The Weekside: Spoiler alert – the NBA has always been about space

Credit: FanSided
Credit: FanSided /

This season, Steph Curry broke the all-time record by making 402 shots from 3-point range. Klay Thompson was second in the league with 276 — the most anyone other than Steph has ever made in a season.

In the Western Conference finals, Steph Curry set an all-time record for 3s in a playoff series with 32. He broke a mark held by Ray Allen (who once hit 28 in a series). Klay broke that same record in that same series by making 30 triples against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including an all-time record of 11 makes from deep in Game 6.

It now goes without saying: The Warriors are the most 3-point-happy team in the most 3-point-happy era in the NBA’s history.

But when you have Steph and Klay, why not? Even LeBron James says the Warriors have the two best shooters in the league — maybe ever — on their team.

So what is an opponent to do?

For the Cavaliers, they will try to beat fire with fire.

With 14.4 made 3s per game, the Cavs have actually been more prolific from behind the arc this postseason than even Golden State, which has hit 12.5 per night. And they are not just shooting more — but better. Cleveland has hit 43.4% from deep in the playoffs, significantly better than the Warriors’ 40.3% rate.

3-point shooting is what will likely decide the NBA Finals. It sounds too simple — and it is — but I would put my money on whichever team hits more shots from deep during the Finals.

For many, this is sad.

They see the reliance on the 3-point shot today as a faulty approach to basketball. When men were men, they battled in the paint and scored with good ol’ fashioned 2-point jumpers from 15 feet. They had the fundamentals to hit shots from anywhere and use an array of post moves to outfox their defender near the hoop.

That’s all well and good, but it ignores the fact that, really, the NBA has always been about one thing and one thing only: space.

What Was Old Is New Again

We use the phrase “pace-and-space” to describe the league’s current trend of playing faster and shooting from further away. But every good offense of all time deserves some sort of “space” definition. Most of them wouldn’t rhyme. Triangle and Space, Showtime and Space, Give It To Kareem and Space. They just aren’t quite as catchy.

But getting open shots — taking your attempts in space — is the whole point of an offense.

While players like Michael Jordan and, especially, Kobe Bryant have made a name by hitting tough shots, that was never their goal. Nor were they particularly good at it in comparison to an average player taking an open shot.

People forget now, but, until he started winning championships, MJ was widely viewed as a chucker who didn’t involve his teammates. It was a stupid perspective, of course. Mike was the best player the world had ever seen before the rings piled up and people starting calling him the GOAT.

But there is a reason that forgoing a late-game attempt to pass to an open John Paxson for a game-winning shot in the Finals is one of the signature moments of his career. It was a sign (even if apocryphal) that he had adjusted and learned how to apply his individual greatness into a team sport.

Mike’s best attribute, however, was his ability to go by everybody off the dribble and get to the rim. And near the hoop, he could jump over or around everyone with a mid-air grace that allowed him to elude shot-blockers. He did it in a manner the sport had never seen — and hasn’t seen since. In his own, unique, unmatchable way, he was able to create “space” at the rim.

When he returned to the NBA after a stint in baseball, without the same springy bounce and peerless explosiveness, he found a new way to make space. He developed the most unblockable shot the game has seen outside of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook. Jordan’s fadeaway could not be guarded. His counter moves — step-throughs, up-and-unders, and reverse pivots galore — were so great that it meant the best tactic was hoping he missed the fadeaway rather than overplaying it and giving up a layup on a counter.

When he turned and faded backwards, with timing and leaping ability that no defender could match, he was getting an open shot. With a new tactic, he learned to create the space he needed to score.

Space of the Giants

Michael Jordan may actually be underrated. Before him, this didn’t happen. Guards were unable to create open shots for themselves. At least not often enough that putting the ball in their hands and saying “score” was a worthwhile strategy. Little men had no space in a land of giants. Only Mike was able to regularly out-duel 7-footers in the air. Only Mike was able to craft an indefensible post move despite being 6’6″.

He revolutionized the game. Because before Jordan, “space” meant tall.

Perimeter players winning the NBA MVP has now become the norm. Kevin Garnett, in 2003-04, is actually the last true big man to win, assuming you consider Dirk Nowitzki more of an outside-in player.

But before Jordan? It was an award for tall guys. Until Jordan won his first MVP in 1988, the only players under 6’9″ to ever win were Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving. Magic and Larry Bird had introduced the notion that non post-players could win. But they were both giants themselves, anomalies at their size who could pass and shoot like nothing the game had seen.

But this was all new. Before that, from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s, centers won 23 of the first 25 MVPs.

Why? Because the best players in the NBA were largely the largest players. It isn’t complex: The tallest players were the best players because being tall means you can more easily take an open shot that others cannot contest. Because you’re tall.

Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Adbul-Jabbar ruled the game. Because they were the most talented and the tallest.

