“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
― Warren Buffett
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Clippers have been Clipped. The Grizzlies have been Grizzed. The Warriors and the Rockets are now squaring off, and we’re all just waiting for Lebron vs. Curry.
It’s the Semi-Finals, but the basketball world already knows which teams will be going on to the Finals. Vegas betting odds are cold and pitiless:
With a 1-0 series lead over the Houston Rockets, Golden State is the odds-on favorite (2/5) to win the championship at Bovada.lv. Cleveland’s 1-0 lead over Atlanta has given them good betting odds (12/5) to claim the title as well. The Rockets and Hawks are both longshots (20/1).
Houston was almost able to steal Game 1 against Golden State in Oakland, but the Warriors ultimately won, 110-106. Because they’ve been so dominant at home this year, losing just three times in 47 games, Golden State is a 10.5-point favorite in Game 2. The Warriors have now beaten the Rockets in all five of their meetings this season.
Vegas doesn’t care that both the Hawks and Rockets are victims of circumstance: both have key injuries to key players. Vegas certainly doesn’t care that both teams were underdogs in the first place.
About a month ago, the NYPD decided to contribute to the Cleveland community by breaking the right foot and ankle of Hawks’defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. In game 1 of the series, an injury to DeMarre Carroll leaves Atlanta with no reasonable defensive response to Lebron except for… nothing. There’s nothing for the Hawks to do except chill out while Lebron makes them look silly.
Meanwhile, the Rockets have surprised the league and proved the doubters (including me) wrong. Even though the Clippers break-down was the result of fatigue, the Rockets deserve credit for seizing that opportunity to pull off a fantastic comeback. Going in to their bout with the Warriors, the plucky underdog Rockets looked poised to blast off…
Then Dwight Howard’s chronic knee injuries intervened, bringing Houston back down to earth. Without Howard operating as if he were 5 years younger, the Rockets are severely outmatched.
The point is, Rockets and Hawks are both doomed.
While we wait for the inevitable show-off between the Warriors and Cavaliers, let’s join hands and take this time to reflect on the wonderful lessons we have learned so far.
Let’s start by paying our respects to the recently deceased Memphis Grizzlies.
R.I.P. Grit and Grind
The Memphis Grizzlies have gritted and grinded themselves into dust. Zach Randolph is 34. Tony Allen is 33. Marc Gasol is 30. It’s not too late for this team to win a ring; but it is too late for this team to win a ring in its prime.
It’s entirely reasonable to assume that this team has a downward trajectory. Of course, divine intervention is always on the table, whether that be through the draft, through trade, or free agency; but Memphis isn’t exactly Los Angeles. Their best developmental piece moving forward is point-guard Mike Conley, but the Grizzlies were not able to seduce him into signing an extension. The collective basketball hive-mind decided that the 2014-2015 season was the season that Conley would finally shake the ‘under-rated’ label that is stapled to his jersey. His salary for next season is $9,388,426, a sum which is nothing less than an insult to his virtuosity.
For the last few years the Grizzlies had the good fortune to benefit from the disparity between Conley’s production and his compensations; however, everything changed when the fire nation attacked:
Recent corporate happenings are projected to cause the NBA salary cap to expand significantly:
2014-15: $63.2 million
2015-16: $67.1 million
2016-17: $89 million
2017-18: $108 million
A higher salary cap means higher salaries: the gold line represents the extension that Conley could sign this season, but the blue lines represent the max contracts that he could sign in the future.
Starting in 2017, the Grizzlies can offer Conley a max deal at $145,118,877 over the next 5 years, but that $29 million+ yearly contract will sink into their available funds and limit team building.
This sexy-ass graph and my exposition of said graph are only parts in a greater philosophical conflict that is decades in the making. Sports Illustrated published an article about Dave Joerger, head coach of the Grizzlies, which offers a charmingly quaint insight into Joerger’s ‘side’ of this philosophical debate:
As the weeks went on and the losses continued, Joerger tried to maintain course. “It was really tough. You just keep reminding yourself that if you’re going to come in and be a negative guy, these guys are going to feel that. And it’s going to reflect the next 60 games that you spend with these guys. It’s really a test [of me as a coach].” His approach, he says, was, We’re not great right now but how are we going to get through this and get better? “I don’t know if I was good or not, but right now our chemistry is as good as it’s ever been, in the six years I’ve been here. We have good leadership, they like each other, play for each other and I think that I could have gone about wrecking that. If I had would have spazzed out, it could have wrecked all that.”
Eventually, Joerger turned the focus back to the defense and, after sputtering early, the Grizzlies were in the top five in points allowed during March (they’re now top-ten for the season in points allowed per possession). As Joerger puts it, “Defense is what’s best for this team. It’s what helps us win. And I know that.”
Now, with only a week or so left in the season, the margins are thin. Talk all you want about culture and big picture schemes but these games are all that matter, and they are won by the players, and the coaches.
Joerger knows this. He tries to ignore the criticism. That the offense is too slow. Too predictable. That he’s not creative with his play-calling (according to the Grizzlies’ internal stats, Joerger is in the top 5 in the league in effectiveness after timeouts).
