The Golden State Warriors deserve (and get) a lot of credit for almost inadvertently reshaping the positional conversation within pro hoops. Down two games to one in last June’s NBA Finals, the Dubs didn’t just go small; it was the way they went small that redefined how aspiring contenders now have to think about big man skill sets. By turning David Lee and Draymond Green into behind-the-pick playmakers, they brought about a strategic shift that has 29 other teams trying to turn their four-men into facilitators.
Lee recently recalled to the mothership’s Kevin Arnovitz how “everyone sensed a real shift” after GSW unlocked the potent formula at the end of game three. He was talking about the momentum swing in the series, but he may as well have been describing a larger shift that has been covered and dissected by basketball thinkers ever since. But what fewer people talk about is what the Cavaliers did in response.
They played along.
A cogent case could be made that, by that first week of last June, Timofey Mozgov was Cleveland’s second best player still on two feet.
The Cavs had acquired the Russian center midseason to address an amorphous defensive identity, and it worked. Shortly after getting him from Denver1, Cleveland reeled off 12 straight wins, the start of a 34-9 finish to the season. Mozgov’s strong play continued into the postseason, where the Cavs sailed through three rounds with a 12-2 record.
Injuries magnified Mozzy’s role as the playoffs continued along. As the body count kept rising, Cleveland found itself with just six guys left who had been part of the regular season rotation2. Mozgov was one of those six, and he was extremely important as the series got underway. He averaged 13 & 8 while anchoring the defense as the Cavs jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. Even in Game 4, as Golden State was unveiling their secret weapon, Mozgov had his best game of the series. He tallied 28 & 10, and was the only Cav to score more than a bucket when the Warriors tightened their defensive clamps in the fourth quarter.
And then Cavs coach David Blatt did something interesting in Game 5: he simply conceded to Golden State’s desired style and removed Mozgov from the equation.
Mozgov played just nine minutes in the loss: the first five minutes of the game, the first 37 seconds of the second half, and a few minutes in the fourth quarter during which Cleveland cut the GSW lead from six to two. To be fair, he didn’t have a great game. GSW had shelved his natural counterpart, usual starting center Andrew Bogut, and there were no comfortable matchups for him. But there was no effort to adjust his role in the schemes or otherwise allow him to impact the game. Blatt, down to six healthy rotation guys, just decided to accept Golden State’s terms and voluntarily shortened his bench even more.
Mozgov did play close to his regular minutes in Game 6, but it was too late to halt the Warriors’ momentum despite his solid outing. His final numbers for the series: 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks. Perhaps most importantly, Cleveland was +1 in the Finals with him on the court, and -44 when he was off.
Would the series have gone any differently had Blatt refused to play along with GSW’s downsizing? It’s impossible to know. But here’s what we do know: matching the Dubs’ small lineup certainly didn’t help. Blatt let Steve Kerr decide how the series was going to be played, and then Kerr got to be in a parade.
The Wasatch Front
The Utah Jazz really needed to beat the Los Angeles Clippers on April 8.
Heading into their final four games, Utah actually controlled its own destiny for a playoff spot. They just needed to finish 3-1 or better and they’d qualify, regardless of what anybody else did. One of those games, though, was hosting a hungry, veteran Dallas team vying for one of those same spots, so they didn’t have much margin for error. They could lose to the Clips or the Mavs, but if they lost to both, they’d need help in the form of a lottery team beating their competitors.
Doc Rivers appeared to be playing along when he left about half his rotation at home to rest. That gave Utah a decided advantage, a chance for burgeoning frontcourt stars Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert to dominate their Clippers counterparts, the smallish Jeff Green alongside Cole Aldrich.
Instead, Utah chose to match up small. Gobert didn’t play the final 4:55 of regulation or in overtime, a stretch during which LA won 17-10 as they flipped a 4-point deficit into a road win. The Clips outrebounded the Jazz 11 to 8 in that same 10-minute span, including an Aldrich O-board that he used to tie the game and force extra play.
It wasn’t the only time in the second half of the season that Utah lost a game in which half or all of the Wasatch Front duo sat down the stretch.
Would more time with a Gobert-Favors duo have made a difference in any of those situations? Who knows? But as with Mozgov and last June’s Game 5, those are six instances where we’re at least allowed to wonder if the Jazz gave up a personnel advantage.
“We made a decision to play big.”
