I OFTEN THINK ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF BASKETBALL and the way the narratives and perceptions surrounding different eras of the game metamorphosize over time. So I naturally found it interesting when NBA and international elder statesman Pau Gasol — one of the league’s most consistently thoughtful people — recently said the following:
“It has changed a lot. For me, the big change is the game itself. There are very fast shots, very short possessions, few passes in each attack. There are many hasty shots. When I was younger, some of the shots that are attempted today would have seen the coach send you to the bench as a punishment. Now it is encouraged to shoot in the first eight seconds of possession. It has lost the beauty of the game, the purity it had, the fact of moving the ball from one side to the other, the ball inside-outside, which was to play with two in the post. Now there are times when there are teams that play with five small guys. [Mario] Hezonja played the other day as center with us.”
He continues, “I don’t know, it’s different. I want to keep fighting, I think you can win by playing with two tall players. I wish I could contribute to this theory, really, in the time I have left as a player. The fact is that the NBA likes this dynamism, this speed. This is how society and the world, in general, are evolving. Everything is like that, everything is more dynamic, faster.”Via Marca
A lot to unpack there. While we could debate the value judgment he seems to be attaching to it, concluding the NBA acts as a sort of mirror for the broader accelerated culture around us is probably a fair assessment. It is also its own dissertation or 300-page hardcover book, so let’s set it aside for the time being.
Instead, let’s talk about a very specific word he uses, and what it means for the larger conversation about the stylistic direction of the league: “purity.” If Pau’s phrasing were any more loaded, it would be belting out “Don’t Stop Believin'” at a karaoke bar at 1:30 AM. With one word, he is effectively subtweeting an entire generation of players, fans, coaches, and executives. While it’s amusing to see an ACTIVE NBA PLAYER already deploying the “back in my day” rant, there’s nothing all that interesting or novel about it. We’ve seen nearly every legend who came up in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s make the same argument, and it will smack of the same cognitive bias/narcissism/ego it always has until the very end of time. Nothing new under the sun. [The truly hilarious part is seeing someone wax nostalgic about the early/mid aughts — widely considered the single worst era in NBA history — as some sort of Golden Age of Beautiful Basketball. I was there. It was mostly lousy.]
But this idea of the “purity” of the game is something different. The not-so-subtle inference Pau is making is the shot which results from an offensive possession is not meant to be predetermined. It is purely a function of the movement which preceded it and the ecosystem in which it takes place. By contrast, he’s saying today’s players are essentially reverse engineering possessions to get to the most efficient shot as quickly as possible, rather than the “right” shot. It’s a plea for art over science, and at some aesthetic level, he isn’t wrong.
The challenge with the argument is it elevates a secondary goal over a primary one. The objective of basketball is to score more points than the other team, not to realize some Platonic ideal of hoops artistry. Strategies evolve to best meet the primary objective, and if the unintended consequences of those changes become too much of a drag on the entertainment factor for the fans, the league eventually adjusts the rules, at which point the process begins anew. For the NBA, it’s an unending struggle to find the proper balance. We’re currently in the middle of the cycle, which is why these aesthetic considerations are gaining traction. Overall, the NBA business continues to prosper amid a talent boom and a growing cohort of young and international fans with an appetite for the pace-and-space style of play. Yes, we all tend to have stronger associations with experiences from formative periods in our lives, but that’s only part of the explanation.
Stats are not the be-all, end-all in this sort of discussion, but they can help us interpret what our eyes see. In this case, they confirm Pau’s assertion: the game is faster and more dynamic. The following are all incontrovertible facts:
- Over the first 160 games of the ’19-’20 season, the league average pace is 102.2 possessions per 48 minutes. The NBA has not played this fast since the early/mid-80’s, an era many old school fans view as the apex of entertaining team play.
- In the 2018-19 season, the league average for Effective Field Goal Percentage (which accounts for the added value of a made 3-pointer) was 52.4%, an all-time high. The average Turnover Percentage was 12.4%, an all-time low. The average Offensive Rating was 110.4 — you guessed it — an all-time high. And the average Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt, a good measure of how frequently the game is being stopped for foul shots, was .198, one of the lowest in history.
- The average team notched 24.4 assists per 100 possessions last season, the highest figure since 1995-96, which for the record, was five years before Pau Gasol was drafted. [Related: Second Spectrum tracks Passes Thrown, but this data only goes back to 2013-14, so it’s unclear how current trends stack up relative to earlier eras.]
- The top-10 teams by Defensive Rating last season won an average of 48.2 games. So far this season, the top-10 are a combined 71-36.
Taken together, this data suggests a league which plays fast, clean (in terms of fouls and turnovers), and efficient. The ball moves, and the most successful teams are generally the ones who play the best defense. The depth of talent is at an all-time high, the league is full of multi-skilled players at every position (or no position, depending on your vantage point), and the lumbering big men have mostly been driven into extinction.
