The NBA Finals: Power to the Creators
There’s a semi-famous clip in basketball internet circles of LeBron James imitating Kobe Bryant at the 2008 Olympics. James makes a triangle symbol with his hands, mocking Bryant’s signature play call.
“We all know what that means,” James says laughing. “It means get the hell out the way!"
The room full of the world’s best basketball players erupts in laughter, Bryant included. It’s funny because it’s true, but the sentiment is as powerful then as it is now. Sometimes you just need to give a great player the ball and get the hell out the way.
The NBA has changed drastically over the years as teams have figured out the value of the three-point shot and defenses have adjusted to defend it. They’ve also adapted to maximize schemes since zone defenses became legal in 2002. Help defenders can now load up against a star in certain situations, instead of decreasing the value of the league’s elite shot creators, it’s increased it.
It’s why the Suns are up 2-0 in The NBA Finals. It’s why most of the basketball world, myself included, picked them in this series. In both games, one of the Suns' dynamic backcourt has gone for 30+ points. The other has been in the 20s with a third player also getting into the 20s. They create for themselves and others.
The creators' theory has been on display all playoffs long. There are few better examples of this than Game 4 of the Hawks-Sixers series. Late in the game, the Hawks were able to ride Trae Young’s shot creation to victory while the Sixers continually looked for a good look, but never found it. It’s only fair to point out that a healthy Joel Embiid, (playing with a torn meniscus and didn’t hit a shot from the field in the second half) might have changed this equation but there’s no questioning just how imperative Young’s perimeter shot creation was to the Hawks overcoming an 18 point deficit. Embiid couldn’t create, for whatever reason, and the Sixers ultimately went home.
The most dangerous place on a basketball court is the middle of it. We were all taught as kids to use the sideline as an extra defender. That can’t happen when there’s no sideline to be found. This is why Young’s isolations from the top of the key and his high pick and rolls powered the Hawks so far. Not only is there no help from the sideline, but the actual defenders are spread as thin as they can be. To help means leaving a shooter and the longest possible rotations to cover them. The Bucks survived Young in these situations, but thus far have no answers for Paul and Booker.
Of course, the other option is to not help at all, which is what the Sixers did to remarkable results for long stretches in their series. Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybull are the rare tall, quick defenders qualified to handle Young 1-on-1 and even stick with him in the pick-and-roll. However, in crunch time, Young was able to shake free and create for himself and others enough to propel Atlanta to its first-ever conference finals in the modern era. It’s a strategy Milwaukee has tried some with their versatile defenders, but it will always have its limits and Booker and Paul have shown exactly where they are.
Simply put, the power is with the creators. This has always been true. The last 40 years of NBA basketball have been dominated almost exclusively by teams with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or Stephen Curry. For the first time since 2006 when James’s Cavs lost to Detroit in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Bryant’s Lakers lost to Phoenix in the first round that one of those six players will not make the conference Finals.
In fact, it’s only happened five times in those 40 years at all: 1994-95 when Jordan took his baseball hiatus and 2003, 2005, and 2006 until James made his first conference final in 2007.
The power is with the creators. It always has been. It always will be.