Good teams are built flexibly, equipped from both a personnel and a skill standpoint to respond to a number of different styles and situations. Toronto earned a spot in the Conference Finals with a starting lineup that is 60% different from the one that started their postseason. OKC can play big or small, fast or slow. And this year’s Cavs have redefined themselves on the fly as a sharp-shooting outfit.
But the best teams try to dictate those style changes, not just react to them. And they certainly don’t surrender their advantages by letting the other team tell them when and how they can utilize their best players. Based on the plus-minus figures above, it’s pretty fair to say that’s what Blatt did last spring when he sat Mozgov.
The Gobert-Favors duo sports some similar arithmetic. The Jazz were +3.4 per 48 minutes when both players were on the court, +2.1 with one sitting, and -0.9 with both on the bench4. There was a definite cost to separating the pair or sitting them both.
When people ask whether the Jazz can compete with Favors and Gobert as their frontcourt, I think of those numbers. My answer: Hell yes! That’s why Utah made a conscious choice midway through the 2014-15 season to be what they are today: a team that throws 14 feet of long, rim-protecting, defensive menaces out there in defiance of the trendy smallish frontcourts creeping around the league.
“We made a decision to play big,” Snyder said last summer5, just one of several public mentions he has made of a willful shift to tall-ball. “It’s a tough decision right now because the league’s going small. But we’re trying to get our best players on the floor.”
Are they revisiting that decision, though? Every time they close a game with one of Favors or Gobert glued to his chair, it begs the question of whether the Jazz are rethinking what they want to be. And by the way, they’re allowed to do so. Team-building is a fluid process, and nobody goes from mediocre to good or especially from good to great without making some tough calls about their personnel. But they had better decide fast.
Utah will decide as early as this fall whether to keep Gobert with a contract that could be as high as $112 million over four years6 Then they have the option next year of a renegotiate-and-extend deal with Favors that could get him an extra three years and $96 million.
That’s a couple hundred million they could soon invest in a duo that, at least occasionally, doesn’t finish big games for them.
So… why don’t they?
Reasons & Fit
Coaches are supposed to read the game and respond to what happens. Sometimes they see a matchup that causes a player to struggle, a guy who’s tired, or something else that dictates some flexibility.
Sometimes it’s even broader than that. Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s has reiterated often that his immediate-term goal is less about wins and more about establishing a culture built on correct habits. So if something he’s seeing doesn’t jive with the ideologies he’s trying to instill, he might err on the side of reinforcing the philosophy even when that comes with an in-game cost. It reminds me of this great Stan Van Gundy quote from his 2013 Sloan Analytics appearance.
“One of the things in coaching is you’re trying to create a style of play and a culture that this is how we play the game. And every time you make an exception to that and say, ‘This is how we play the game, but not in this case; in this case you’re allowed to throw up whatever crap you want,’ then you’re breaking down your system a little bit.”
Bottom line is, Snyder knows his team far better than we do, and he knows the identity he’s trying to forge. He has a far keener eye — both on a macro level and a very granular level — for what he needs to see from each guy.
So this isn’t about second-guessing the coach. It’s about figuring out, if these two are going to be the future, how they fit together in the crucible of crunchtime.
There is a spacing issue with playing two non-shooting bigs7, but Utah addresses that by putting one at the top of the key and the other on the opposite side’s low block. It works because Favors has markedly improved his shooting from that range. The first Jazz game I ever covered was the night Utah discovered that rookie Jarron Collins could consistently make 12-16 foot jumpers opposite Karl Malone. It was an important shot because of how it lifted defenders off the baseline and away from where Karl set up shop, and it was a huge part of the reason a 52nd overall pick lasted eight seasons in Utah and played more than 8500 career minutes.
There are other ways to space aside from the outside-in version that’s all the rage. You can tug at the defense from the inside out, or use side-to-side movement and player motion to create fissures. That will be one of the keys to Favors & Gobert coexisting. Snyder and GM Dennis Lindsey also mentioned at the season’s close that they’re encouraging Gobert to operate at the fringes of his comfort zone as a high-post passer, so that he too can function from the top of the key. And Favors has talked about scooting further out as his range deepens over time.
So can they work together? Again, my answer is yes. But because this is a $200 million question, the Jazz can’t say “sure” and then accede to other teams’ lineup wishes. If the answer is yes, 59 minutes together in 30 fourth quarters and three overtimes just isn’t enough.
Like Snyder said last summer, this is about getting their “best players on the floor.” Right now, that includes Favors and Gobert.