So what is there not to like about the pace-and-space era? Why is there such a large contingent of people who disapprove of the on-court product, when by nearly any objective standard, the game of basketball itself is being played better?
I’m not here to crap on Pau Gasol, but it’s not difficult to draw a through line from “I’m a post-up big man who doesn’t run the floor well or defend in space” to “it makes me sad the league is phasing out players like me.” Gasol has a vested interest in his legacy at this point of his career, and propping up the version of the game which allowed him to be his best self serves those interests. Fine.
But his stated argument boils down to “bad shot selection is ruining the beauty of the game.” If these “hasty” shots early in the shot clock aren’t actually the result of less passing (which we have no identifiable evidence of), and they ultimately result in more points being scored, both in total and on a per-possession basis, then what exactly about them hurts the “beauty” and “purity” of the game? When you strip everything else away, it sounds an awful lot like Gasol — a Hall of Fame player and basketball genius, mind you — is essentially making the same argument as all the old school nostalgics out there on the interwebs: “I don’t like all these durned three pointers.”
THE MIGRATION FROM the post up-centric attack (and its supposedly extinct bastard cousin, the midrange game) to the slash-and-kick, three-heavy modern style has been well-documented by now. When Pau entered the league (2001-02), teams averaged 16.1 three point attempts per 100 possessions. In the early stages of this season, that pace has almost exactly doubled (32.3). While post ups have become less frequent over time, the percentage of shots taken from ten feet and in has remained mostly stable throughout the century. [The field goal percentage on these shots has gradually increased, probably a result of the combo of less inefficient post ups and better spacing to attack the hoop.] No matter how much shot profiles have changed, the area around the rim remains the most important real estate in basketball.
Most of the difference has come in the form of midrange jumpers and long twos becoming threes, especially from role players. Star shot creators still utilize the midrange extensively — seriously, watch any Kawhi Leonard game — but if you aren’t a primary creator, you damn well better be able to catch and shoot from beyond the arc in 2019. [If you want the actual numbers, here they are: in ’01-’02, 38.3% of field goal attempts came from between 10 feet and the 3-point line, vs. 18.1% from downtown. In ’19-’20, those figures have essentially flip-flopped, with 17.7% of shots coming from midrange and 37.2% from deep.] The spacing and the math work symbiotically. Dragging defenders out further opens up driving lanes, and while league average from midrange/long two usually hovers around 38-40%, league average from three is typically around 35-36%. People can resist embracing analytics all they want, but there is simply no way to fight the math on this one. It’s here to stay.
[The exception that proves the rule is, of course, former Gasol teammate LaMarcus Aldridge, who shoots over 50% of his shots from midrange AND is consistently one of the leaders in post up attempts per season. He’s been an All-Star seven times, including the last two seasons as the league-wide three-point barrage has continued to ramp up. If you want to read more about the Spurs’ tug-of-war between the past and the future, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote an excellent breakdown of it here.]
As I mentioned, a full 37% of field goal attempts have been threes this year. Definitely a high number, but not exactly the reductive, “it’s just Pop-a-Shot now” argument emanating from the online fever swamp. Two factors are likely fueling the aesthetic backlash to the pace-and-space revolution. First, like most revolutions, it has happened a lot faster than we realize. Average three-point attempts per 100 possessions didn’t crack ten until 1993-94. It ticked up briefly when the league moved the line in from ’94-’97, but then regressed again, and didn’t hit 20 until 2011-12. So it took 18 full seasons for the rate to go up by ten attempts per 100 possessions. In the ensuing 7+ seasons, the rate has gone up by another 12.3 attempts. Fans, especially long-time ones, can tend to be slow in embracing stylistic changes, regardless of sport. [Ask any 50-or-older person what he/she thinks of the shift in baseball, and then brace yourself for the string of profanities to come.] And this shooting diaspora has been anything but gradual. The speed and geometry of the game look vastly different in 2019 than they did even five years ago, when the Warriors first became THE WARRIORS. [Seriously, that was only five years ago, even if it feels like a lifetime in NBA years.]
This leads to the second factor, which ties in with Pau’s original point: it isn’t just the location of the shots, but the types of shots, who is shooting them, and when. Hunting corner threes as an offensive goal feels quaint now, because it is. The efficiency of the corner three remains robust as ever (league average is between 38-40% virtually every year, almost identical to all those “lost art” midrangers), but as defenses have evolved to limit the damage from these juicy shots, the percentage of corner treys as a function of total three-point attempts has consistently dropped. [Overall, corner three attempts account for only 19.9% of total attempts from deep so far this season, down from 25.3% in 2014-15.] You can’t have pace-and-space without the latter part, so as that profitable area on the court has been neutralized to an extent, offenses have acted like residents of metropolitan areas and sought out space in the only place it is available: by expanding outward.
