Monstars Ball: Basketball’s Next Evolution
What can the most innovative teams of the past tell us about the next revolution of the game of basketball?
Don’t ask me how, but I was able to get my hands on the script for SpaceJam 2. Boy, is the audience ever in for a twist at the end of this one. SpaceJam 2 follows the same story arch as the original SpaceJam — LeBron James has retired from the NBA to help the Cleveland Browns’ break their QB curse when he is summoned by Bugs Bunny and the Toon Squad to help save Earth from destruction by the Monstars (who may or may not have stolen James Harden’s powers last night).
After LeBron heroically leads the Toon Squad to a victory, the Looney Toons deliver him back to Earth where he is almost late to his Browns game. Here’s where it gets weird. . . .
When the spaceship lands on Lincoln Financial Field (the Browns are playing against the Eagles), two things happen:
- Eagles fans pelt the spaceship with quarters and beer cans; and
- LeBron is confronted by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Josh Jackson & Jonathan Issac (the 76ers lucked out and got picks 3 & 4 in the 2017 Draft). The movie ends with Joel Embiid tweeting to the whole world:
“We got next!”
The NBA has been a copycat league for as long as I can remember — right now, most teams are trying to emulate the Warriors and Cavs in some form or another by playing small-ball, shooting lots of 3-pointers and spacing the floor out. A couple of years before that, teams tried to copy the Heat’s Positionless Basketball or the Spurs’ Pace and Space style of play. Before that, it was the Suns’ 7 Seconds or Less or the cringeworthy Isolation Ball.
The aforementioned styles of play were revolutionary and changed the way basketball was played in the NBA. Most of those “revolutions” seem to appear out of thin air at first glance, but the more you study them, the more you see the pieces were often in place — the team just needed a leader, a visionary.
Basketball revolutions tend to spawn basketball “evolutions” in the years that follow — these movements are less dramatic and occur when a team takes the main concept of a revolution and tweaks or refines the style of play a little (for better or worse). Examples of recent evolutions would include the Cavs refining the Heat’s Positionless Basketball or the Dwight Howard-led Magic refining the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rocket’s 4-Around-1 revolution.
Since 1988 (the year I was born), basketball has had a handful of successful revolutions and subsequent evolutions — let’s take a look at some of each and see if those movements can give us any idea of what the next basketball revolution might be. . . .
With apologies to revolutions like the Run TMC Warriors and We Believe Warriors (not successful enough), the Ubuntu Celtics (I don’t feel like talking about Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme), and the Uber Athletic Point Guard Offense (too tough to pinpoint which team/player started this movement), here are the most important revolutionary basketball movements of my lifetime:
Isolation Ball (early 1990s-late 2000s)
Revolutionary: Michael Jordan’s Bulls (1990s)
How it all began: Michael Jordan was already unstoppable offensively and had young running mates in Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in 1988–89. That offseason, coach Doug Collins was replaced by Phil Jackson and his Triangle offense. Within 2 years, Jordan hit his apex as a player — and 6 championships later, he was the G.O.A.T.
Theory behind revolution: (Note: the Triangle Offense obviously had more to it than just isolation ball, but bear with me). Get your best player the ball in advantageous spots on the floor and let him use his elite athletic ability, scoring chops and ability to facilitate as the focal point of your offense.
How it changed basketball: Although people don’t always think of MJ when they think of the Iso-Ball Era, MJ’s ability to dominate in isolation situations ushered in the Iso-Ball Era because everyone wanted to Be Like Mike.
Unfortunately, not everyone could Be Like Mike — in fact, no one from the next generation of players could even hold a candle to MJ as an offensive threat — the next three guys came the closest:
Evolutionary: Allen Iverson's 76ers (late 1990s-early-2000s)
- AI’s isolation plays had an added streetball element to them and normally involved the rest of his offensively-deficient teammates standing around watching him go to work.
- This was a worse evolution — while his quickness and tenacity were a sight to behold, AI’s version of Iso-Ball was often an inefficient mess.
