Lucy: I got a 3-pointer!
Peppermint Patty: I got a straight-line drive!
Linus: I got a pick and pop! What did you get, Defensive Coordinator Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: I got a rock. And the guard took the rock, crossed over, Eurostepped and got to the front of the rim for an and-one.
Charlie Brown: Yes, Thibs. I tried to ice the roller.
Charlie Brown: Yes, we had high hands. And we played under. And we had multiple efforts on D. But that’s Russell Westbrook. What are we supposed to do?
What are we supposed to do???
NBA fans have never had fuller stockings this holiday season.
As 2017 beckons, we are in a season, enmeshed in an era, where offensive basketball towers over the game.
There is Westbrook, mounting the first real assault on Oscar Robertson’s triple-double average season of 1962 in more than 50 years. There are the Warriors, destroying any sense of fairness with how they can decimate any opponent on any night with any combination of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson that’s boiling hottest. The Cavs steamroll opponents with a LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love combination, a whap-whap-whap as jarring as an Ali barrage.
And there are the Rockets and James Harden, who are shooting and making 3s at an astronomical rate, the vision of their general manager and the analytics-dominant front offices of NBA teams fully realized, more valuable 3-pointers going up by ever-increasing amounts over what-are-you-thinking mid-range twos.
With Harden orchestrating, Houston, which already has the league record for 3-point attempts in a season — 2,680, or 32.7 per game, set in 2014-15 — is on pace to obliterate that record. This season, the Rockets are averaging a staggering 39.3 3s a game; at that pace, Houston will shoot 3,223 3s by the end of the season. (By way of comparison, Rasheed Wallace, a harbinger of the “stretch four” just a few years ago, shot 3,228 3s in his 16-year NBA career.) The Rockets now regularly shoot 40 or 50 3s a game; no one blinks anymore.
“I talk to my friends and my teammates about it,” Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. “I swear, this is the honest to God’s truth. We don’t come in trying to be cocky. That’s not our MO. ‘Cause we respect the game of basketball and we respect every opponent we play. But it’s a lot of nights, it’s every night I go in, I feel like, we can win any game. Even when we were down 13 in the game in Minnesota (with less than three minutes left), I felt like, we can still win this. It’s the shooting ability we have. James with the ball. We finish the game with James, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, everybody shooting 38 percent (or better) on 3s . It’s kind of hard to help from anywhere, you know?”
But the Rockets aren’t an outlier, they’re the logical extension of where the game is going. Cleveland (33.4 3-pointers per game) and Brooklyn (33.3) are also on pace to break the old team record for average 3-pointers in a season. (The Warriors, whose Stephen Curry shattered his own individual record for 3-pointers in a season, with 402 last season, were tied with Boston for fourth as a team in 3s taken this season, averaging 31.3 per game entering play Sunday.) Teams aren’t just shooting more 3s; they’re making more as well, and the onslaught is bending the NBA game into a new and different shape.
Entering Sunday’s Christmas Day slate of games, the league’s teams were averaging 26.6 3-pointers attempted, which would set a record for average attempts in a season — dwarfing last season’s record of 24.1 attempted per game. The current league-wide Effective Field Goal percentage of .506 (EFG adjusts for the additional worth of 3-pointers) would be the highest in league history. The current league average of 104.4 points per game, if maintained, would be the highest in 24 years, since the league’s teams averaged 105.3 per game in 1992-93; the current league average in offensive rating — 107.5 points per 100 possessions — would be the highest in seven seasons.
For most of its history, all the way back to the league’s first dominant superstar, George Mikan, the NBA has always had transcendent offensive players. Bob Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt, the Big O; Tiny Archibald, Elvin Hayes, Rick Barry, George Gervin, John Havlicek, Alex English, Bird, Magic, Jordan and dozens more. Pro basketball has always featured people who could pass the rock and put the ball in the basket.
But it is hard to recall a year where so many players and teams have been so prolific at the same time. Westbrook’s more than a third of the way through the season; the notion he could both lead the league in scoring and match Robertson’s long-thought impossible season-long standard is no longer a theoretical discussion. And it begs the question: with the combination of offense-centric rules, the prevalence of “small ball” in the modern game and the emphasis on the space-stretching 3-pointer, is it now simply impossible to play defense?