The goal remains larger. On plane rides, he talks to the front office about continuing to create a basketball culture over the summer. He wants to build something. But he also needs to win now.
Joerger wants us to have this image in our head of him sitting in an empty high-school basketball gym, surrounded by papers and empty coke cans while he furiously scribbles Xs and Os on a whiteboard. He’s creating a culture. He wants to build something. He has to ignore the criticisms. How will he reach these kids?
It doesn’t have to be this way, Dave. There’s another way.
The Kerr-ect Way
The Warriors will probably win a championship this year. Even if they don’t, they made their point. The Warriors plowed through the regular season, took a breath, and then started plowing through the post-season. 67+ win teams don’t happen every season: in fact it’s only happened 10 times.
I’ve followed a few of these 67+ teams in the past, most recently the 1999-2000 Lakers and the 2006-2007 Mavericks, and there’s a distinct flavor to their play. The 67 win Warriors, 67 win Mavericks, and 67 win Lakers each played their own brand of basketball. Kobe and Shaq are different than Klay and Steph, and both duos are different than Dirk and more Dirk. If there is a secret sauce to coaching a historically great team, then the ingredients haven’t been made available to the general public.
This would be the part where I give my opinion on what makes a team great, but hell if I know. Great teams look like they know what they’re doing. That’s the best I can do.
The important thing is that this Warriors team is one of the greats, and their greatness is readily apparent. I thought about how to best encapsulate the team here, and I chose a Washington Post snippet titled The Comeback Staged by Stephen Curry and the Warriors Was Close to Impossible. It’s quick, but it’s a crystallizing look into the Warriors’ unique blend of perfection and absurdity.
The Warriors are exciting, fast-paced, efficient, beautiful, and they do it all in midnight blue, international orange, and gold.
Meanwhile the Grizzlies use the ‘grit-and-grind’ method. That’s the least fabulous team philosophy that I’ve ever heard. and their aesthetic isn’t nearly as visually appealing.
The Warriors and Grizzlies series was an examination into the classic good vs. evil archetype; a.k.a. the beauty vs. beast archetype; a.k.a. the master vs. slave archetype; a.k.a. the greasers vs. the preppies, and so on and so forth. Remember the philosophical conflict I was referencing earlier? This is it: Yin and Yang basketball. NBA Class Warfare.
And I’m already bored.
Splash vs. Smash
Playing the role of the ‘Average Joes’ will be the Memphis Grizzlies: They’re a bunch of plucky underdogs who you can’t help loving despite them being Vince Vaughn. They don’t have as much money, they’re not as flashy, and they aren’t as ‘Hollywood;’ but damn it, they give 110 percent no matter what and that’s all that matters in the end.
The core of the team – Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph – have been together for 5 years and they’re hungry.
“It’s the year,” Zach Randolph says.
“Everybody feels it. We feel it. We’ve been in the Western Conference finals. We’ve been that close.”
They all have friendship bracelets that say BFF on them, and BFFs are not a topic that Tony Allen takes lightly. They’re all in their pajamas with the T-Shirts they printed for the occasion and after Zach finishes talking they all hug. Next up for truth or dare is Gasol:
“We’ve been through it so long that we know how each other is going to react and that we can trust each other. But the game is evolving and we as players and as a team have to evolve. You have to change things and adjust. We’re the same players and we run the same sets, but — it’s like the Spurs — they need tweaks and changes and counters from game to game and year to year in order to evolve.”
Togetherness and the magic of friendship have inspired them to be themselves and love one another. The Grizzlies have something that the Warriors will never have: the experience of meaningful basketball friendship:
The Warriors have great backcourt play, with Curry and Klay Thompson. They have strong inside play with Draymond Green, Marreese Speights and Harrison Barnes. They have clutch players who can hit big shots and defenders who can get a stop when it’s needed most.
But there is one thing that this team doesn’t have, and that’s a lot of playoff experience. Golden State was bounced by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Two years ago, Golden State lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals.
Their opponents in the conference semifinals, the Memphis Grizzlies, do have playoff experience. The Grizzlies lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round last season, but they were in the Western Conference finals in 2013, when they lost to the Spurs.
Golden State is clearly the more talented team in this series, but Memphis has shown that having experience in the playoffs can make a difference.
You see, the Grizzlies aren’t show-boating hot-doggers like some NBA teams, they pound the ball down low to Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, and try to use post position and solid footwork to force a lay-up out of the possession. It ain’t flashy, but it’ll do.
Except that it won’t. This isn’t Hollywood.
Screw you Vince Vaughn.
In sum, this is still a team with imperfections, whose style bucks league trends and whose roster features a lot of guys who excel at their positions but doesn’t have a ton of versatility (e.g. the Grizz can’t switch defensively). Apart from Conley, Memphis is an emotional group, with live wires (Allen) and slow boilers (Gasol), among others.
Yet in some sense, that’s the NBA. There are no perfect teams, because the salary cap prevents it. The ones who win are those that excel at grappling with those imperfections, that can reduce those weaknesses to small blemishes.
