Beyond the compilation and gelling of talent, beyond the fine-tuning of playbooks and familiarities with self and other, comes another level of NBA challenge—pace. The undoing of many a title competitor, knowing when to ease off and slam down on the acceleration pedal throughout the slog of the season is often the difference between having or not having the most important factor of all on your side. Health.
Much is made of the Chicago Bulls’ incessant pressing of this pedal. Fans and pundits alike have suggested it to be the cause of their never-ending injury problems. It’s not just Derrick Rose—the team’s other four starters have already missed a combined 16 games this season. And we can all remember what malnourished version of themselves they were by the time they got to the Miami Heat last year.
It would seem insane that Tom Thibodeau and his cast of excellent heads could not figure out that their hard work ethic, their ceaseless pressing in practices and games, is potentially their achilles heel. But at the end of the day, it’s also the source of the edge his teams have had.
Laying off the pedal is a privilege granted to the mega-talented in this league. The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs have showed their aptitude to spin their vaunted on-off switches as needed, but it’s a team skill for the very elite, the most crème of NBA outfits. Before developing a touch with one’s speed-shifting, a team must first do the hardest work of all and create a system of patterns and roles effective enough to warrant speeding and slowing.
That the rest of the upper pack (contending teams who aren’t the Heat, Spurs, Indiana Pacers or Oklahoma City Thunder) still have this work to do, before they can afford to adjust the intensity of their attack at will, is why they’re not real threats to the throne. It takes multiple seasons of calibration and continuity before that ultimate advantage can come; not the right miracle of basketball tetris, stricken into through masterful trading and free agency finagling.
The feverish contemporary fixation on player movement (and even coach movement, as the largely unfounded Thibodeau-related rumors of late will tell you), as such, is at an almost directly inverse relationship with the finding of that ceiling of ceilings: championship form.
The calls for Chicago to explode its template in the face of their latest slap from God are made without this perspective. The Bulls might be depressingly further from a championship than their fanbase believed at the season’s onset, but they’re sure not to get any closer by removing their wunderkind coach and totemic cultural figures—fearless blue-collar wall-makers like Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. They’re playing flaccid and sad basketball for now, but this is still a team with a mainframe that’s the envy of much of the league.
Any number of climbers in the lion’s den of the West are sure to learn similar lessons. Amidst calls for tectonic movement in any number of freshly-configured squads, the wisest teams are likely to be those who stand pat and allow their cores more time to get right. The 2008 champion Boston Celtics are but one aberrant blip in the roster of recent champions—their sudden stroke of big-name-seeking superstar gold is far more probable to turn to the kind of disaster that’s transpiring in Brooklyn right now. The rest of the latest winners have been patient enough to get to the point of toying with those around them—becoming more sprightly for Spring through the balm of deceleration when they choose—who haven’t taken the time to get to know themselves yet.