“I would say it’s looking like it is impossible,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “Game one against us, (the Pelicans’) Anthony Davis scores 50 points. But we made sure nobody else got off. I don’t know how you guard Russell Westbrook. With the rules and the respect he gets from the officials, it’s almost impossible to guard guys.”
Rare today is the NBA team that doesn’t have a dynamic point guard, capable of breaking down just about any defense a coach can concoct with a screen or a bit of misdirection. Tick off the names: Westbrook, Harden, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Irving, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Jr., Dennis Schroeder, Curry, Tony Parker, Reggie Jackson, Derrick Rose, George Hill, Eric Bledsoe, and on and on.
Now, Milwaukee’s giving the ball to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s 22, seven feet tall, ridiculously long and practically impossible to keep from getting where he wants to go on a court. If the Greek Freak is the future of offensive basketball in the NBA, with the next iteration a 7-footer who can handle like him but shoot like Dirk Nowitzki … Well, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could devise an effective defense for anything.
“Probably the only thing that gets tougher (with age) is chasing around the guards,” Paul said. “The toughest position in the NBA night in and night out is the point guard position. Every night you look at the board, coach is pretty much going to say, their team goes as such and such goes. So that’s the toughest part, and that’s probably the funnest part, because that’s competition … My college coach Skip Prosser used to always say it’s a team game played by individuals. So you’ve got to do your part.”
There are those who will be fine with an NBA game where there is next to no defense played. Who doesn’t like to see a scoreboard go up and up and up, with only the clock an artificial barrier on how high it can go? It is the same reason we love game shows and we watched the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons for years and years. How high can it go? Who wants to be the Grinch and get in the way of that?
How do I look in green?
“They took out the hand check years ago, and now they’re taking away everything else,” Clippers forward Alan Anderson said. “You’ve just got to try to make it as difficult as possible without making it look like you’re touching somebody. It’s difficult with the Westbrooks and guys like that that attack so much and so often. It’s impossible to stop anybody, but you try to make them feel you without them feeling you — because if they feel you, it’s a foul.”
The NBA’s modern rules changes, instituted beginning in the early 90s to increase flow and movement, have made today’s game a guard’s game. There are just more relatively diminutive human beings who can dribble and create space for themselves at the top of the key than there are 7-footers who can dominate games in the low post. For a time, at the start of the 2000s, that made driving guards all the rage, with talents like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady and Chauncey Billups, freed up to attack defenses from all angles, in ascendancy.
But the game has shifted in the last decade. The overwhelming prevalence of analytics in the modern game, with its emphasis on the superior value of 3s, ushered in small ball and greater spacing — the better spacing you have, the harder it is for defenses to react and get to the next open shooter. And there is almost always an open shooter on the floor these days.
“The thing that’s really opened up is the number of 3s people take,” Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy said. “If you go back, we’re shooting about 20, 21 3s a game, and we’re maybe 28th in the league in attempts. And I think when you go back to when I was in Orlando, we were shooting about that many, and we were in the top two or three in the league. So it’s changed a great deal. And with the floor spread out, any time you’ve got to cover more ground, it gets a lot tougher.”
And it’s getting worse. To stay relevant in a pace and space game, more and more big men are adding the long ball to their skill bag.
Memphis’s Marc Gasol shot 66 total 3s in his first eight NBA seasons, totaling 569 games. He’s shot 107 3s in 30 games this season. Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez shot 31 total 3s in his first eight seasons with the Nets (487 games). He’s shot 139 3s in 26 games this season. Ditto DeMarcus Cousins (69 3s his first five seasons; 347 3s his last season-plus). The floor is now stretched beyond the point where help defense really means much of anything anymore.
“People don’t necessarily have to go real small to do it anymore,” Van Gundy said. “If you’re switching and things like that, you have guys who can take you down into the post, but can still shoot the three. So it makes it very, very difficult. You’ve got to be really locked in defensively.”
The dominance of screen and roll basketball also creates the opportunity for screeners to be, shall we say, less than vigilant on occasion in setting legal screens. The league defines a legal screen as “when an offensive player gets to a legal position on the court in the path of a defender for the purpose of slowing down the defender or making him change directions…
“When picking a stationary player from the backside, you must give that player a step. When picking a stationary player from the front or side, a player can go right next to him as long as he does not make illegal contact. If the opponent is moving, you must get to your position and give him an opportunity to stop and/or change direction. The speed of the player will determine the distance. You cannot just jump in front of a moving opponent at the last second.”
