When critics dismiss the June prospects of the conference-leading Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, they look not to the future but to the past:
“The Warriors are a jump-shooting team that lacks deep playoff experience.”
The latter charge holds some weight with so many past champions steeped in postseason memories.
“The Hawks don’t have a superstar, the defining feature of many a title winner.”
That’s also true. Atlanta is powered by mere stars.
But while the past is a good guide to what typically works, it can blind you to imminent change. There’s that old saying about how generals always fight the last war. Technology warps the battlefield in ways these generals can’t predict, as they draw on quickly outdated experience. France began World War I employing the Napoleonic-era tactic of bayonet charges — the battlefield equivalent of isolation post-ups. (Spoiler alert: It worked about as well as Flip Saunders’ curmudgeonly rejection of 3-pointers.)
As Warriors coach Steve Kerr says, when asked if a jump-shooting team can win a title, “the game has changed.” The game has indeed changed. Three-pointers are in, isolation post-ups are out. Hero ball is out, moving the ball is in.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty ImagesMany fans have been vocal about appreciating the Hawks’ and Warriors’ fluid style of play.
“Ball movement has dramatically improved around the league the last few years,” Kerr says of basketball’s evolution. “It’s coming away from iso-ball, pick-and-roll to one side. More and more teams are using false movement, early in a possession to create something on the weak side of the floor. [There are] a lot of reasons for that — rule changes, defenses have gotten more sophisticated overloading the strong side, forcing you to be more creative on offense.”
The strong side, i.e., the side of the floor where the ball is, used to host almost all action on a court. This was especially true in the old days when a ban on “illegal defense” allowed post-up players plenty of space on the strong side. Throw it down to your center and watch him go to work as tumbleweeds trundle through the neglected weak side.
Now the weak side has never been stronger, and Kyle Korver is its patron saint. The once-ignored weak side is where a defense gets yanked around by shooters, as it simultaneously attempts to thwart drives on the strong side. Atlanta’s weakside movement has it on the forefront of the Weakside Movement.
The Warriors are playing catch-up, to hear Kerr tell it.
“They get to the next level of their offense,” he said of Atlanta’s multilayered attack. “We take away the first option, they automatically get to the second. You take that one, they automatically and fluidly get to the third option. Very few teams do that. We don’t. We’re not there yet. … They’re two years into their work with their staff. This is our first year.”
If the Warriors aren’t there yet, then theirs is a future that should terrify the league. Golden State currently has the top offensive rating. And it should surprise no one that the Warriors and Hawks are Nos. 1 and 2 in assists per game.
If there’s a level of proficiency beyond this, it could define basketball for awhile.
The Warriors are still spreading their wings on offense, making some errors along the way. Their top-ranked defense is where you’ll see a system so well-actualized that it’s pioneering. Though “switching” screens is looked down on by certain old-school basketball minds, the Warriors use it constantly, ceding little strategically because they have so many long, mobile defenders. Golden State will even spring little guys onto 7-footers when the shot clock is low. That’s how Stephen Curry ended up guarding Dirk Nowitzki on two different post-ups this season. The result: A surprised Dirk bricked both.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNeither Golden State nor Atlanta has a pedigree of titles, but does that matter anymore?
In theory, switching gets you into terrible, defense-ruining mismatches. In an era of basketball where positions matter increasingly less, that concern is fading. With its roster of versatile, savvy defenders, the Warriors are changing what defense looks like.
Golden State has its doubters but also many converts. It’s difficult to argue with a team tops in offense and defense, with a historically great margin of victory. Las Vegas has them as the West favorites, accordingly.
Atlanta, on the other hand, can’t quite seem to sell people on its bizarre, superstar-less concoction. Las Vegas has the Cavs as a more likely champion than the Hawks by a factor of four. This despite Atlanta claiming a massive 11-game lead over Cleveland and soundly beating Cleveland in their past three meetings.
The resounding message from the public is that a Hawks win is not equal to a Cavs win. A victory for LeBron’s team helps validate preseason expectations that James will, again, return to the Finals. That evidence is embraced as making sense. A victory for Jeff Teague‘s team helps validate nobody’s preseason expectations and wholly upends the notion that superstars — the characters marketed to fans as extremely important — are even necessary. That subversive, confusing evidence is rejected. Or, it’s rejected until it becomes the norm to value a team’s collective ball movement over the prowess of its top player. A Hawks title on the heels of this Spurs championship might do the trick.
In the meantime, we’ll watch where the Hawks and Warriors can take the sport. What we won’t be watching, though, is either Korver or Klay Thompson in the Wednesday matchup between these teams. Both are carefully nursing minor injuries in a season where neither exceeded 33 minutes per game. That’s another way the game’s progressing. It’s more widely known that players perform better when not run into the ground with heavy minutes.
Of the trend toward resting players, Kerr said, “They have access to a lot more data now than they did 20 years ago. We keep track of everything.”
He then pivoted to a belief in progress itself: “It’s like anything else. Medicine improves, science. People learn more. We learn better ways to take care of our bodies. Not just athletes but people in general. So, anytime somebody starts a comment out with, ‘In the old days,’ it’s usually not that great. Well, in the old days, guys played 48 minutes. Well, we’ve made advancements. We don’t go backwards with this stuff. We go forwards.”
That’s why the Hawks and Warriors don’t look like contenders of the past: because they’re the future.
By Ethan Sherwood Strauss | ESPN.com