The NBA’s most innovative teams do one of two things: They either come up with new ideas first, or they find ways to execute old ones better than anyone else.
Strategic trends develop at a breakneck pace among the league’s competitive, copycat clubs; as soon as someone comes up with en effective scheme, 29 other teams go to work on figuring out how to defeat it and add it to their own game plans.
And keep in mind that “new” doesn’t always mean “better.” In our analysis, we’ll also be looking at teams for whom trying to do something new hasn’t necessarily equated to success. Staying ahead of the curve is great, but novelty for novelty’s sake is just as damaging to teams as stale thinking is.
Innovation doesn’t just pertain to things happening on the court, either. Sure, it’s easy to notice inventive offenses and defenses, but novel uses of scouting and personnel resources count just as much. In fact, the Spurs’ terrific international scouting and the Warriors’ use of the D-League might be more valuable in some ways than Tom Thibodeau’s defensive principles.
After all, there’s no game tape to study (and copy) when it comes to those things.
Commit some of this stuff to memory so you can impress your friends later. We’re going “next level” as we delve into the NBA’s most innovative teams this season.
*All stats accurate through games played Jan. 10, 2013
Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap took over the worst team in the history of the NBA at the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA season, so it wasn’t surprising that he immediately went outside of the box to determine his initial starting lineup.
Based on a proprietary metric that focused on defensive deflections, Dunlap put together a first unit that he thought would give his team the best chance to win. Technically, the idea was a success, as the lineup featuring Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Byron Mullens and Brendan Heywood has been very good (relatively speaking) for the ‘Cats.
Only one five-man unit has had better defensive efficiency for the Bobcats this year than Dunlap’s initial group, and the only difference has been swapping Jeff Taylor for Gerald Henderson. So clearly, Dunlap was on to something.
But Dunlap’s other fresh idea hasn’t worked out so well.
His defensive schemes, which have been heavy on pressing, trapping and a whole lot of frantic action, have turned the Bobcats into the league’s worst defensive team this year, with 108.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Credit Dunlap for trying something risky to compensate for his team’s lack of talent, but the idea of playing at a pace that creates more possessions is not a good way to increase your chances of winning with a talent deficit. It just gives the superior team a greater number of opportunities to come out on top.
The Miami Heat get a lot of press for winning games with a small lineup, but considering the talent, their overall success isn’t necessarily attributable to innovation.
What the Golden State Warriors are doing is a lot more interesting.
Golden State’s most successful unit features three guards (Stephen Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson) and two undersized power forwards (David Lee and Carl Landry). In 198 minutes together, this group has scored about 119 points per 100 possessions, which is nine points better than Oklahoma City's league-best overall offense.
The unconventional lineup works because it puts five players on the floor that the defense absolutely has to cover closely. Most importantly, it allows Curry and Thompson to both play off of the ball. With two fantastic shooters screening for one another and coming off of curls, the middle of the floor opens up for Jack to penetrate and Lee and Landry to work in the paint.
It’s a ridiculously effective offensive group.
Coach Mark Jackson and his staff deserve major kudos for even trying the unit. Thanks to decades of unsuccessful small ball and no interior defensive presence, a failure with this group would have been viewed as “more of the same” in Golden State and could have cost Jackson his job.
Instead, the team’s sound defensive principles make the unit passable on D and immensely potent on offense.
It also warrants mentioning that the Warriors are using their Santa Cruz D-League affiliate so frequently that the call-up, send-down rules are almost certain to change next year. Check out how frequently Kent Bazemore and Jeremy Tyler have shuttled up and down this year.
Anytime you exploit the system, you get innovation points around here.
Yes, James, three is a magic number.
The Houston Rockets are the basketball equivalent of the Moneyball-era Oakland Athletics.
They’ve basically adopted efficiency as their primary goal, and are clearly using analytics to pursue it. Just look at the team’s shot dispersal in light of what we now know about the areas of the floor that yield the highest scoring expectancy. (All shot data via Hoopdata.com)
The Rockets have taken the fewest shots from the mid-range dead zone this season. They’re last in attempts from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet. Why? Because the long two is the least efficient shot on the court.
Conversely, Houston is second in the league in three-point attempts per game and attempts at the rim per game. Clearly, the Rockets are playing the numbers, as those two areas have the highest expected point outcomes on the court.
Math is making its way into basketball, and the smarter teams are embracing it readily. Knock the analytics movement all you want, but there’s no disputing that having more information is better than having less.
For the Rockets, innovative shot selection has allowed them to play league-average offense with one star and a host of young players and castoffs. That’s pretty impressive.
On defense, nobody has been more innovative over the past few seasons than Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls.
Thanks to a set of defensive principles that have become all the rage among good teams in the league, the Bulls coach has become something of a legend.
In short, Chicago forces every ball-handler, whether involved in the pick-and-roll or in isolation, to the baseline. That’s because there’s always a big man stationed there to cut off penetration and passing angles, effectively trapping the offensive player in the mid-corner area (via Hoopspeak.com).
The only recourse is to reverse the ball and start all over again on the other side of the court, which is tough to do when you’re essentially stymied in the corner.
It’s a simple scheme that requires precise execution and attention to detail, but the Bulls do it better than anyone. Part of the reason for that is a unique set of personnel that seems more devoted to helping and recovering than any group in the league (which you can see in the clip above).
And really, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the fact that every team now incorporates at least a few bits of Thibs’ defense should tell us all we need to know about just how innovative it truly is.
It’s hard to know where to start with the San Antonio Spurs. They’ve been a contender for 15 years precisely because they’ve been coming up with new ideas and perfecting old ones better than everyone else.
For starters, the Spurs deserve praise for their counterintuitive pace increase over the past six seasons. As the team has aged, the Spurs have played faster and faster. In 2007-08, San Antonio played at the NBA’s third-slowest pace. They walked it up, used the clock and generally created good shots. But in every season since then, they’ve climbed the NBA’s pace rankings.
Right now, they play the third-fastest brand of basketball in the league. A deep bench is one reason, but the most interesting explanation is that the Spurs have figured out that they’re simply going to be better than most teams on each individual offensive possession. So it makes sense to use as many as possible because it just adds to their overall chance of success.
Think of it like this: If you were wagering on a coin flip that you knew was going to come up “heads” more often than not, but you could only bet for an hour, you’d want to flip that sucker as many times as possible within that hour.
The Spurs have an edge and they’re exploiting it by creating as many possessions as they can.
If we were to chronicle the reasons that they have that edge, it’d take forever. Suffice it to say, the Spurs innovate more than any team in the league. They were the first team to dominate international scouting and they started taking tons of corner threes (the league’s most efficient shot) way before anyone else.
And we haven't even touched on Gregg Popovich's innovative (and very, very expensive) method of resting his stars for the long haul.
Nobody thinks outside the box like the Spurs.