One of my favorite movies is the 1994 crime film Fresh. I won’t summarize the film for you here, but the way the main character (a 12 year old black kid in New York) manipulates his situation via strategic plotting influenced by his playing of chess will always be something I appreciate. What can I say, I’m a sucker for smart characters and this kid was smart.
This isn’t a movie review, but I was thinking about chess earlier after I read Zach Lowe’s latest piece for ESPN on the Dallas Mavericks. Lowe goes into detail about how the Mavs continue to win games even though their roster has turned over by more than half and how an aging Dirk and head coach Rick Carlisle are still getting it done.
The passage which caught my eye, however, is below:
It turns out, Dallas needed a slight recalibration, rather than a total overhaul. The team traded a few pick-and-rolls for more intricate pieces of five-man basketball chess: classic Carlisle and Terry Stotts “flow” sets, with Pachulia and Nowitzki helming the elbows and a whir of on-ball and off-ball screens unfolding around them. Only three teams have set more on-ball screens, and only five have nailed opponents with more off-ball picks, per SportVU data and numbers crunched to ESPN.com by Vantage Sports…
The Mavs have collected smart players who read the game in snapshots, guys who can improvise an off-ball screening ballet and understand how to cut against the defense’s expectations. They keep you guessing all over the floor until someone breaks.
The concept of elite basketball players “playing chess” on the floor is not a new one. Back when the Lakers were coached by Phil Jackson and ran the Triangle Offense, I often talked about how Kobe, Pau, and Odom manipulated defenses via expert level understanding of how each action of the offense would impact what their opponents did to stop them.
This isn’t a new idea. The best players are typically the smartest players and the best teams are the ones who have stacked their rosters with multiple guys who are not only good athletes with elite skills, but those who can out-think foes on the fly and not only react to what the defense is giving them, but put the defense in desired positions so what it does give is what the offense wants it to.
This is the game of chess the best of the best play. This is the level these young Lakers are not at, but where they will need to get to in order to contend.
The question is, whether the Lakers actually have the players on the team who can do these things an whether they have the coach in place who can inspire it. Some of these things we already know (sorry, Byron). Some we are starting to learn as these young players show us flashes.
It’s too early to tell for sure, but I would argue Russell, with his penchant for passing and already advanced knack of being able to read plays a step ahead will be one of those guys. Clarkson and Randle have shown flashes of being able to respond to collapsing defenses with some next level reads, too. Nance seems to have a good understanding of team basketball and what it means to be a ball mover rather than a ball stopper. That is an important trait that should not be diminished.
The rest of the roster is filled with veterans who are what they are at this point of their careers. This doesn’t mean they cannot be part of a good team, but they will most likely be “finishers” of plays rather than the guys who, with the ball in the hands, see the game unfold like a series of pictures taken on your iPhone in burst-mode and respond accordingly. It’s those latter players who can take a visual of the floor, advance the game a beat, process new information, and then call on the image they just saw to make the right read who are special.
This is what the Warriors have. It’s what the Spurs have had. It’s what, as Lowe wrote above, the Mavs seem to possess some of too. The Lakers will need to get there one day too, but that likely means a fair amount of changes to the construction of their team.