Above-the-break threes as well as deep threes have become purposeful weapons as opposed to end-of-clock last resorts. Stars such as Steph Curry, James Harden, Trae Young, Dame Lillard, Luka Doncic, and even LeBron James have all expanded their games by increasing the amount of court in which they have to be guarded. Without a doubt, seeing a guy pull up off the dribble from 30+ feet away, especially in transition, can be triggering for basketball purists, and understandably so. It is the very definition of what we’ve all considered a “bad shot” (or “hasty,” in Pau’s words) for as long as we’ve been alive. And lesser players certainly shouldn’t be attempting such high degree-of-difficulty shots early in the clock, when something better may be available. No argument there. But if a star player can 1) make the shot with reasonable proficiency, and 2) force the defense to stretch itself even thinner on subsequent possessions, thus creating more space to attack the basket, then is the problem one of shot selection, or merely our own lack of imagination?
So far, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about league averages because they are a useful shorthand for the overarching trends we’re witnessing. It’s also important, however, to zoom in from the ten thousand-foot view of the debate and look at the extremes to see how they inform it. At one end, there are the Spurs, shooting by far the most midrange shots — primarily due to the throwback games of Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan — while ranking 29th in 3-point attempt rate. [KOC’s piece does point out how San Antonio has embraced some pace-and-space elements, particularly during non-LMA/DeRozan minutes. Dejounte Murray appears to be shot out of a cannon whenever he gets in transition, and it should come as no surprise Gregg Popovich is figuring out how to use the entire buffalo when it comes to the skill sets on his roster. Even so, San Antonio currently sits at 5-6, ninth in the crowded West.]
The polar opposite of the Spurs’ retrograde attack is, of course, the Houston Rockets. Houston is 8-3 (currently tied for 2nd in the West), though their schedule has been soft and their play a tad uneven to this point. In any case, the Rockets are the distillation of Pau’s point, playing at the league’s second-fastest pace, excising post ups and midrange jumpers from their arsenal almost entirely, and taking over half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, by far the highest in the league. Owing mainly to the isolation brilliance of James Harden, the Rockets have the league’s highest free throw rate, and despite their stratospheric 3-point rate, they are 29th in the league in percentage of 3-point makes which are assisted. [Portland is dead last, which makes sense given how Damian Lillard is basically doing a poor man’s Harden this season. But Dame’s got bars, so I guess that’s better?] The Rockets rank near the bottom of the league in both Passes Thrown and assists per game. Pau might as well have looked straight into the camera and said, “I’m talking about you, Houston. Fuck you.”
Dumping on Houston’s style (and Harden’s theatrics) has become a cottage industry. It’s hard to argue against the idea they’ve turned basketball games into science experiments, testing the limits of analytics on winning in real time. [This line of thinking discounts how the math doesn’t work without a transcendent creator like Harden doing the heavy lifting, but I digress.] Here’s the thing: once again, it is not the Rockets’ job to play a style of basketball which the average fan finds scintillating. It is their job to win games, a task at which they have been consistently successful since Harden came over from Oklahoma City. Why does it cheapen the game to see how far they can run with a specific idea? Isn’t there some artistry in pushing boundaries? And even if you don’t believe that, then you aren’t contractually obligated to consider it some sort of blight on the purity of the game — just root against them!
In the long run, the league always adapts its rules to create a better equilibrium between competitive balance and entertainment value. They widened the lane, added the three-pointer, adopted the Defensive Three Second Rule (a sneaky-important change in league history), and abolished the hand check, among many other tweaks. We aren’t there yet, but if the analytics/three-point boom threaten to overwhelm our fundamental concept of how basketball works — say, teams begin selling out so hard to stop threes that they willingly concede open layups and dunks as their overall defensive strategy — then the NBA will make changes to reestablish homeostasis. [They could move the line back, or get rid of the break (effectively removing the corner three), or eliminate three-shot fouls, or change the size/shape of the lane to encourage easier post play, or tighten up enforcement of illegal screens (for real this time), etc.] Point is, there are ways to legislatively counteract the math if it comes to that. For now, let’s give the defenses more time to adjust to this new paradigm before we throw the baby out with the bath water.
The league remains in a phenomenal place, illustrated by the fact we’re left to argue about such abstract things as stylistic beauty and purity, as opposed to tangible things like head injuries, or PED use (yeah, I know), or financial issues, or criminal scandals. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion on which version of the NBA game is/was “best” in an entertainment sense, but trying to argue the game we’re watching now is objectively worse than what we grew up with amounts to little more than “get off my lawn” curmudgeon-speak.
Get on my lawn. The grass is plenty green over here, and as pure as a transition 32-footer splashing the net.
All stats accurate through Wednesday night’s games, and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Top Photo Credit: Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports
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