When you observe the Grizzlies, they seem like a team that has become expert at the management of those weaknesses. Since their competitive advantage offensively exists down low and their Achilles heel on the perimeter, they’ve mastered the swing-swing-post entry. Since their shortcoming defensively is a lack of size on the perimeter, Conley, Allen and Lee fly around with abandon. The staff handles individual sensitivities delicately and with trust.
In this ESPN article sentimentally titled Grit, and Grind… and Something Much More, Kevin Arnovitz digs his own grave as someone affiliated with the Memphis Grizzlies. What he meant to say is that there are no perfect teams except for the Warriors.
The Warriors represent the glamorous, high-tech, spandex covered, ‘purple cobras.’ They don’t have ‘gut feelings,’ they don’t give ‘110 percent,’ and they certainly don’t have ‘friends.’ They have science on their side, and they don’t need your gritty, hard-working, All-American, F-150 bull-shit attitude.
A Winning Formula
While Joerger sits in the dimly lit highschool basketball bleachers trying to think of saucy new ways to build character and encourage team inter-relational chemistry, others have chosen to accept that they don’t live in the movie Hoosiers.
During the regular season, the Warriors were the second best team in terms of offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions), and the best team in terms of pace (possessions per game).
Joerger and his ilk claim that slow and methodical pacing is more reliable in the playoffs, hence the ‘grit and grind’ fetish. The Grizzlies use a defensive strategy called ‘aggressive strong side defense:’ Grizzlies defenders rotate on help defense much more than usual, which forces the offense to bend in disadvantageous ways. It takes the benefits of zone defense, (correction, team help, pressure) and applies those principles to a 5 on 5 without losing the benefits of man to man coverage. If a defense implements the strategy correctly, it forces offenses to adjust to the defense, rather than the other way around.
It’s a fascinating way of structuring a team’s defense, and teams that can consistently create pressure on the strong side of an opposing team’s offense are the most stifling in the league. The Grizzlies ranked third in opponent field goal percentage and second in defensive efficiency in the league last season at 43.5% and 97.4 points. For more information on this schema, read this article from the Memphis basketball blog GrizzlyBearBlues.com
The only way to beat a good offense is with a good defense. For the Grizzlies, shutting down the high-powered Warriors offense is the best way to go about beating them. There are a few problems with this method though:
1. Aggressive Strong Side Defense is typically better at stopping penetration and scoring in the paint. The Warriors shoot 3s all day. Trying to spread this defensive scheme out too much causes it to fracture at certain points because of its nature as a help dependent defense.
2. If you slow down the Warriors offense, you might not have made it any less efficient. The Grizzlies can’t outscore the Warriors regardless of how fast the pace is.
3. The Grizzlies had the second best defense in the league.
The Warriors had the first.
They’re That Good
The team finished the season ranked first in defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions. They ranked second in offensive efficiency—points scored per 100 possessions. They were also first in pace factor—possessions per game. This combination of top-ranked defense and highest pace in the league hasn’t been done in 37 years. Perhaps more strikingly, no team since the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson (and yes, Steve Kerr) has finished in the top two in offensive and defensive efficiency in a single season.
– Golden Status, an article on Slate by Martin Johnson
The most widely discussed uncertainty surrounding the Warriors in the playoffs this year was the possibility that their shooting touch might go cold. Historically, jump shooting teams have a difficult time surviving all the way through the Finals without the combination of probability and nerves eventually catching up to haunt them.
If the Warriors suddenly lose their magical splash powers, for a game or two, they can rely on their identity as the best defensive team in the league to power them through. Though the Warriors can’t maintain their offensive efficiency without their silky smooth 3 point shooting strokes, they are more than capable of scoring at the basket: despite shooting 31% of their shots from behind the 3-point line, they also shoot 33% of their shots within 5 feet. The Warriors’ lethal efficiency follows them to the basket, where they make 62.9% of their shots – the 2nd highest % in the league.
Additionally, the shooting cold spell doesn’t always happen come playoffs: in fact, last year, the opposite happened for another jump-shot heavy team. The Spurs are designed in such a way that if their shooting touch sours, then Popovich has numerous other offensive sets he could run. When the playoffs came, the league held their breath anticipating the day that the shots would stop falling, but the day never came. The Spurs ended up breaking the NBA Finals record for field-goal percentage, 52.8%, per USAToday.com.
In this post-season, The Warriors’ shooting has similarly maintained itself, though not with the same consistency. When their shooting went cold against the Pelicans, this happened:
Down 17 with six minutes left, the Warriors went into beast mode, filling the gap in time for Curry to hit a buzzer-beating 3 to force overtime, where they won 123-119. This is the win probability chart from that game:
Also, there’s this:
From a Peasant, to a Prince, to a King
Basketball fans have grown unaccustomed to seeing blue and gold teams as a title contender, and that biases them against this particularly impressive blue and gold team. But after years of glacial change to the NBA hierarchy, teams move up and down in the standings much faster nowadays. The Warriors and Atlanta Hawks—and to a lesser extent the Bucks—are the poster children of this new upward mobility.
– Golden Status, an article on Slate by Martin Johnson
Did somebody say upward mobility?