Memphis Represents Old-School NBA Style
Published: Friday, November 30, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 30, 2012 01:11
When the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals, order was restored in the basketball world. LeBron James ended the ‘”LeCurse,” and the world’s best player finally brought home his first ring after two previous Finals disappointments.
The second storyline to emerge from the glitter and glamour of the South Beach championship parade didn’t concern LeBron, curses, “Decisions” or Game-6-in-Boston heroics. Instead, it dealt with the game of basketball itself — how NBA teams have strayed from conventional lineups in favor of athleticism, size and freestyle play. The Heat won their title with an All-Star-studded lineup, but they also did so without a true point guard or center, the two most crucial positions in the game. In the process, they proved that success in today’s NBA doesn’t require designated ball handlers, shooters, slashers and post players but rather multiple players filling multiple roles on the court.
OKC — a team many picked to defeat LeBron and Co. — embodies the unconventional style that’s being adopted by more and more teams every year. Point guard Russell Westbrook attempts more shots than any other player in the league not named Carmelo Anthony, while three-time defending scoring champ Kevin Durant leads his team in rebounds and steals along with points, a feat not even accomplished by LeBron himself.
The formula for OKC and Miami is comically simple: Maximize the overall production of your best players and surround them with teammates who compensate for the team’s weaknesses. The Thunder supplement their Durant-Westbrook scoring punch with Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, three defensive specialists who work hard and do exactly what is asked of them. Alongside LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami puts out Mario Chalmers — a streaky scorer — and Shane Battier, a 12-year vet whose defense always seems to give his squad a boost.
This season, though, we’ve seen a return to basketball orthodoxy in the form of the Memphis Grizzlies. At 11-2, the team currently owns the NBA’s best record and is opening eyes by doing things the old-fashioned way, the way in which AAU coaches around the country teach the game to young kids.
Their point guard, Mike Conley Jr., actually brings the ball up the court, something of an anomaly in today’s NBA. Conley plays by the book, too — pass first, shoot second — and is a reliable scorer when needed. At power forward, Memphis boasts the textbook definition of power in Zach Randolph. 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, Z-Bo leads the league in double-doubles, providing scoring and rebounding at an alarmingly consistent rate. The starting five also contains Tony Allen, a two-guard who’s widely regarded as the best lockdown defender on the planet. Small forward Rudy Gay and center Marc Gasol, meanwhile, possess traditional size and skill sets at their respective positions. The Grizzlies are the only team in the NBA that routinely adheres to a mainstream system of “role-playing,” and it’s turning more than a few heads.
The ultimate question that arises is that of which style is better. If one considers playoff success, it would appear to be a no-brainer: Last year, Memphis was bounced in the first round, while Miami and OKC were the last two teams standing. This season, however, the Grizz have already defeated the Heat and Thunder back to back, each win coming in convincing fashion. With additional early-season victories over the Lakers and Knicks, it’s safe to say that Head Coach Lionel Hollins’ old-school approach is working, and the simpler “play-your-position” methodology seems to be here to stay.
In the first month of the NBA season, we’ve seen players previously labeled “small forwards” like James, Anthony and Durant playing power forward, and opposing teams have quickly given in and adjusted their defensive strategies accordingly. But the Memphis Grizzlies won’t budge — and they don’t need to. As big as he is, if LeBron wants to play the post against Zach Randolph, odds are it won’t end well. And if Russell Westbrook wants to go on a shooting binge, Tony Allen will stifle him as soon as he catches the ball.
Rather than follow the trend set by Miami and Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies have stuck with the X’s and O’s established by our basketball forefathers. They don’t play “small ball,” they don’t stack the perimeter with three-point gunners and they don’t run isolations for one single player. They just stick to their system, and so far, it’s working flawlessly. Memphis leaves the lineup tinkering to its opponents, who are tasked with the huge challenge of breaking down what has become one of the stingiest defenses in all of basketball.
The Memphis bandwagon is already filling up, symbolizing a return to the norm in the world of basketball. The Grizzlies will be a fun team to watch come April; don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Matt Bell is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. FRESH OUT OF PHILLY appears every Friday.