Why you should care
This NBA season will raise more questions than it answers, but we’re sorting out the big ones.
As we approach tipoff of the 2018–19 NBA season, one thing has become clear: Recent developments around the league bring up more questions than they answer. From the high-profile moves of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard to Golden State Warriors challengers rising to power, preparing for what this season holds may seem an impossible task.
Well, we, for one, like the wide-open sense of possibility. We’re leaning into basketball’s most unanswerable questions and attempting to make sense of them.
1. Have the Golden State Warriors Broken Basketball?
Despite what the think pieces flooding the internet will tell you, the Warriors have not broken the NBA. If you’re worried about the spacing that Warriors point guard Stephen Curry creates on the floor for Kevin Durant’s outside shot, just think back to the Future of Analytics panel at the 2017 MIT Sloan Analytics Conference. There, WNBA Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird reinforced the importance of details that can make or break a team — any team. “What seems like some small detail — ‘Do I really need to know that?’ — in a basketball game comes down to, what, two minutes of play? A run a team goes on? And there goes the game,” Bird said.
In other words: The matchup shouldn’t matter. Pay attention to the details and the game will follow. Case in point: Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown picking Curry’s pocket and following through with a jam last season is a great example of this principle in action. Note how low the score was when that happened. Note also that Warriors coach Steve Kerr called a timeout immediately after the play. Bird is absolutely right here: The details matter.
2. Will Switching Continue to Influence Defensive Strategy?
Switching on defense is about limiting the offense’s attempts to create spacing on the floor and to ensure the flow of the offense doesn’t outpace the flow of the defense. Ideally, switching helps keep the defense from collapsing as the ball makes its way about the key. If a player is running a pick-and-roll to get by one defender, a switch puts a second defender there to pick him up. When the defender does this, it’s sometimes called a “hedge,” though there are variations — especially in the context of how the Warriors and Houston Rockets run their defenses, like making a point to alternate between zone and switching on contact.
Coach Chris Oliver, founder of Basketball Immersion, is interested in how many teams switch more on defense, and how teams counter that switching this season. Why might more teams implement switching? Among other reasons, the two teams that switched the most on defense last year — the Warriors and the Rockets — also led the league in turnovers. That equals buckets.
As for how teams might counteract more switching, coach Tommy Tempesta of Basketball Biomechanics pointed to players’ ball manipulation, acceleration ability from a pivot, deceleration, one-foot and two-foot jumping ability and attentional focus as key traits.
Oliver also points out that the league’s new 14-second reset shot clock rule will introduce new scheming. For example, he says, “Will teams have set reactions or free play?” We’ll have to wait and see.
3. How Will Coaching Changes Shake Up the League?
It’s worth stepping back from immediate concerns about defense to look at overall coaching strategies. The Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns all have coaches worth keeping an eye on this year. Early reports suggest the Bucks are employing “pacing and spacing” in their play — a strategy that will open up new opportunities for superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who attracts double teams already. New Suns coach Igor Kokoškov’s style might see a more European element introduced into the game, i.e., the idea that the entire team might be available to help with a pick and roll as opposed to just one or two other players.
4. What about Kawhi?
The Raptors are hoping Kawhi Leonard is in it for the long haul after acquiring him in July, but will this match be harmonious? Recent reports suggest Leonard will either re-sign with the Raptors or head to the Los Angeles Clippers with Jimmy Butler.
And how will he play? Will he still commit more steals than fouls? Will he look like the Leonard who made 13 of 16 field goal attempts in a game against Houston during the 2016–17 season, or the one who went 3-of-12 against Sacramento? If Paul George’s return from his injury is any indication of a possible path, the answer might lie somewhere in the middle. If we can draw any conclusion from his preseason, it does look like Leonard is slowly regaining his form.
5. Will We Ever See the 4-Point Line?
What are the arguments in favor of adding a 4-point line to NBA courts — something the Philadelphia 76ers have already done on their practice court? That players are getting bigger and better; that 3-point shooting is occurring with such increasing frequency — attempts made have increased every season since 2010 — it may be nearing a saturation point; that players make the same percentage of shots between 3 to 22 feet away from the basket overall, which means a 3-point shot 23 or 24 feet away from the basket isn’t a huge statistical variation.
But even if we accept these arguments, it still seems premature to contemplate a 4-point line. We don’t currently have a sense of where the 3-point play statistically lives. We may have a lot of recent data, but the sport has existed since 1891. If there’s ever to be a 4-point line in the NBA, the data will have to make a consistent case for it for years.
There are plenty of other truly unknowable questions looming over the league. Will Durant, Leonard and LeBron all end up on the same team at some point? Will Dwyane Wade’s final season end up rivaling Kobe Bryant’s? Is Anthony Davis on his way to the Lakers if he doesn’t get the supermax contract from the New Orleans Pelicans?
We don’t have answers to these questions yet. Until then: Lace up. The season’s about to start.