Monday, June 12, 2006

NBA Finals - Rileyball: end of an era?

Following the Mavericks's blowout of the Heat on Sunday, Heat coach Pat Riley claimed it was due to the passion and the intensity of the Dallas players.
"This game was about another team's competitiveness and energy," the [Miami Heat] coach [Pat Riley] said. "Their energy and their effort far surpassed ours."

Sorry, try again.

Riley - whose post-Showtime reputation is one of a motivator first, defensive tactician second (especially on how to exploit the no-longer operative illegal defense rules) and offensive guru last - is as regular as Old Faithful when it comes to his diagnosis of his team's ills. Any of his teams. He sang the same song in LA. He sang it in NY. He sang it before and he is singing it again in Miami. For Riley it always comes down to who wants it more, who works harder, who is more motivated.

It is that sort of tunnel-vision that explains much about why Riley's team has not been competitive in these first few Finals games. Riley has failed the team as much if not more than any other person. He has failed them because he himself has failed to adapt to changing times.

'Rileyball' was an epithet given to the ugly shove'n'grab basketball that Riley promoted at the tail end of his run in LA and throughout his reign at NY and Miami. Its essence is to drain the air out of the ball by making the game a physical wrestling match, permitting the team with the biggest, most committed goons to bludgeon their way to victory.

Essential to this strategy is having a few stars (to, you know, actually put the ball into the basket) and surrounding them with flawed players who possessed the mindset of berserker warriors. The stars would score the ball through isolation and a two-on-two game while the supporting cast would provide the mania, occasionally chipping in with a spot-up bucket.

Not surprisingly, this led to the ugliest basketball this side of the shot-clock. Riley, being the pacesetter he was among the coaching fraternity had a great impact on how the game was played. This impact was heightened by his undeniable success, which was due in part to the good fortune he exercised in selecting the teams whose sideline he would grace and his unparalleled skill in exploiting the rules as they then existed - particularly the illegal defense rule, which he bent and broke on the defensive side (leading to several revisions of the rules) and just as importantly, which allowed him to reduce offense to isolations for his star players while hiding the deficiencies of the 'supporting cast.'

Now Riley was not alone in forging this unholy union between physical D and minimal O, but he was perhaps the most extreme exponent (even if not the most successful - witness Phil Jackson). Eventually, however, the league, facing declining attendence and televisual indifference, acted to restore the flow and beauty to what is intended to be a team game. As Boston sportsguru Bob Ryan put it:
Simply put, isolations had to go.

"My abiding sense," explains commissioner David Stern, "and Jerry's abiding sense [Jerry Colangelo, that is], was that isolation really was -- it seemed designed to hide the talents of a good percentage of our players and that we had to try to do something better than that. Hard defense -- good, smothering defense -- was OK from our perspective. If so, what was the offensive set? You put one guy in the corner and four guys, as I've said, in the parking lot, and that's NBA basketball?

The second problem: "There was a lot of slowing down players on the way to the basket, but not necessarily rising to the level of a foul," continued Stern. Hence the advent of ``points of emphasis" by the 2004-2005 season, which, according to Stern, ``began to allow players to move about without getting clipped on a regular basis so that there was no foul, but by the time they whorled their way to the basket it was as though they had been on a forced march."
Eliminating the 'illegal defense' and permitting zone defenses was a simple and ingenious method to restoring team offense. Why? Because teams with one or two stars could not simply hide their offensively inept teammates and in so doing make their counterparts vanish from the hardwood equation. All five players had to participate on offense or else allow the defense the luxury of any combination of doubleteams and zone defenses. Likewise, the crackdown on physical 'clipping' of players premits a freer flow of players on offense - thereby rewarding movement without the ball, something that had virtually vanished during the Rileyball era.

But what, you may ask, has this to do with the 2006 Finals? Well, it is a funny thing, but coaches, like so many other professional fraternities, are slow to adapt new ways of doing things. The rule changes themselves, although they had some immediate impact with regard to the efficiency of particular players, have not truly been exploited in a systematic fashion that demonstrates what is now possible. That is, not until this year's Finals. It took a coach who is creative and visionary (Avery Johnson), supported by the right organization (Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks), to conclusively demonstrate that the future of the NBA lies in a team game - both on defense and offense - and that the deeper and more talented team will benefit from the renewed emphasis on movement, speed, skills (like passing and shooting) and honest-to-goodness teamwork.

