Gimmick Became Gospel: How Two Tweaks Shaped the Modern NBA
The dominant narrative of the modern NBA is the idea of “small ball.” Pace and space. Three-and-D. Stretch fours. Stretch fives. Switch-ability. Rim runners and rim protectors. It’s how we talk about the construction of teams, and it’s how we evaluate young players and their ability to survive in the modern NBA.
But how did we get here? What caused the change? Is the NBA really smaller? Has basketball suffered? What did Bill Murray whisper to Scarlett Johannsen at the end of Lost in Translation? Why didn’t Lost ever explain Walt’s powers?
Let’s figure it out.
LIKE PRUNING THE BONSAI
Before illegal defense was eliminated, two seismic events pushed basketball to become what it is today: the implementation of the shot clock, which established minimum pace, the three-point line, which created space. The trajectory of hoops is spelled out right there, in two rule changes.
The 24-second shot clock was adopted in 1954 largely to increase the speed of the game — and it did. More possessions equals more opportunities for stars to shine, and stars shining means expansion of the product. But it was also because teams at a disadvantage (which at the time meant “teams that don’t have George Mikan”) were attempting to slow the game to a halt by holding the ball.
Basically teams were saying ‘we can’t beat you at basketball, so we’re going to employ the strategy of… NOT PLAYING BASKETBALL.’ It's like trying to win an argument by not participating.
The attempts to negate the power of the dominant big man were thwarted, and these smaller teams were forced to deal with behemoths. But then it happened: the three-point line came to the ever-experimenting ABA in 1967, where it was pushed by George Mikan of all people.
Ten years later, the three would come to the NBA for the first time in the 1979-80 season, the same year that saw two transcendent figures enter the league. Pace — and space — were officially in place. That rhyme was free.
WHEN NECESSITY MEETS GENIUS
Radical ideas typically live to the left of every part of culture. On the whole, people are often stubborn about change until they see definitively that the truth shall set them free, and sometimes not even then. [Clip of Kyrie and flat Earth bullshit.]
You see it in music all the time. Hip hop artists, bands, producers: wild, imaginative ideas are often slow to catch on. Scoffed at. Enjoyed by a niche few, early on. [Tom Waits doing something ridiculous.] Sometimes the pioneers get forgotten once their idea has fully crystallized. They're borrowed from. Copied. And then someone comes along and melds all the innovation in one fully-realized bit of genius. The ideas slowly catch on, and then the novel can become the norm.
In some ways, the institution of the three-point line and the shot clock were like the invention of the 808 or the first sampling machines: it gave everyone the opportunity to create.
The three was not widely embraced strategically in the 80s and 90s. Take into account also that this was thrust on a generation of players that had not been accustomed to shooting from that distance. It took until 1995 for the league-wide three-point percentage to break 35%, and for the first five years that the line was in place, the percentages hovered in the 20s. People thought it was a waste of time to focus on three.
In 1989, Don Nelson’s legendary Run TMC Warriors teams were more an experimentation in the philosophy of lineups. They led the league in pace of play and were in the top five in attempted and made threes per game. Nelson always says that he chose that style of play to “get the best players on the floor.” If you think about it, the idea of getting your best players on the floor seems so glaringly obvious that it’s a wonder that it was ever ignored.
If he’d had strengths at the traditional positions, who knows if this would’ve been his strategy, but necessity bred innovation. If convention calls for you to be at a disadvantage, you obviously buck convention and get creative.
That’s exactly what Rick Pitino did at Providence in the late 80s. I know, I know: it’s uncool to give Pitino credit these days. He’s become a whipping boy in the basketball world and you could argue that he’s made it hard for himself with... a few moments, but eventually I hope that he gets his due as an innovator.
Even though he’d go on to have extremely talented teams, that 1987 Providence team and his early Kentucky teams relied heavily on the three point shot (and full court pressure defense) to hide weaknesses and exploit a simple universal truth that was always staring us in the eyes: 3 is greater than 2.
From Stu Jackson, a former Pitino assistant at Providence: He said, listen, with this team, if we take X amount of 3-point shots and shoot 33 percent, it’s better than taking X amount of [2-point] shots and shooting 40 percent. We were all sort of scratching our heads, but he was right. [From the Ringer NBA Show.]
NOT SUCH A SMALL WORLD, AFTER ALL
Since 1970, the number of players drafted in the first round who are 6’10” or taller has gradually increased. In the late 90s and early 2000s it spiked, which can likely be attributed to one person:
In a lot of ways, the isolation era overstayed its welcome by about ten years. It's a big reason why D'Antoni's Suns teams made such a splash. The post-Jordan era saw a league full of underprepared players (a result of the high schooler boom spurred by Kobe, LeBron, Garnett and McGrady), and a glut of huge players who were under-skilled and added to the pile of guys intended to battle Shaq and Time Duncan. Assist rates were also at an all-time low.
Really, “small ball” is more a convenient tagline than reality. For a few highly unique teams — sure. But league-wide, “skill ball” is a lot more like it. The goal isn't to get smaller players on the floor, it's to get skilled and versatile players on the floor, because the more the space of the floor is embraced, the more pivotal versatility becomes.
Each of the last nine NBA seasons ranks in the top 15 of lowest turnover seasons, league-wide. That's skill. This decade has given us nine of the top 10 seasons lowest totals in personal fouls. That's space.
Still, the all-time records for players 6’10” or taller drafted in the first round was broken in 2016, and nearly broken again in 2017, and the league average for height has been 6’7” since 1983.
The league is not necessarily smaller. It’s more skilled. Big players aren’t going away — slow and unskilled players that lack versatility are going away.
THE HOOPS HORIZON
Generational circumstances matter, when you're projecting the future of basketball. Kids in the 70s didn’t grow up shooting threes, so the three was wildly more inefficient then. In the 80s and 90s, guys over 6’10” were likely greeted with a firm ‘GET YOUR ASS ON THE BLOCK,” and spending less time developing ball skills or a face-up game.
Also, and this is just my theory: skills development is more discussed and publicly assimilated than ever before, and we’re seeing the results. Drew Hanlen is super famous now. When has that happened before? Even high schoolers don’t just “go play pickup” or “work on their driveways with a shovel” in the offseason anymore. They train — incessantly, and with highly focused goals that are driven by data. The league will get faster and faster, and bigger players will get more and more skilled.
Stylistically, there's not a clear answer as to how you can zig in a world where the Warriors are zagging so far from the pack that they can't be overcome. Especially when they've got five All-NBA players on their roster. Imitation is likely not the answer, because you can't imitate having arguably the two best shooters of all time on one roster. This iteration of the NBA just might not be equipped to do that during their reign.
Those early Rick Pitino and Don Nelson teams were biting at the status quo. Even if they found some success, they weren't the best teams, so they were considered an anomaly or a novelty. It's a copycat league and the Warriors are the best team in basketball, so they're going to likely shape the next 10 years of basketball.
If you’re trying to project just where the NBA is headed in the future, there’s one direction you can guarantee it won’t go: backwards.