Splash Bros vs. Stache Bros: The Future of the NBA
Note: written prior to the 2016 Western Conference Finals
For the better part of the last two seasons, the NBA as we know it has revolved around the Golden State Warriors’ backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, better known as the Splash Brothers. Last season, the two led the franchise to a then-record 67 wins en route to the team’s first title since 1975. This season, the two have fared even better, setting an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins while coasting through the first two rounds of the playoffs, despite Curry missing six of the team’s playoff games. Oh yeah, and Curry won back-to-back MVPs along the way.
Looking past the success of the backcourt, the Warriors create matchup nightmares when they insert what’s been dubbed the “Lineup of Death,” with Curry running point, Thompson at the two, and Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green at the three, four, and five, respectively. The length and athleticism of this lineup has given opposing coaches fits, running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, forcing teams to either switch and let Curry and Thompson be guarded by a big man who can’t match their speed, while Green or Barnes rolls to the basket covered by a guard who is giving up six or seven inches. Of course, the other option is to let your guard fight through the screen, essentially letting one of the Warriors’ guards take an uncontested three — the Splash Bros have gotten pretty good at that.
Because the Warriors have been so successful at this, everyone else around the league has attempted to adapt and recreate the Lineup of Death, and while everyone tries, no one succeeds. Draymond Green’s ability to guard players five or six inches taller or shorter than him makes him one of the most unique players in the league, and the one player no team can replicate. His unique skillset has led many pundits to believe that the future of the league revolves around athletic centers, who can guard multiple positions, pass like a point forward, and shoot like a point guard. Though some young guys like Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns appear to have what it takes to develop a game like this, no one has managed to do it quite like Green and the Warriors, despite the best efforts of essentially every team in the NBA. Every team, that is, that is’t the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder.
Throughout the 2015–16 season, the Thunder were constantly carried by stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both players averaged over 23 points per game and finished in the top 5 of MVP voting. As the focal point of the OKC offense, teams focused in on these two, leaving rookie head coach Billy Donovan with the difficult task of figuring out how to keep the other three players on the court involved when he had two stars ready to do the heavy lifting. In the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, Donovan finally figured out how to handle the remainder of his crunch-time lineup, and he could alter the trajectory of the league with this discovery.
The Thunder’s frontcourt has been a work in progress since the emergence of the one-two punch of Westbrook and Durant, with 22-year-old Kiwi Steven Adams being a work in progress who has shown flashes of brilliance during his young career. During the semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, however, Donovan finally did something he had done very infrequently during the season: paired Adams with fellow young big man Enes Kanter. The results were dynamic, and a new famous duo from Oklahoma City was born: enter, the Stache Brothers.
Adams and Kanter provided a spark against an older San Antonio team, with the two averaging nearly seven offensive rebounds per game in the six games series. These opportunities came up in major situations time and time again, but were particularly important in Game 5, where the Thunder climbed out of a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to win in San Antonio. The mismatch the two provide along the offensive glass is where the Stache Bros are going to separate themselves from the Splash Bros and their undersized comrades. While Golden State is going to look to use the Lineup of Death to draw the two bigs away from the basket to run their patented pick-and-roll and find offensive mismatches, Oklahoma City is going to find ways counter on the offensive end themselves.
If the Thunder feed their bigs in the low post, they are going to have a significant height advantage over both Green and Barnes. While Green has shown he is more than capable of defending over his height, an undersized and overwhelmed Harrison Barnes could be the defensive mismatch OKC exploits. If a perimeter player slumps in to help Barnes on Adams or Kanter, the two have shown they can find open players along the 3-point line from the paint. From there, it will be up to Westbrook, Durant, and their band of misfits to find open shots. And remember, there will be second and third chances on offensive possessions, as the 7-foot Adams and 6-foot-11 Kanter will get their share of offensive rebounds. Even if the Splash Bros are converting 45% from 3, Oklahoma City dominating the glass will keep them in the series.
Though the battle of Splash versus Stache may only decide the outcome of this series, if we see the Thunder’s post duo thrive, it could change the small ball trajectory many believe the NBA is currently on. Rather than copying what the Warriors have done so well for the past two seasons, a glimmer of hope from the Thunder’s 1–2 punch could give coaching staffs and front offices across the league a new way to beat the Warriors. Rather than matching them tit-for-tat with undersized and athletic bigs, this match-up could prove that it’s best to zig when the rest of the league zags. Finding towering big men who can move the ball, finish in the lane, and punish opposing teams on the offensive glass could theoretically supplant the Lineup of Death as the way to challenge the current champs. If this tweak from OKC does lead to the Warriors ultimate demise, we would just have two mustaches to thank.