) they don’t panic because all the players move well enough to close out and cut down on genuinely open looks.  Even their Bigs play perimeter players well when  they are forced to switch (HoopChalk does a MASTERFUL job of breaking down the Pickand Roll switch with big men and challenges a long held belief about the mismatch).

This post isn’t about the Heat coming up 6 games short of matching the 1971-72 Lakers’ win streak.  In reality, the fact that they won as many as they did puts them in a great historical context.  That said, even if they had broken the record and lost the NBA Championship it would be a lost season.  This is just about enjoying a well-constructed team full of Hall-of-Famers.  After the 2013-14 season the team holds early termination rights for the Big 3 and with the punitive salary cap looming, there may be time running out on watching these artists perform together. For posterity’s sake, get in front of a TV for as many of Miami’s games as you can.  I know I will.

Friday, March 22, 2013

NCAA Tournament: The Next Generation

Kelly Olynyck helps #1 seed Gonzaga fight past a game Southern University

 Another round of NCAA Basketball in the books and another reason presented why we love the sport so much.  Upsets, last-second hero shots, and raw emotion decorated the first day of the best postseason in major American sports.  The Pac 12 showed up and showed out with big wins over the higher ranked UNLV and OK St. (Cal and Oregon, respectively).  The Mountain West enjoyed receiving the most bids in conference history when it sent 5 teams to the tourney this year (or one more than the ACC’s number of bids).  Unfortunately, it’ll be a short trip for four of those teams as UNLV, Boise State, San Diego State, and New Mexico all lost in their opening round games.

Another conference showed its mettle as well, the Atlantic 10 is 4-0 so far in the tournament with wins by VCU, St. Louis, Butler, and La Salle.   But more importantly than just their collective records, the Atlantic 10 is showing the new landscape in men’s college basketball.  With many at bigger program athletes thinking that the one year in college basketball is a maximum allotment and not a minimum requirement of being NBA eligible, lower-ranked recruits at historically less accomplished programs are staying in school longer.  That added time in college allows for the less heralded players to physically and mentally mature.  In essence, you get 21 year old players playing 18 year old players, so any delta in talent can be negated by the marked age disparity.
Marquette's Vander Blue finishes the layup, and Davidson, with this Game Winning Shot
 The knock on NCAA men’s basketball is that it has been down this year, and that there is generally less talent than in year’s past.  While I agree that there is no hands-down best player as in some years past, the talent is still there.  The simple fact of the matter is that NBA execs simply have to do more work to find the talent.  Players no longer want to be the 8th man at collegiate powerhouses for years before getting significant time to display their skills and expose their games to scouts in the pros.  Instead, starting immediately at a smaller school may allow them more exposure sooner.  Indeed, read Ole Miss’ Junior Marshall Henderson’s comments regarding his own college basketball career

Moreover, look at the college landscape this year, Gonzaga (who survived a great game by HBCU Southern University in their 1st round matchup) finished the season ranked number 1; and 7 of the top 25 teams (as voted in the USA Today coaches poll) come from “Non-powerhouse” conferences.  Even in the NBA, the runaway Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, is from Weber State (I still hate you Harold “The Show” Arceneaux).
 While often said, this tournament is as wide open as it has ever been.  Not because the sport isn’t any good, but because talent has been dispersed more evenly than in previous years.  Ten teams have legitimate chances of being crowned the NCAA tournament winner.  Evenly-gifted teams in a one-and-done format will make for several shining moments, and I plan on catching every one of them.