Is L.A. 'Showtime' Or Defense First?
Every good team has at its foundation an internal identity. This is not something that comes from what the media or the fans think about the team, but it's directly connected to the constant stream of messages sent from the coach to his players. This funneling begins in training camp and extends through the season.
Think of some other teams' identities: The Miami Heat play with incredible athleticism because that is their identity, starting on the defensive end. The San Antonio Spurs are cerebral, pragmatic, and surgical in their attacking game. The Chicago Bulls bring elite toughness and effort and combine it with an exact understanding of their job in every possession on defense. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks recently said his team is at its best when "thinking defensive thoughts." The Memphis Grizzlies also defend the paint ferociously, while the Denver Nuggets instead try to outrace their opponents and wear them down, especially in the high altitude at home.
With Mike D'Antoni taking over, what can he sell to his team as it tries to build its foundation for winning? What will be the Los Angeles Lakers' identity?
The Knicks' Winning Formula
At this point, even Clyde Frazier has to be running out of rhyming superlatives. The New York Knicks have been dishing and swishing, wheeling and dealing, bounding and astounding, and, most importantly, winning and grinning. After Thursday's rousing comeback at San Antonio, everyone aside from Charles Barkley has to agree that New York's start is indeed prodigious.
Coming into the season, we at Basketball Prospectus were pretty high on the Knicks' veteran roster for this season, but not so much beyond that. The reasoning was simple. Even if New York improved to the 48-50 win level at which we had it forecast, that still left the Knicks on a tier well below that of the Miami Heat. And, given the age of the roster and the lack of financial flexibility to improve it, this season is as good as it's going to get for this version of the Knicks. If a championship is the end goal, New York was not on a path to get there.
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Jazz Go Big In Small-Ball World
Prior to the 2011-12 season, coach Erik Spoelstra sat down with LeBron James and told the world's best basketball player that for the Miami Heat to overcome the shortcomings that held them back during Season 1 of their grand experiment, James needed to assume a role that was more power forward than small forward.
James accepted this premise, even if he wasn't enthusiastic about it at first. But once Shane Battier joined the fold and took on the responsibilities generally associated with a power forward's job description, James began to flourish. He played closer to the basket and expanded his game. Though the effects weren't instant, as the season went on, James became more comfortable and the seas parted for the Heat's offense. The floor opened up, and on the first night of summer, the Heat hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Two weeks after the NBA Finals, players, coaches, execs and scouts were touting the end of traditional positions in the NBA as the grand lesson of last season. For most, that meant that it was time to go small, spread the floor with shooters, irrespective of their size.
Knicks Working Their Strengths
The Olympics are an interesting laboratory for the NBA's best players. International basketball long ago embraced small-ball systems, and the composition of the U.S. roster this summer invited the Americans to follow suit once again.
For Carmelo Anthony, this meant playing the power forward spot, a decision that everyone in the known universe not named Carmelo Anthony has been prescribing as a way to advance his stagnant career.
Anthony had been reluctant. In his defense, it's not as if he's the first small forward to resist change. It took LeBron James eight years to buy in, and Rudy Gay is still skittish about sliding over to the 4 when Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol takes a seat.