That advantage no longer exists to the degree it once did. First of all, that’s because the game expanded beyond the United States. The league is now uncovering all the best, biggest humans on earth, not just those found within America’s borders. There is a Darwinian aspect to it all. Guys like Greg Kite and Joe Klein — the so-called 7-foot “stiffs” who were tall but could do little else — no longer make the NBA. Almost every team used to have such players in their rotation. Now they aren’t even in the league.

So along with having more goliaths, the league has different goliaths. Almost all big men today can jump high, adjust on the floor as a guard attacks, and block shots. So there is less room around the hoop no matter how crafty you are with the ball.

This should take nothing away from old legends, but there is no debating that David Robinson benefitted from not seeing super-athletes of hulking size like DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert when he attacked the rim. He was taller and more athletic than almost everyone in the league and that made exploiting those factors advantageous.

Wilt, Kareem, Patrick Ewing and all the great centers had plenty of other advantages. They were uber-skilled and outright undealwithable in so many ways. Their combination of size and skill meant there was nobody big enough to stop them.

That has changed to some degree. When even players as small as Dwyane Wade can come over from the weakside and routinely block centers, simply having a few extra inches on the competition isn’t as helpful as it once was. Again, that isn’t to take anything away from players of the past. They were incredibly talented and dominant.

But being tall just used to be more helpful than it is now, especially considering rule changes that make double-teaming and playing help defense easier.

Space: The Only Frontier

The importance of height has been further diminished by the advent of length. The genetic space advantages created by tallness matter less when everyone has a standing reach into the clouds. Anyone can block anyone’s shot.

And this isn’t only an around-the-rim issue. With the likes of the infinity-armed Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo playing on the perimeter, there is simply no room left to operate in the midrange.

The midrange fadeaway and the pull-up jumper off the drive are just harder to do now. There isn’t as much space available when you have to not only get by your own defender but worry about a gauntlet of other arms and legs all throughout the half-court.

The midrange is disappearing. But that isn’t because there has been decay of fundamentals. It’s because there has been a increase of length.

There is an obvious solution to confront this new challenge: go behind the arc, where the space is.

If you want to sum up what the Warriors and Cavs do, that is the easiest way to do it. They take shots from far away because it is easier to create open shots from far away.

When the basket is always guarded by uber-athletes and when the midrange is too crowded, why not just go back farther?

In the 2016 NBA Finals, the Steph vs. LeBron matchup of superstars will naturally get — and deserve — the most attention. If one of them drastically exceeds expectations while the other struggles, that could decide the series. The surrounding casts are not exactly equal (Golden State has a bit of an edge), but they aren’t that far off either.

But my guess is the title will come down to shooting.

Because the modern NBA is all about space.

Just like the NBA always has been.

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1. Why does Charles Barkley hate the Warriors so much?
by Jared Stearne, Golden State of Mind

It’s not that some basketball guys hate the Warriors. It’s that they can’t comprehend a shocking new reality. The pillars they’ve reliably held onto for their entire lives were not just broken — they were shattered, repeatedly, in increasingly loud fashion. The Suns, Spurs and Mavericks shattered an entire paradigm, old as basketball itself. The Warriors? They just dropped a nuke on the broken remains.

2. Everything you need to know about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency
by Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated

With the cap set to rise again next season, the possibility of Durant signing a one-year deal with a player option for a second has become a popular prediction. Durant can remain with the team and delay any major decisions another year, when Westbrook will also be a free agent. If Durant decides in July to commit financially for the long-term (he’s eligible for a max extension worth around $150 million), Westbrook could still leave next summer and alter the makeup of the team.

3. LeBron gives Steph Curry and Klay Thompson high praise before Finals matchup
by Jovan Buha, Fox Sports

“They shoot the ball extremely well,” James said. “Klay and Steph are probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen. Obviously in today’s game they are. Some of the shots, there’s nothing you can do about it. Better offense beats great defense any day. That’s just always been a saying in basketball. So you have to be able to do other things to stop them. But it’s hard to contain them. We all know that. The whole league knows that.”

4. Techies Are Trying to Turn the NBA Into the World’s Biggest Sports League
by Mark McLusky, Wired

More than that, these tech-enabled owners have helped turn the NBA into North America’s most forward-thinking sports league. Other leagues struggle with aging fans and restrictive views on intellectual property; the NBA has the youngest TV audience of any US league and lets its content flow through the wilds of the Internet. While the other US leagues struggle to build international interest in their games, the NBA has leveraged social media and new technology to build a huge global following

5. The NBA that will be and the one that never was
by David Roth, Vice Sports

The rock fight in the Eastern Conference semifinals between Toronto and Miami notwithstanding, the NBA is in a very good place right now; the fun is in watching the game change. Curry is making shots that no one even dared take five or ten years ago. LeBron James is still a basketball player unlike any other that’s come before him. Come to think of it, finding analogues for Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant is difficult, too. The San Antonio Spurs refined team basketball into something more reasonable and rhythmic than any vision in memory, and then the Oklahoma City Thunder set it on fire. Even the league’s relatively minor stars are miracles of self-belief in action.