Most coaches and teams have stuck to what they took to be the virtues of Rileyball, which is how Riley and his Frankenstein monster of a Rileyball team - the Miami Heat - were able to cruise to the Finals. Not that they didn't encounter a few bumps on the way, but for the most part their opponents stuck to the Rileyball script allowing the Heat - who had the biggest baddest Rileyball star ever in Shaquille O'Neal - to prevail.

Shaq - a star who is also a goon - is the personification of Rileyball and to what depths the play in the league had fallen. Although personally beyond reproach, his lack of professional discipline (witness his FT woes) and reliance upon his brute strength to make up for his never having refined a post game by developing a go-to shot were not a handicap to success. Why? Because in Rileyball strength trumps skill, size trumps speed and a few talented individuals can outplay a roster of well-rounded team players. Shaq has never had to develop a proper post game because he could alway simply knock over his man and dunk the ball, or at worst, clear his opponent away with one arm while flipping a half-hook up with his other. And if the shot didn't go, he would simply go get the rebound and try again. He could do this because opponents had to play him one-on-one, allowing his immense size dictate the outcome either initially or in the scrum for the ensuing rebound. Or, if they did decide to double, the defense had to leave someone wide open, since zones were forbidden. And Shaq has never felt compelled to overcome his problems at the free throw line, since his advantages were so overwhelming that he could afford to miss bundles of free throws and still contribute to his team's victory.

None of this is to say that Shaq has not worked hard at his craft (particularly when it came to anything that would allow him to dunk the ball more thunderously), but his lack of basic skills, his indifference to conditioning, his almost arrogant refusal to refine his post game, instead relying for the most part on innate size and relative quickness, and his success despite these factors are symbolic of the rot that had set in with the rise of Rileyball. A player such as Shaq could only dominate the game as long as his team could isolate him on offense close to the basket, where his overwhelming bulk could determine the outcome most of the time.

But that has changed now, even though most of the league still does not realize it. You can now punish teams that are predictable on offense by keying on those predictabilities. Shaq is used to getting the ball, holding it and deciding whether to go for the dunk or pass it to an open player. But without the old illegal defense rules teams no longer have to wait to double team him and if they do they can zone the rest of his teammates. Shaq can no longer simply hold the ball since the double teams will be all the quicker and the open shots will no longer be quite so open. By allowing for team defense the NBA has allowed coaches to try and force teams to play team offense. Rileyball, however, is not predicated on team offense. It depends on isolation, which can mask the deficiencies of an Antoine Walker, a Jason Williams or an Udonis Haslem.

Avery Johnson and the Dallas Mavericks are showing the basketball community that the rules have changed and that the old ways of doing things are no longer sufficient. No longer will it be enough to simply dump the ball into the post and wait for the double team - over and over and over again. No longer will it be sufficient to simply get the bigger, badder frontline thug and let them 'punish in the paint.' Offense needs diversity, passing, ball and player movement - otherwise doubleteams and zones will smother even the biggest, baddest big man of all time.

None of this is to say that Shaq's career is over. He is talented and will continue to contribute for years to come. But the time is coming to a close when he could simply dominate by leisurly brushing players aside, waiting for the pass and either dunking or passing out to a wide open teammate - time after time after time. It is sad in a way, because Shaq clearly is not prepared for the changes that are going to be required of him. He is going to need a go-to post move, one which he can use quickly and reliably time-in and time-out. He also needs to get over his mental block, swallow his pride and learn to shoot free throws, because he can no longer simply make up for misses by bulling over players in the post time and again. These are skills he clearly could develop, but has never had to. Will he in the time left to him?

Regardless of what Shaq decides in the future, however, it seems clear that Riley has not prepared him or his teammates for it. Riley himself seems unaware of how the NBA game has changed. In part, that is due to the inherent conservativism of his coaching brethren. But at the same time, coaches are quick to adopt what works, and if nothing else, Avery Johnson has shown - on the biggest stage of all - how to stop Rileyball dead in its tracks. While Riley rants on about 'competitiveness' and 'energy' and 'effort,' staples of the Rileyball mantra, the rest of the league is witnessing the game as it passes him by. The game has changed but Riley has not. There were no apparent adjustments for the Heat between games One and Two and, if Riley remains true to form, there won't be any during the last few games of the series either.