The NBA Meta

This will be a multi-part series understanding the NBA Meta. When I describe the meta, I’m describing the standard way of play or the generally agreed upon best way of approach. This has been a common use of term in competitive games such as Overwatch or CS-GO. Within those games, rules and game mechanic balancing give certain character or gun selections preference over others. These standard choices and styles are considered “meta” because they represent the most likely course to victory as a result of the rules and styles within the game. In the NBA, rules and effectiveness are not tinkered with through patch updates, but through the evolution of rules instituted by the league, the player personnel and offensive and defensive tactics developed by teams.

Though it was never described as a meta, the standard customs and tactics of play have been shaped through the ripples effects of inside and outside influences. Changes by the league of its rules, such as the outlawing of hand checking, illegal defenses and defensive violation calls have shifted the meta NBA offense from running through big men in the post to high pick and roll and perimeter oriented guard play. The current era of NBA basketball has experienced an explosion in three point tries. The rise of analytics have progressed different ideas of the most effective ways to play, shifting the meta.

The NBA is a copycat league; teams and coaches copy ideas, schemes and team construction from each other. Essentially, creative coaches test new styles of play that prove incredibly effective. Teams employ non-meta offensive tactics and defensive schemes that prove to be more effective than the meta, and thus, other teams copy and the meta shifts. Houston General Manager Daryl Morey described this phenomena in 2013, “A lot of the defensive strategies you see now are a natural evolution from rule changes. First the defense evolved by overloading the strong side, and now the offenses are evolving to beat that.” The meta shifts again once offenses (or defenses) acclimate to the new schemes.

In the late 2000s, Coach Tom Thibodeau created a defensive scheme predicated on overloading the strong side of the floor and painted areas, forcing opposing teams to rely on passing around the perimeter to beat it. Zach Lowe described this in 2013 in an article for Grantland, “Coaches want players away from the ball “to 2.9” on defense…Stay in the paint for as long as possible without committing a defensive three second violation” (Lowe).

In the above clip from 2010, the Boston Celtics utilizes Thibs’ defensive scheme to disrupt the Orlando Magic’s offense. At the start of the possession, Magic player Vince Carter (he played for Orlando!?!?) drives right off of a pick and roll set at the top of the key. On the weak side of the floor, Paul Pierce slides to the paint in order impede Orlando roll man Dwight Howard.

He leaves his offensive assignment open in the corner, understanding that he or teammate Rajon Rondo will be able to recover in the event of a cross court pass. Orlando’s inability to beat the defensive motion and find the opening (shown in the still frame) causes a turnover.

Here, Orlando runs a double high screen and roll to the right hand side of the floor in order to find space in the paint for Dwight Howard. Orlando guard Jameer Nelson tries to force a soft pass over his defender. The ball is picked off by Paul Pierce, who left his man on the weak side of the floor, executing the same defensive rotation he did in the first play. However, in this second clip, we can see potential ways to beat this rotation.

Prior to Pierce’s rotation, there is a small opening for a bounce pass to Dwight Howard. The rotation by Pierce forces a greater level of precision by teams in the P&R. At the top left side of the frame, Orlando forward Matt Barnes is sitting on the 3 point line. In the center of the court above the free throw line, Rashard Lewis is standing motionless, watching the pick and roll action. If Barnes is enough of a shooting threat or Lewis is able to float behind the three point arc, they could have been auxiliary options for Jameer Nelson to rotate the ball to an open shooter.

The 2010 Celtics become a model for defensive rotations around the league. Thibadeau’s defensive tactics changed the defensive meta. The goal of the new defensive meta was to force an offense to take shots outside of the paint and to move the ball in order to beat it. Teams like the late 2011 Miami Heat adapted to this.

Playing the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Heat attack the Celtics’ rotation scheme. The first adjustment to Orlando’s strategy was Miami’s use of the high screen and roll action. Instead of initiating the play inside the three point arc, ballhandler Dwyane Wade calls for Chris Bosh to set his screen further out, creating more ground that the rotation from the weak side of the court would have to cover. Glen Davis, guarding Udonis Haslem, rotates from the weak side to stop the drive by Wade or potential roll by Bosh. Pierce rotates into the paint to cover Davis’ man, Haslem. However, while Orlando had their shooter stay in the corner, Lebron James decides to cut to the basket to open up an outlet pass for Wade. This cut is made possible by the early rotation by Glen Davis and the screen set on Pierce by Haslem. Pierce, manning the middle of the paint, is unable to reach James because Haslem is aware that Pierce is the only defender in the area to cover both him and James.

Rule changes and innovation can change meta styles of play across the league, but personnel is also often a factor. The 2011 Miami Heat used a “pace and space” approach, surrounding playmakers with cutting and shooting to confuse the defense. This offensive scheme was predicated on a distributor that could find the holes in the defense and the players as they moved. Players like Wade and James were able to fill this role, and the pairing’s interchangeability in this role helped Miami initiate their offense from anywhere on the court.

While Lebron’s skill set isn’t replicable, teams like the 2016 Golden State Warriors have utilized their otherworldly shooting threats and excellent passers to score points in similar ways that expose defensive rotations. Each year in the draft, teams ask who is “the next Draymond Green”, attempting to find players that may allow their teams to play this style of offense.

The NBA Analytics community has found that the most efficient shots on the court are free throws, layups and dunks and three pointers; fearsome mid-range scorers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are no longer in vogue as player models. Daryl Morey attempted to establish a non-meta style of play that, according to analytics, would be more efficient than the meta play style. Moreyball was born, an offense almost completely dependent on attacks to the rim and open three pointers.

An assembly of shooters that play the 1–4 positions on the court open the lane for James Harden to attack. Fearful of his crafty finishes, teams are forced to carefully balance guarding Harden and his roll man while sticking to shooters standing multiple feet behind the arc.

The cross court passes that Boston once encouraged evolved into the bread and butter of Houston’s offense. Typically run by James Harden (though Pat Beverly in the clip above can execute it as well), these plays are meant to discourage defenders from drifting away from perimeter shooters, creating possessions that are 3 on 3 or 2 on 2 opportunities.

Houston had the 2nd highest Offensive Efficiency in the league in 2016–17 behind an armada of three point shooters and rim runners. The offense, piloted by Harden, shot the most three pointers in a season in league history. 46.3% of their shots taken were from beyond the arc, almost 7 percentage points ahead of the 2nd highest proportioned team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets shot the fewest field goals from the mid-range in the league, eschewing the statistically least efficient shot from their elite offense.

The rise of offenses predicated on spacing, movement and three pointers has been shaped by rule changes and defensive innovations. High P&R offenses and low mid-range shot proportions have become the new NBA Meta for offenses. While some teams do this more effectively than others, most strive to reach the levels of offensive efficiency of the Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets through replication of their play styles. The rise of three point shooting is being characterized as analytics driven basketball. While this is true, this should not be misunderstood as an niche choice for offensive play prioritization. Instead, the shift in shot selection and offensive scheme represents a change in the offensive NBA Meta.