Evolutionary: Tracy McGrady’s Magic (early 2000s)
- T-Mac’s isolation game was predicated on ELITE athleticism and a knack for catching fire. The ironic part about T-Mac was that he would have been better off as the Pippen to Vince Carter’s or Grant Hill’s Jordan, but, because of the way the salary cap was structure and injuries to Hill, he ended up all alone in Orlando.
- This was a worse evolution — when he had it going, T-Mac’s best could stack up to MJ’s best. However, work ethic and unlucky circumstances/injuries always held him back.
Evolutionary: Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (2000s-early 2010s)
- Kobe’s isolation game was a carbon copy of MJ’s — probably because he obsessively idolized Jordan and, from a physical standpoint, was a clone of Jordan.
- This was a worse evolution — Kobe was 90%-95% of Jordan. He came the closest, but there was no evolving past Jordan.
4-Around-1 (mid 1990s, late 2000s)
Revolutionary: Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets (mid 1990s)
How it all began: The Rockets finally recovered from the sudden end to its Twin Towers Era with only Hakeem left from a team that made the 1986 Finals. In the early 1990s, they began to surround Olajuwon with 3-point shooters like Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell. They made Rudy Tomjanovich the head coach in 1992 and drafted Robert Horry (the stretch-4 that made this offense so effective) and Sam Cassell in the next two drafts. They later added Clyde Drexler in a trade and the Rockets ended up winning two titles during MJ’s first retirement.
Theory behind revolution: Put four 3-point shooters around one highly skilled, very athletic big man who can pass out of the post. This prevents the defense from double-teaming the big man unless they want to leave 3-point shooters open.
How it changed basketball: This team planted the seeds for the small-ball lineup with a stretch-4 that we see today. Robert Horry’s ability to knock down 3-pointers and still adequately defend power forwards combined with Olajuwon’s elite rim-protecting abilities allowed the Rockets to dictate the pace and style of almost every game they played in.
Evolutionary: Dwight Howard’s Magic (late 2000s)
- The Magic’s version of 4-Around-1 was slightly different from the Rockets’ — Dwight wasn’t nearly as skilled as Olajuwon, but was still the best rim-runner, rebounder and rim-protector in basketball. The team made up for his offensive limitations by using two offensively-superior versions of Robert Horry (Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis) to initiate the offense.
- This was a worse evolution — despite having more talented guys on the perimeter, the Magic needed Dwight to develop more of a post game in order to win championships — he never did (even though he trained with Olajuwon a couple of off-seasons) . . . next thing you knew, Dwight was running his coach out of town and demanding a trade and the era was over.
Potential Evolutionary: Karl Anthony-Towns’ Timberwolves (late 2010s-2020s)
- The T’Wolves have a superstar big man (Karl Anthony-Towns), a star-in-the-making (Wiggins), a Jamal Crawford-in-the-making (Zach LaVine), and a top-7 pick (Lauri Markkanen???) on the way this year. Combine that with a good coach (Coach Thibs) and there’s more than a little hint of the Double-Clutch Houston Rockets there.
7 Seconds or Less (mid-to-late 2000s, current)
Revolutionary: Steve Nash’s Suns (mid-to-late 2000s)
How it all began: The Suns began assembling talent through the draft (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Leandro Barbosa) and through smart trades and signings (Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson). The pivotal moments came when the team named Mike D’Antoni its coach, traded away the star-crossed Stephon Marbury, and signed the cog that made the machine go — Steve Nash.
Theory behind revolution: Get a shot off within the first 7 seconds of the shot clock by playing with a small, faster lineup and taking the first good shot available. The philosophy at its core was to maximize its players’ offensive capabilities and outscore the other teams (who weren’t used to having to score 115 points to win a game). To accomplish this, the team needed a savant at Point Guard (Nash), spry forwards who could “play-up” a position (Marion and Stoudemire) and good wing scorers (Johnson, Barbosa, Richardson).
How it changed basketball: This team was the Renaissance Era that took the NBA out of the Dark Ages (the post-MJ Iso-Ball Era). Iso-Ball had gotten so bad and uncreative that teams were struggling to score more than 80 points/game in playoff games. It made basketball enjoyable again — both for the players and fans. Without this team, the current era of offensive enlightenment in the NBA would not have occurred so soon.
