The Most Popular New Play in Today's NBA

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The Most Popular New Play in Today's NBA
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With back-to-the-basket offensive big men increasingly rare and teams willing to run sets catered to that type of offense even rarer, it's hardly any wonder that the most popular plays in the NBA right now hinge on a center operating from above the free-throw line facing the hoop.

It's even less of a surprise that Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni is credited with creating or popularizing them.

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The play that has gained considerable popularity since last season is most widely known as "Delay," as in delayed fast break, which is what precedes it. With players quicker and longer in wingspan and height, and with heightened technology that allows more concise defensive planning, NBA teams are looking, more than ever, to score before opponents get their half-court defense fully set.

Plato—he of the "necessity is the mother of invention" line—would've appreciated the genesis of Delay because D'Antoni was inspired by more than simply the advances in modern defense. Thanks to injuries and trades, D'Antoni's 2008-09 New York Knicks' team was left with 6'9", 249-pound David Lee—he of the career 0.4 blocked shots average—as its center. Despite being able to use either hand equally well around the basket, Lee had his shot blocked a league-high 101 times that season.

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That total would've been even higher if not for D'Antoni's ingenuity. The height-challenged coach employed the "Seven Seconds or Less" up-tempo attack he had utilized so well during his Phoenix days. On those occasions when a shot wasn't hoisted in transition within seven seconds of possession, he instructed the squad to go immediately into a half-court set that consisted of getting the ball to the trailing big man—most often Lee—at the top of the key.

The point guard and small forward then tried to spring each other on the right side of the floor while the shooting guard and power forward did the same on the left side. The center operated essentially as the playmaker, with the key shift being that the opposing center was forced to step away from the basket to defend him, thereby opening driving lanes and air space.

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"It's a different feeling for a 5 man to be guarding the ball that far from the basket and then have to hedge or get into a pick-and-roll," Lee said. "It's just a way for a team that has shooters to get them open looks or a chance to get to the rim."

The Warriors used Delay extensively last season—with Lee filling in at center once more, this time for Andrew Bogut—and they've continued to employ it with Bogut healthy, because he's an equally good passer and ball-handler despite being a 7-footer.

The Miami Heat also made it a staple of their offense during the Finals with Chris Bosh as their center, thereby pulling the Spurs' defensive backbone, Tim Duncan, out to the free-throw line. Bosh had limited success playing with his back to the basket down low, but up top, he could utilize his superior jump-shooting and save his strength for trying to defend Duncan at the other end.

Find a team with an undersized center and decent ball-handing, and chances are his team has Delay among its post-break options.

The other play that practically every team has in its playbook this season is a half-court set "Pistol or 21," which relies on a scoring point guard adept at using screens. D'Antoni and Steve Nash created myriad plays from a combination of screens set by the center and shooting guard for Nash on the right wing. Nash could then do everything from slip to the right corner for a give-and-go three or heave a crosscourt pass to the far corner or dribble-drive into the paint for a shot or kick-out pass.

D'Antoni, for his part, takes neither umbrage nor gratification that his offensive concepts have become so fashionable.

"It's OK; we all steal from everybody," he said. "I don't get any satisfaction from it. Unless, of course, it works."

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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