On the NBA: Musings from the Dog Days of FebruaryThe Contingency LeagueLast week’s trade deadline saw no splashy moves. The biggest headlines came from the Rockets, who stole #5 overall pick rookie Thomas Robinson from the Kings, under the nose of every GM with a pulse (I can’t wait to see Robinson’s scary athleticism near the rim work into the most running team in basketball), and from the Bucks, who sent expiring contracts to the Magic for J.J. Redick. That’s it. While the Bucks move was a bit puzzling—seeing as J.J. Redick is not that guy who can put them over the top, into a new competitive bracket, and seeing as his contract is also expiring, and Milwaukee’s potential financial commitments to Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are quite the albatross—Houston’s trade made complete sense: here’s a competitive team that’s rising, and building fast to a very bright future.
But it’s here that Houston stands alone. The cause for inactivity everywhere else was a general plague of confusion about how to proceed in roster-building. The new CBA is a tectonic force, and GM’s are stumped. Many of them seem set to gut their teams of old pre-CBA contracts, and enact the new reality of shorter, lesser-paying deals as soon as they possibly can. In the short term, this is likely to equate to weaker competitive effort, but opinion around the league is that you’re not going to win a championship, anyway, unless you’re Miami (or maybe San Antonio or OKC, if you do absolutely everything right and also get lucky); in the long term, this means fiscal responsibility of the kind that’s soon to be necessary (when all of the harshest penalties of the new CBA kick in for real) to win—unless you’re the Buss family or Mikhail Prokhorov, in which case spending money is a laughable occurrence.While this hangover persists, the competitive thrust of the league seems locked into a sort of indifference about the present, as all of Miami’s nearest challengers are at least one major piece from true championship-level respect—and it’s even that one extra big-time contract that’s a huge quagmire for teams, until they shed their pre-CBA deals, and catch up to the freedom in free agency that Daryl Morey and Mark Cuban have long made a point of maintaining.Breaking Down the DefenseSince zone defenses were made legal in the NBA, the league has changed drastically, in the very basic category of ‘what happens on the court.’ While certain masters (Kobe, Melo) remain frequent isolation dangers, most teams are being nostalgic, more than anything, when they fail to institute a more dynamic, movement-based offense. It’s been said that the NBA is a now a ‘pick and roll league,’ but in the motion offense of the Spurs, there’s something that, while pick and roll-based, is more sophisticated than any other scheme in the league—hell, the Spurs’ offense seems more complicated than most NFL schemes. The Spurs’ players partake in a web of movement, usually begat by the space created by a screen, and continue to push the ball toward the rim until they get a close, high-percentage shot, or kick out for a three. There is no standing around, and all of it seems meticulously rehearsed.In this offense, the team has cast a model that just might be the future of the NBA. Houston’s offensive approach is philosophically similar, even though it’s starkly opposite in that there are almost no plays being ran; their fast-break-first mode results in lots of at-the-basket play, and lots of three-pointers; contested mid-range shots are a big no-no. And while both teams have some superstar talent in their starting five, they’re both leading successful campaigns mostly by maximizing their rosters with an overwhelming schematic ability to create high-percentage shots. For teams waiting until this summer or 2014’s to get on track, instituting an offense that, like these, responds to the evolution of the game, is a must.Waiting for SupermanIn Derrick Rose, the Bulls have a one-man defense collapser; they have a player so quick and intuitive that he doesn’t need a scheme, or even an open court, to create shots for himself—and, if he gets wiser like LeBron, a great amount for his team-mates, as well. The only problem is that Rose hasn’t played a single minute this season. Chicago is a good team that, with Rose, is a great one, and the most serious threat to Miami’s reign. And though they’re currently falling apart from other various injuries (and a confusion of spirit, in light of the recent explosion in Rose-related news and commentary), the Bulls already have the answer, on their roster, that most teams dream to find in the coming off-seasons.Fans are quick to forget that, prior to Rose’s ACL tear, he was an MVP award winner, and the Bulls were coming off a highly-contested Eastern Conference Finals loss against the much more experienced Heat, in the first of two consecutive seasons in which Chicago had the best record in the league. While Miami was still the favorite to take the East, again, the Bulls were something considerably more than dark horse contenders, around the league; we were still in the midst of the pre-LeBron-championship era, and the door looked just about as open for Rose as it did James. Miami and Chicago were destined for a series more intriguing than any.And while the team around Rose has changed since his injury—including the dismantlement of the league’s best second unit—it’s actually mostly improved; Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Luol Deng have all had to step up and take turns as de-facto go-to scorers, which is what the Bulls lack the most, even with Rose.The realest question to the championship landscape of the league might be this: can Derrick Rose possibly account for the momentum Miami’s gained in his absence? While this seems impossible, it’s important to note just how much more important off-seasons have been than in-seasons, to the growth of many an NBA legend.