Evolutionary: Kobe/Dwight Lakers (2012–13)
- Just kidding.
Evolutionary: James Harden’s Rockets (current)
- While the Harden-led Rockets do not use the shoot within the first 7 seconds of shot clock philosophy as much, their offensive playing style is an evolution of the earlier Suns — they have the same visionary (D’Antoni) and put the ball in a savant’s hands tasked with making hundreds of reads every single game (Harden). They also spread the floor with great shooters/scorers at the wings. The new twists are that they emphasize open 3-pointers (instead of just open shots) and they use more defensive-minded, rim-rolling big men (instead of a Stoudemire or Boris Diaw-type).
- This is a well-adapted evolution for this era of basketball — the Rockets have “gamed the math” and fully embraced the 3-point shot — going 2/5 (40%) from three is the same as going 3/6 (50%) from two — with one less shot. So why not shoot more threes? The Rockets basically say “We’re going to take 40–50 threes tonight — if we hit 20 or more, we will win 95% of the time. And if we only hit 12–15, we still have one of the top-4 offensive players in the league in James Harden, so he can still win us the game too.
Positionless Basketball (2010s)
Revolutionary: LeBron James’ Heat (early 2010s)
How it all began: LeBron telling the world, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” However, people will forget that the Positionless Basketball Revolution was not really unveiled until the Game 4 of the first round against the Pacers in the team’s 2nd season together. Chris Bosh went down with an injury and, with the Heat trailing 2–1, they put LeBron at the 4-position and spread the court around him — unleashing his true genius-level passing and newly-crafted post game.
Theory behind revolution: Credit Chip Kelly for enlightening coach Eric Spoelstra — convincing him to ignore the concept of traditional positions and instead, focus on maximizing his best players’ talents. The Heat had this once-in-a-lifetime player in LeBron — instead of relegating him to a Small Forward or Power Forward position, they ran everything through him and let the basketball analysts try to decipher whether he was a Small Forward, Power Forward, Point Guard or Point Forward.
How it changed basketball: It was the precursor to much of what we see today — teams playing their best five players and playing to those players’ strengths instead of rolling out a traditional two Guards/two Forwards/one Center lineup.
Evolutionary: LeBron James’ Cavs (2015-Current)
- The Cavs’ current version of Positionless Basketball has evolved with the NBA’s most recent trend — emphasizing 3-point shooting. They surround LeBron with three or four good 3-point shooters at all times and allow him to dissect defenses with pinpoint cross-court passes to open shooters.
- This is a better evolution — both the Heat and Cavs had a great Big 3 with LeBron as the conductor, but these Cavs have better ancillary pieces and space the floor even better than those Heat teams ever did.
Pace and Space (mid 2010s-Current)
Revolutionary: Revenge Tour Spurs (2014)
How it all began: Bill Simmons once said about the 2013 Spurs, “no NBA team has ever come closer to winning a title without actually winning a title.” The roster was the same, but they were even more committed to Coach Popovich’s “move it or die” philosophy . . . and Kawhi Leonard made a mini-leap. The team also had a roster full of selfless, intelligent players and had a level of chemistry that was pretty much unparalleled in the modern NBA.
Theory behind revolution: Ball movement — shoot if you are open, otherwise immediately attack or pass the ball. The spread-out positioning and constant ball movement wore down the superiorly athletic teams like the Heat — who made its living by trapping and switching on defense.
How it changed basketball: The last three games of the 2014 NBA Finals were like watching Planet Earth for the first time — you had no idea that Earth (basketball) could be so beautiful and alive at the same time. It was truly mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, for the 2014 Spurs’ legacy, Steve Kerr was about to take those concepts and add two of the best shooters in NBA history to the mix.
