Stan Van Gundy’s coaching is one of the most faithful guides to NBA basketball. By taking note of the way his team plays, we can learn what principles work in today’s league. He is one of the coaches who can be said to have a system for on-court success, a philosophy of fundamental truths about playing winning basketball that flows beneath and nourishes Dwight Howard’s oaken presence and the unexpected blossoming of Ryan Anderson.
Anderson, just 23 and starting for the first time in his career, came to the Magic to be Rashard Lewis’s understudy and is making a name for himself reprising and expanding Lewis’s famous role—the stretch four marksmen. Van Gundy’s offense, like so many in the NBA, seeks to spread the floor around a rotating pick-and-roll attack designed to punish defenses for deploying extra defenders to address the primary pick-and-roll action. It fixes the defense on the torturer’s rack, pulling it apart until it eventually breaks and surrenders an open shot.
Of course, allocating extra bodies to slowdown ball screen attacks is far from a sin, it is the basic mission of the most sophisticated defenses in the league. The strong-side zone pressure philosophy best articulated in the strangling, expansive defenses of Tom Thibodeau were unleashed by rule changes that allow for defenders to guard spaces rather than players. While the rule changes allow defenses to better thwart isolation attacks, a secondary effect of zone-and-rotate defenses is that an offensive player will be left open, at least for a moment or two, while the defense rotates. The smart defenses rotate to open players by the level of threat they present—if your name is Reggie Evans, expect to be the last man covered.
There are all sorts of ways to defend the pick-and-roll, but the most effective methods include activating all five defenders. After a screening big man, say Dwight Howard, separates the ball-handler’s defender from the dribbler and crashes toward to rim, defenses with any hope of containing him send an extra-defender to pick up Howard before even begins his roll. It’s best to send someone big enough to make a difference, a wing player not named Dwyane Wade impedes Howard in the paint about as much as the #12 on his uniform.
It is at this moment, when the defense rushes to the paint like so many white blood cells to the Howard’s infecting presence, that Ryan Anderson shines. Most teams can surround a pick-and-roll attack with a couple competent shooters, but few can boast a big man with the consistent deep stroke that has made Anderson an early season sensation. Even Glen Davis, for all his flaws, is a reliable catch-and-shoot threat from 18 feet. Every time Howard rolls with his hands high, defenses facing the Magic must triage the threat, and Anderson has responded by killing those that leave him untreated.
The necessity of a shooting big man like Anderson in today’s NBA is underscored by what’s happening at the opposite coast in the Clippers’ pick-and-roll system. It’s impossible not to notice that Blake Griffin is spending more time than is probably advisable shooting 20-foot jumpshots. Though some have described Griffin’s insistence on shooting more deep twos per game (4.8 up from 3.1) at a low percentage (31 percent) as the misguided yearning exhibited by many young NBA players–to be more than he is, and thus become less than he should be–it is absolutely necessary that Griffin be able to make that shot. That’s because his most consistent front court partners this season will be Reggie Evans and DeAndre Jordan, two players who should not be trusted with the ball unless within dunking range.
Griffin must become the very player that would most suit him as a frontcourt mate—the floor-stretching big who can pull the defense away from the paint. As David Thorpe theorized out on the Clippers Week podcast, it’s possible Griffin is simply getting in repetitions in a desperate attempt to add the shot to his repertoire in time for the playoffs, just as Trevor Ariza somehow mastered the 3-point shot in time for the Lakers to overcome the Celtics.
Like the Magic, last year’s champion Mavericks used Tyson Chandler’s elite finishing and Nowtizki’s et al’s long-range shooting to pull apart the league’s best defenses. It’s no wonder that Dallas’s real struggles this season have been offensive, as they seek to replace Chandler’s unheralded instinct for cutting to the rim and Nowitzki struggles with his jumper. This year, in order to optimize the Clipper offense, Griffin must be both Chandler and Nowitzki (or Chandler and pick-and-pop artist David West—the front court pairing that shared Chris Paul’s best season).
The same principle is at work in Miami, where Dwyane Wade’s absence has freed up the Heat’s, and LeBron James’s, half court offense. For everything Wade does on both ends, a shooter he is not. Replacing his minutes with Shane Battier, Mike Miller and James Jones means James only ever plays with one non-shooter– Joel Anthony. When a player can accurately, instantly zip a laser-beam pass 40 feet crosscourt and requires more than one defender be committed to him at pretty much all times, the result is a ton of wide open 3-pointers. The only better shot might be those created by Wade at the rim.
The goal for NBA offenses–to make hay in the paint–hasn’t changed. But more than ever, the best offenses are adept at going away from the space they want to use, at using multiple credible shooters to unclog the lane.
It wasn’t so long ago that a big men whose primary value was as a shooter was regarded as a curiosity, something to be brought of the bench and examined for 20 minutes a game. If a player over 6-8 didn’t trade primarily in toughness, it was a problem, notable exceptions like Robert Horry not withstanding.
Today, that’s simply not the case. In order to thrive after the environmental shift brought by defensive rule changes, the position descriptions of the NBA’s tallest players has mutated. Players like Ryan Anderson, the prototypical stretch big-man, are no longer exotic or a luxury, but a necessity.