NBA

The Radical Thinkers Revolutionizing the NBA

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 4, 2013

The Radical Thinkers Revolutionizing the NBA

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The fallout between Jason Kidd and Lawrence Frank isn't just a hot topic in the NBA news cycle; it's also a reminder that trying new things (like hiring an untested new coach and pairing him with an experienced, no-nonsense assistant) can lead to disaster.

    Fresh thinking is tricky. It requires a willingness to take risks, to trust numbers and to embrace the possibility of failure.

    But when new ideas work out, it's a beautiful thing.

    The NBA is full of forward-thinking coaches and executives who are implementing revolutionary ideas all the time. Talent evaluation, lineup construction and positional designations aren't static models; they're malleable, dynamic concepts.

    As the NBA moves forward at an ever-accelerating pace, a few great minds are shunning the conventional modes in favor of outside-the-box thinking.

Sam Hinkie Spreads the Daryl Morey Gospel

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    When Sam Hinkie took over basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers, nobody expected instant success. Philly was rebuilding, and Hinkie, late of the forward-thinking Houston Rockets, was supposed to take only the first tiny steps toward constructing a respectable franchise.

    He did a hell of a lot more than that.

    It started with a stylistic overhaul that embraced analytical offense. The Sixers have essentially stopped shooting mid-range jumpers, and the results have been positive.

    Per Tom Sunnergren of ESPN:

    When asked how conscious the decision to move away from the midrange game was, Hinkie was blunt. “Conscious,” he said with a smirk. “I don’t have a good scale for degrees of consciousness, but it’s something our coaches have focused on.”

    In addition, Hinkie swapped out Jrue Holiday and drafted Michael Carter-Williams. At the time, he took heat for giving up an All-Star point guard, only to replace him with a shaky prospect. But the numbers favored MCW and frowned on Holiday, so Hinkie made the move, per Sunnergren.

    It's worked out pretty well.

    Doug Collins, the Sixers' former coach and symbol of old-school ideas, used to wax on about making decisions with his gut. It turns out the brain is a little more useful.

Frank Vogel Is a Dual Threat

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    Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

    Everyone lauds Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel for his brilliant defensive scheming. Rightly so.

    Really, though, he's just taking the principles popularized by Tom Thibodeau and pairing them with elite personnel. Funny how having Roy Hibbert and Paul George makes a good defense great, huh?

    Vogel is doing more than presiding over the league's best defense this season. He's also embracing an innovative offensive strategy that has all but eliminated the point guard position from the Pacers' offense.

    George Hill is still the de facto starter, but both George and Lance Stephenson have enjoyed spikes in ball-handling responsibilities. As a result, they all share facilitation duties in a way that makes opposing defenses play in uncomfortable positions. When three different players can initiate the pick-and-roll, it makes for unpredictable points of attack.

    And unpredictability is a very good thing.

    Stephenson, in particular, has taken on a completely new role. His assist percentage has jumped from 15 percent in 2012-13 to over 24 percent this year, per NBA.com. George's numbers aren't quite that dramatic, but he has also taken on a much larger share of set-up duties.

    The experience of managing the offense all year will make each of Indy's ball-handlers more comfortable in late-game postseason situations.

    I guess if you wanted to be critical, you could point out that the Chicago Bulls did this in the late '90s with Ron Harper, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

    Anyone remember how the no-point-guard strategy work out for those guys?

Gregg Popovich Keeps Trimming

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    Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    No fewer than 11 San Antonio Spurs are averaging more than 12 minutes per game this year, a symptom of head coach Gregg Popovich's ongoing effort to shave every last unnecessary minute off of his starters' playing time totals.

    Tim Duncan is logging less court time than he has in any year of his career. Tony Parker is playing just 31.1 minutes, the second lowest total since his rookie year. Even Kawhi Leonard is playing almost four fewer minutes than he did a year ago.

    It used to be that Pop tried to save his aging stars for the stretch run, but now he's even reducing the strain on his young guns.

    No other coach is quite so judicious with his team's playing time, and it's a little bit of strange thing to see the hard-nosed Popovich employing such a soft touch.

    I'm guessing that the Spurs' near-title last season is behind their coach's decision to reduce minutes wherever possible. Were it not for a Miami Heat team that was a fraction of a second quicker to a couple of loose balls in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, San Antonio might be the defending champs right now.

    Popovich knows that every last drop of energy counts. He's doing more than anyone ever has to preserve as much as possible.

    It's hard to know whether the Spurs' strategy will influence the rest of the NBA, but it's not a good idea to bet against it. Almost everything else San Antonio has done over the past 15 seasons has inspired a rash of copycat efforts.

    Why should this be any different? 

Terry Stotts and His Wacky Relationship Theories on Three-Pointers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

    The Portland Trail Blazers are for real; we might as well just accept it now. Maybe they're not a championship team, but they're certainly a worthy playoff threat.

    Head coach Terry Stotts gets a lot of credit for that, largely because he's embracing some pretty risky ideas on both ends of the court.

    Defensively, he's got the Blazers blitzing the three-point line to keep shooters from getting good looks. In exchange, Portland is allowing an alarming number of attempts in the restricted area. Opponents are taking an average of 28.3 shots per game at close range, the sixth-most in the league, per NBA.com.

    Stotts isn't concerned.

    Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, he said: "We want to take away the 3-pointer. We won’t double the post. And there’s so little post play left in the league, it’s really not a big number to me, going forward."

    The Blazers are giving Stotts what he wants, though. No team allows fewer corner threes per game than Portland. And just five permit more triples from above the break, per NBA.com.

    The efficacy of Stotts' plan is still up for debate. Portland is currently a below-average team on the defensive end. But there's no doubt that the Blazers' premium on threes on offense is paying off. Thanks to a 41.3 percent accuracy rate from long distance, Portland has the league's third-ranked offense.

    Maybe Stotts is onto something.

Coach Spo's Small Ball

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    "Shoot threes. Trust me, it'll work."
    "Shoot threes. Trust me, it'll work."Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    It's simply not possible to talk about revolutionary thinkers without mentioning Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.

    His gutsy decision to give up on conventional centers has led to a pair of championships for the Heat. And if anybody wants to ascribe those rings to LeBron James' individual growth, go right ahead. But as you're doing so, keep in mind that Spoelstra is the one who engineered the lineups that put LBJ at power forward so often that he had to adapt his game.

    To one degree or another, Spoelstra has had a hand in every shrewd move the Heat have made in recent years.

    There's no question that great personnel has allowed him to be a little more creative than many coaches with more limited talent. But it's impossible to ignore the sheer boldness of his decision to play Chris Bosh at center full-time.

    If that move hadn't worked out, who knows where Miami would be?

    When you consider that the rest of the league has continued to prize hulking, paint-defending bigs, it's even more impressive that Spoelstra is sticking to his small-ball guns. It might be a while before we see another team commit to playing small like the Heat have, but when the right roster decides to take the plunge, it'll be the Heat's model that they'll be copying.

    Sounds revolutionary to me.

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