'Unorthodox' Miami Heat must beware 'traditional' LA Lakers
How quickly paradigms can shift. In sport, as in life, fashion and everything else, everyone follows the leader.
Whenever a new tactic, a new breed of player, a new philosophy has any kind of success, others will imitate. Most will do it half heartedly and others will – usually the more traditional – scorn the new way of thinking and hark back to the old days.
But when someone wins something significant with their new tactic, everyone follows, or at least pretends they have the skill to try. As I wrote in a previous piece, small ball is the new fashionable tactic.
Not new necessarily but the most fashionable. LeBron James, unquestionably the greatest basketball player on the planet, won the Oympics and the NBA title as a converted power forward, sometimes even as a centre.
James and small ball – along with countless other people from around the world – has done away with traditional positions, preferring role over position. Traditionally you could assign each position a nominal role and most teams would conform to it.
Point guard – initiator and passer, smaller than 6’ 4”
Shooting guard – best scorer and best shooter, secondary ball handler no bigger than 6’ 6”
Small forward – best perimeter defender, between 6’ 5” and 6’ 8”
Power forward – rebounder, post play, any shooting a bonus – above 6’8”
Centre – rim protector, screen setter, dunker, post moves a bonus – tallest player on the team
Positions have always been assigned to players who have the ability to guard their opposite number. Putting a 6’6” shooting guard at power forward would help at one end of the court but not at the other.
James’ unique ability to guard all five positions means that his teams can select the rest of the lineup more on their ability to score on their opponent rather than the reverse.
James’ presence meant team USA and the Miami Heat could play a team full of shooters, creating great spacing and multiple offensive threats safe in the knowledge that James would clean up defensively, in a simplistic explanation.
On the offensive side of the ball, the game is all about forcing a defence to pick their poison, i.e. if a player breaks past his defender and has a free run to the hoop, does the secondary defender help to prevent the easy basket but run the risk of the ball handler passing the ball to a wide open 3-point shooter or allow the dribbler to score an easy dunk.
No player in the league is better at collapsing defences and forcing them to pick their poison than LeBron James. There are also few players as good at taking advantage of a compromised defence with their decision making and passing skills.
So team building is made much simpler with James on board, surround him with shooters who can guard their position. Doesn’t matter which positions those players play in because James will fill in the spare hole.
When James plays power forward, he is still doing the role of a point guard i.e. handling the ball and making the decisions. The nominal point guard essentially becomes a spot up shooter a la a shooting guard or small forward.
The centre, often Chris Bosh – a superlative shooter – will move to the perimeter to set picks or to pop out for shots. The lines of traditional positions are blurred.
Sadly not every team has a LeBron James, although there are players who can help a team blur the positional lines – Kevin Durant for instance. Either way teams have seen that playing five players that can all shoot from distance is a tactic that can work if at least one or two players on the roster can collapse a defence and make the pass and guard their position.
But now there’s a new team in town. For Miami’s Big Three – James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade – there is now the Lakers’ “Big Four” of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Almost certainly all four players will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the end of their careers. Not only that but if you look at the traditional positional roles outlined at the top of the page, you’ll see that with the addition of Metta World Peace at small forward, the Lakers fit the traditional team lay out to a tee.
Offensively they have all bases covered – as long as Kobe doesn’t play hero-ball all the time. Nash is probably the greatest pick and roll player of all time, Bryant perhaps the second best scoring guard behind Michael Jordan, Gasol one of the best passing big men around as well as an unselfish, all purpose player while Howard is great pick and roll big man and emerging post player.
On top of that World Peace can hit the three with comfort, as can Nash, Bryant and to a lesser extent Gasol. And that’s just the offensive side of the ball. Howard’s defensive versatility means he can stop another team’s pick and roll at the three point line and still get back to the rim to recover should the defence breakdown.
In short, should the Lakers pan out as expected, they have perfectly balanced side – assuming Kobe doesn’t ruin it and World Peace can still guard the perimeter. All of a sudden height means something again.
James can guard anyone but Gasol and Howard is a tough ask even for James. Last season the Heat could play small ball because of the well documented dearth of big men in the NBA. The Heat’s rivals to the NBA title last season – The Spurs, The Thunder, The Bulls, The Celtics, 76ers etc – all were short of a decent scoring big man.
The big men James could have come up against were Tim Duncan – a shadow of his former self – Kendrick Perkins/Serge Ibaka, Joackim Noah, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand/Spencer Hawes. Not the most intimidating list, even considering Garnett’s incredible play in the playoffs.
Now, however, there is a good chance the Heat will have to overcome the Lakers to repeat. What will win out, size or speed, traditional or the unorthodox. It’s a fascinating question, and you can bet whoever comes out on top will have plenty of imitators.