Evolutionary: Splash Brothers/Death Lineup Warriors (2014–2016)
- In his first season as the Warriors’ head coach, Steve Kerr (who played for Coach Popovich and the Spurs late in his career), took the Pace and Space style and added Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to it. He gave them the green light to shoot as many 3-pointers as they wanted. The Warriors also lucked into having to play Draymond Green major minutes — unlocking a cheat code defender and excellent facilitator for the Splash Brothers — and stumbled upon the Death Lineup by inserting Andre Iguodala in for Andrew Bogut during the 2015 NBA Finals.
- This was a better evolution — the Warriors won 140 out of their next 164 regular season games, broke the Bulls’ 72–10 regular season record, won a championship and narrowly missed winning back-2-back championships.
Potential Evolutionary: Celtics (late 2010s-2020s)
- The Celtics have a great coach (Brad Stevens), a similar playing style to the Warriors, a solid/young roster in place, and two top-3 draft picks in the next 2 NBA Drafts. Thus, they are going to be very good — it’s just too hard to speculate what their roster will look like in three years (will they trade draft picks for guys like Jimmy Butler or Paul George or will they draft a Markelle Fultz and Luka Dončić and hope that they both develop into superstars?)
Pace and Space on PEDs (Current)
Revolutionary: Warriors (Current)
How it all began: Kevin Durant, the 2nd-best player in the NBA, decided to leave the 3rd-best team in the NBA (Thunder) and join the Warriors. In other words, the Warriors replaced the weak link in their death-ball lineup (Harrison Barnes) with the 2nd-best player in the NBA.
Theory behind revolution: Take arguably the best team in NBA history and add one of the top-25 players in NBA history to it.
How it changed basketball: Because the creation of this Super-Duper Team likely won’t ever be replicated — having four of the best twenty players in the league on the same team — the major impact this team has had on the league has been destroying parity. More teams are going to tank or try to wait out the Warriors for a few years until one or more of the Big 4 leave.
The Next Revolutions
The past revolutionary teams all had one thing in common — they had the pieces in place, they just needed the visionary leader of the revolution. So who are the next revolutionaries? The way I see, there are two rosters that could lead the next major movements in the NBA:
Revolutionary: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks (late 2010s-2020s)
How it all began: The Bucks have assembled a roster full of freakishly long players. Here’s the wingspans of some of their main rotation players: John Henson (7'5), Giannis & Thon Maker (7'3), Greg Monroe (7'2), Jabari Parker, Tony Snell & Mirza Teletovic (all 6'11), Khris Middleton and Malcom Brogdon (both 6'10). Will they keep assembling Slendermen and revolutionize the way defense is played in the NBA?
Theory behind revolution: It’s essentially the same concept behind Jim Boeheim’s 2–3 Zone at Syracuse — get a bunch of long, rangy ATHs out there with active hands and cut off all normal passing lanes and challenge every shot at the rim.
How it will change basketball: It could be the counter to the Pace and Space Revolution. What happens when the Warriors can’t easily swing the ball around the perimeter? The offense becomes a little more stagnant, a little less apocalyptic.
Revolutionary: Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons’ 76ers
How it all began: Trusting the Process — drafting Embiid, Saric, Simmons and whoever they get in this year’s draft (possibly two top-5 picks).
Theory behind revolution: Play gigantic players at every position — they already have a 7-foot Point Guard (Simmons), a 6'10 Point Forward (Saric), and a 7'2 potential Hakeem Olajuwon reincarnation (Embiid). What if they drafted a guy like Jonathan Issac (6'11 Small Forward) or Josh Jackson (6'8 Shooting Guard) or Lauri Markkanen (7'0 Stretch-4)? Depending on how the lottery shakes up, they could end up with two of those guys.
How it will change basketball: Much like Slenderman Ball, Monstars Ball would be a basketball revolution unlike anything we’ve ever seen before — could the 76ers trot out a lineup with an average height of 7-feet? Having the super versatile trio of Simmons, Embiid and Saric already in place allows them to get creative with this draft and free agency (assuming they all stay healthy). Maybe they only get one top-5 draft pick and take Malik Monk — they could still go after a James Johnson-type in free agency and have a lineup where the smallest player on the court is a 6'5 and the average height is still around 6'10.
All I know is, the Toon Squad is going to need Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and “MJ’s Special Juice” for SpaceJam 3.