The NBA's renewed team-building imagination
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There is, within the team-building exercise that happens at all levels of the NBA discourse, much talk about “fit.” Sometimes this talk is explicit, with the word itself being used as a cudgel for or against various roster moves, however hypothetical. Other times, the word is thinly masked, often simply replaced with an ostensibly deal-breaking conclusion that a potentially signable, draftable, or tradeable-for player “can’t shoot.” There are other codes and phrases used to reject certain team makeups, but the subtext of this ever-going calculus is typically buried. What, exactly, is a team supposed to be?

The most common answer here tends toward the unrepeatable blueprint of the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Or, more specifically, toward their limited-use “death lineup,” which, five years later, seems to be a spectre that still haunts the league’s imagination. With its smaller front-court, the lineup maximized speed, switchability, and spacing on both ends of the ball, often running teams off the floor. But lost in the reverential sauce is how minimally this set was actually deployed, how much the Warriors juggernaut actually relied on über-traditional big men, and that three of the “death lineup” members were merely okay three-point shooters, enjoying career clips but mostly just benefiting from the peaking gravity of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. 

The logical endpoint of teams failingly trying to replicate this unicorn season was last year’s Houston Rockets, who went into the playoffs with zero actual centers on their roster. It will take a bit longer to see if this is the case, but the blind spots of that team—not enough size or rebounding, mostly—were likely demonstrated thoroughly enough in their hopeless battle against the super-big Los Angeles Lakers that the experimental, now-disassembled Rockets could, hopefully, mark the bookend of a specific era in team-building assumptions. That many of the statistical and analytical minds who most profoundly grew in audience and influence since that legendary Warriors squad wrongly expected the Rockets to challenge, perhaps even defeat LeBron’s Lakers, should help to reset the collective basketball imagination, as well. 

And in the 2020-21 season, we have a few teams, and developments, offering exciting new ways forward. The Philadelphia 76ers, a year removed from an iteration of their roster that might be seen as the over-correctional opposite of what those Rockets were doing, look to have struck a better balance and built a team that more effectively bets big on bigness. After trading Al Horford and Josh Richardson for Danny Green and Seth Curry, their team is still defined by the triple-jumbo frontcourt of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. Now with enough shooting to bring the team’s spacing somewhere near the league average, the Sixers’ big boys are freed to pursue bully ball with full gusto. The most important, thankfully ongoing part of this trajectory is Simmons more aggressively capitalizing on mismatches, which are easy to find at his size and skill-set, and use the extra reins that Curry and Green provide to barrel beast-like into the lane.

In their way to the top of this year’s Eastern Conference, the Sixers have increasingly staked out an identity as a suffocating crunch-time defensive team, often swinging games with Simmons’ active, turnover-creating hands. Questions about who will take their big, inevitable crunch-time shots persist, but if the defensive wall they make their opponents run into gets much stronger, those worries might be misplaced. One team they will probably have to reach historical and ridiculous defensive levels to shut down, though, is the Brooklyn Nets. The undying, basketball-brain chin-strokery that the Nets seemingly live to vanquish involves concerns about there “being only one ball”; too many elite-dribble, high-usage offensive superstars, the reasoning goes, leads inevitably to diminishing returns in scoring productivity, and in even starker ones in terms of team morale. 

Well, no one has tested that hypothesis as aggressively as this before. Not at the level of having three of the best isolation scorers of a generation, and one of the league’s best off-ball shooters to boot. And while the Nets might be undone by other kinds of variables, we’re likely on our way to seeing what the legs of the “too many cooks in the kitchen” way of thinking are really made of. Those who want to say the Nets project is failing will have ample evidence to work with, and already do. That the team is frequently a mess after massive roster turnover in a season already wracked by a pandemic and its often Kafkaesque protocols (endured, most recently, by the Josef K. that is Kevin Durant) was foreseeable, and the team’s defensive competence and overall cohesion are not quite even works in progress. Nevertheless, unpolluted human eyes watch the team for their occasional bursts of nascent brilliance, presaging what could become the most unguardable team ever. At far less than half-realized, they already have benchmark victories over a small collection of fellow contenders.

If you believe there is even a modicum of extra chemistry and fringe defensive help on the way, there is no reason to put any ceiling on this Brooklyn team. They are comically rich with untapped layers, ranges of possibility that can’t be accessed until a later moment, and in the meantime every hint we see at all of what they can one day do is a tantalizing taste for the hoopophiles of the world. The same, oddly enough, can be said for the way the reigning two-time MVP is playing. After two straight seasons of unchecked regular-season dominance followed by postseason flameout and indignity, Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks are toggling around with their formula, so to make it less obsessed with the futurism of its center-sized point guard approach, and make better use of his gravity near the hoop.

Necessary for elevated Bucks success, goes the talking point that now seems converted into on-court strategy, is a more anachronistic approach to the space of the court. Effectiveness in tighter room has been their weak spot for two seasons in a row, so accustomed they are to using Antetokounmpo as a singular blade who slashes broadly through the whole hardwood. The micro-cutting required of Giannis and the Bucks, now, comes not from the sometimes-peddled idea that Antetokounmpo needs a better jumper (a lazy short-hand frequently used in reference to the aforementioned Simmons, as well) but in the form of more post-up and roll-man duties; different kinds of dynamics altogether, which the seven-footer has somehow not really developed while still steamrolling through the league. 

All in all, the emerging championship contenders of today seem not to be bent in any consistent direction. The Lakers, and the Toronto Raptors before them, do not appear to suggest an all-solving idea or direction that inspire copy-cat behavior like the Warriors did, and several different approaches to the top are in consideration during this liminal period, in which the Lakers have yet to assert themselves as the new dynasty—though, of course, they very well may. And maybe, in that event, the Lakers will be what others aspire to become, but probably not; LeBron’s irreplicable greatness is sure to stop lots of that thinking from getting off the ground. It is time, instead, to build different kinds of flying that make the sport a more marvelous stew of style.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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