When it comes to winning in the NBA, there are many ways to skin a cat. Talent will be the common denominator amongst all contending teams, but the styles in which they play can be radically different while still producing fantastic results.
You can look at teams like last year’s Grizzlies or this year’s Pacers and see teams built on a foundation that mirrors what you’d find in the early 2000’s or mid/late 1990’s. Frank Vogel coined the term “smash-mouth basketball” to describe his Pacers and when looking at the Grizz they have sought to play a similar style. Power post ups played through skilled big men with all purpose perimeter players was their ticket to success. Combine that offensive style with harassing, physical defense and you have a recipe for success.
Contrast that to the style that the Heat and the Spurs play. Both are more reliant on dynamic perimeter play and big men who can play out to 18 feet in isolation or thrive as both pop and dive men out of the pick and roll. They emphasize the three point shot via the spacing their schemes promote and want to give their best players the ball in space to create out of motion or P&R sets. Defensively, both teams attack opponents a bit differently (the Spurs prefer to pack the paint while the Heat blitz opponents on the perimeter and use their athleticism to recover), but that is largely a reflection of the talents of their individual players rather than a commitment to any one type of scheme.
The Thunder, meanwhile, offer a mix of both of these styles. They emphasize the three point shot because they have this generation’s premier shooting forward (Durant) and fantastic attack guards (Westbrook, Jackson) who thrive when the floor is opened. They also, however, employ several bruiser type of big men who excel doing the dirty work and enjoy hanging around the paint. Add a unique talent at PF — Serge Ibaka is the rare jumpshooting big who can defend the paint defensively — and they can blend styles well, though they are still mostly a perimeter oriented team offensively who attacks that paint via the drive rather than the post up.
When looking at the Lakers, it’s easy to see that, under Mike D’Antoni, they are trying to build more in the model of the Heat and the Spurs when forming their offensive attack. They want space on the perimeter to be able to run P&R’s. They want skill on the wing and bigs who can work in the paint, but also work away from the hoop to further promote spacing for shooting and driving purposes. This isn’t a bad model — both those teams were in the Finals last year — but we shouldn’t act as if it is the only model. After all, the Pacers look like a real contender this year and the Clippers join them as another team built around a power forward who does his best work in the paint and a point guard who would rather play at a slower tempo in a more traditional style.
The question moving forward, however, isn’t whether or not D’Antoni’s approach can work — as noted it obviously can — it’s a question of whether the Lakers are better suited to continue down that path and whether the talent they can acquire will be optimized trying to play that style.
Said another way, what is the easiest way to build a team and what form should that team take in order to get back to contention the fastest?
I don’t really know the answer to that question and a lot will depend on what talent becomes available and who the Lakers end up signing in free agency and drafting this June. But it is always worth remembering that while recent champions play a certain way, there is more than one way to skin a cat and the Lakers would be wise to keep an open mind about their talent acquisition and try to build the most flexible roster possible in order to compete long term rather than shoehorning their talent into a style that may not maximize all the pieces they have at their disposal. And they should keep this in mind whether it fits the mold of their current head coach or not; whether it fits the skills of their aging stars or not.