Why Process Will Always Beat Improvisation in the NBA
First, let us marvel at how San Antonio constructed their game-winner against Los Angeles on Tuesday night. The sequence went ball screen, pass, cross screen, down screen, pass—ending with a Danny Green three-point attempt.
The aforementioned sequence took three seconds to unfold.
Now, perhaps the average fan would feel more comfortable with a star taking the final shot, but this execution can make a role player into a star—if only for a possession. A good NBA rule of thumb: An open shot by an average player is a better bet than a contested shot by a good player. Example: This contested shot by good NBA player, Pau Gasol:
The Spurs keep on chugging by virtue of systemic prowess, most exemplified by their humming "motion weak" offense. The attack relies on timed screens and multiple options. At this point, it looks like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can run it reflexively.
In the motion-weak set, point guard Tony Parker often hands the ball off, before looping through the opposing defense and emerging on the other side of the perimeter. When he gets the ball back, the defense has been probed, made slightly discombobulated. Not only that, but Parker often receives the pass, right as a cross screen is springing an open man.
This puts Tony at an advantage that most playmakers lack. When your average point guard initiates offense, the defense is set. When Parker initiates, he does so after the D has been shaken like a snow globe, and he does it just as someone springs open.
It doesn't end there, though. Everyone on the San Antonio offense keeps moving, keeps setting cross screens. Against most defenses, the Spurs exhibit a triumph of logical organization over talent.
This can fall apart once the playoffs start, as opposing coaches have over a week to break down and prepare for motion-weak sets. But most coaches can't prep for this whilst grinding through the NBA regular season schedule.
The same could be said (from a defensive perspective) of Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls. Despite losing a lot of defensive talent over the offseason, they remain an elite defensive unit. To see why, check out this defensive possession from last year's playoffs. (It features only players that Chicago still has.)
The skill level impresses, but so does the communication involved. Joakim Noah shows on a screen, flashing out to hound the ball-handler before quickly returning to his man.
The Bulls are sound enough defensively to handle another screen in a different fashion. When Rip Hamilton gets blocked by a pick, Taj Gibson steps up and switches out onto Rip's man (Taj has the ability to guard wings, and Chicago takes full advantage). Rip, knowing that he and Taj can switch according to scheme, seamlessly guards Taj's man.
Like the Spurs on offense, the Bulls are of one mind defensively.
It remains to be seen as to whether organization can trump talent in the playoffs. I suspect that both these clubs will meet a Waterloo in the postseason. But for now, with limited talent, the Spurs and Bulls are demonstrating the tremendous benefits of good coaching.
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