So this is a legal screen. But this is an illegal screen.
But, what about this first one by Al Horford? Or this one by Cody Zeller? Sticking one’s rear end into an oncoming defender is not especially legal, yet more and more players try it.
Or, as Anderson puts it: “I ain’t never heard of no ass screen.”
Beverley, one of the league’s top individual defenders, has a unique view: he plies his craft as an on-ball irritant to opponents while watching the psychic and scoreboard damage his team inflicts on those same opponents every night by raining 3s on their collective beans.
“It’s extremely hard,” Beverley said. “The game is changing, of course, with no hand checking, with that rule being out. It makes it difficult. But a player like me, I have to depend on my IQ, watch a lot of film, about plays, where you have to be position wise, know what type of guys you’re guarding, guys who are kind of struggling a little bit with the shooting ability, guys who want to attack.”
And Beverley is aware of the team he’s playing, also.
“When you’re playing a good team, not too many point guards want to go one on one,” he said. “When you’re playing a not-so-good team, teams that are fighting to make the playoffs, guys are going to want to try and get their own. It’s just a different read of each team. I have a different mindset when I play a team like Phoenix as opposed to a team like San Antonio. I know Tony Parker is going to come in and try to run the sets. And, no offense to anyone in Phoenix, but I know the guards are going to come in with more of an attacking mindset. It’s just an adjustment and just being ready every game. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Beverley bulked up prior to last season, thinking he needed to be stronger to handle the likes of Rose and Westbrook as he got older. But he found that didn’t work for him, not in this era. So he got with his trainer and lost 17 pounds this past summer to be better prepared for the season-long chasing he has to do against the league’s elite point guards.
“I feel like I’m moving better than ever,” Beverley said. “I feel like it (provides) more longevity for me, like back-to-backs, Game 58, Game 69. It helps stuff like that. Maybe last year I was able to defend at a high level for, I don’t know, 28 minutes. Maybe this year, it’s 33. But those extra four or five minutes, they all count if you add them up for the whole season, you have the type of defensive game that I want to play at a high level every game.”
Beverley, of course, will be forever tied to Westbrook because of the 2013 postseason, when Beverley’s aggressive lunge at Westbrook as the latter was pulling up to call a timeout in Game 3 of the Thunder-Rockets series led to Beverley’s hip jarring Westbrook’s right knee, tearing the meniscus in that knee and sidelining Westbrook for the playoffs. Both have moved on, and a healthy Westbrook is now every defender’s worst nightmare.
“With a player like that, you just prepare for the best, hope for the worst,” Beverley said. “He’s at a different level. It’s more of a containment, try to contest type of game with Russ. Just try to contain him, try to contain him getting into the paint, try to contest everything he puts up. If he hits some of the tough ones, he does; if he don’t, it’s just one of those nights. It’s more of a contain and contest. It’s like that more of that with the star players…If I can get them to shoot contested threes, we’ll take that. I have the mindset of a coach. I have to think, what would a coach think? How would a coach feel if I’m playing a guy a certain way? If a guy hits seven contested threes, tip your hat off to him. Good game. But in most of the cases, that won’t happen.”
There are teams, though, that still have some defensive success. They are the toughest mentally, not letting a couple of baskets sway them from what they want to do. They tend to eschew offensive rebounding to assure they get back and eliminate most transition attacks. They concede the perimeter two in order to make sure they don’t give up corner 3s. And they still manage to protect the front of the rim.
It helps if you have an historically gifted superstar who never gives up on a play, especially in Game 7, or if you have an elite multi-dimensional, two-way wing who can guard almost every position on the floor and put the league’s best scorers on his own private island. But teams are even finding ways to attack that with some success.
“If you look at the successful defensive teams, the higher-ranked defensive teams, it’s the same as it’s always been — they don’t give up many layups,” Van Gundy said. “They protect the paint pretty well. You’ve got to be able to defend the 3-point line, but if you’re giving up layups, you’re going to struggle. If it was just as easy as ‘go out and play the line,’ you’d spread out and play everybody one-on-one. But then you’re going to give up layups, and layups are still a higher percentage shot, even by the true shooting percentage, than 3s are. Being able to do both is the hard part.”
It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great. I think I heard that somewhere.
In the meantime, get in your stance. Westbrook has the ball. Again. And he’s still mad.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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