Attention Sports Analysts: Basketball is a team game.
I’m a basketball fanatic. I’m a student of the game itself. I can describe to you the Triangle Offense in vivid detail. I love watching the Michigan State 3-2-3-2-3 switching defensive scheme. When I see Coach K’s Duke offense working like a well-oiled machine, I smile. I recognize that Phil Jackson is responsible for Michael Jordan’s championships, and not the other way around. (Same goes for you, Kobe.)
That is precisely why watching Skip Bayless get completely skewered by Mark Cuban yesterday made me happy. Since ESPN is a ratings driven enterprise, they even put it on their own YouTube channel. They’ll allow Bayless to eat pine to the face in order to get ratings, even though Bayless is their employee.
Watching Bayless “disappear and shrink” when getting asked real questions made me chuckle. Cuban was smiling like a cat playing with his food throughout the entire interview. Skip Bayless didn’t even understand the concept of a zone defense. How can ESPN knowingly allow someone like that to comment on basketball?
Skip Bayless Note #1: You don’t post up against a zone defense. There’s no one to post up against. A zone is designed to give, and collapse. A man-to-man defense allows for posting up. Thank you for demonstrating you have no idea what you’re talking about.
When Bayless says things like LeBron James “played harder”, it’s laughable. Does he honestly believe LeBron James picks certain games to “player harder” than others? What a glittering generality that is, Mr. Bayless. It completely ignores the other nine people on the floor.
Skip Bayless Note #2: The reason LeBron was reduced to being a “perimeter jump shooter” in last year’s Finals is because of defensive schemes. With Dirk playing Bosh man-to-man, LeBron didn’t have that option inside. Things got even more complicated when he attempted to drive: Tyson Chandler would collapse from whoever he was guarding into the lane, and Dirk would then take over in a zone. The Mavericks set up a defense to stop LeBron, and force Wade and Bosh to beat them. Wade and Bosh weren’t able to do it alone. That’s what really happened.
That actually brings me to the next point…
Skip Bayless Note #3: Oklahoma City didn’t have the personnel to try the same schemes. Ibaka is an amazing shot blocker, but lacks the quickness of Chandler. I mean, there’s a reason Chandler is the best defensive center in basketball. It had nothing to do with “LeBron slashing the lane” or whatever nonsense was coming out of the hole in your face.
When we think about LeBron James, we need to stop thinking about him like Michael Jordan. Michael was a pure scoring shooting guard-small forward. LeBron is a pass first small forward-power forward-point guard. As good as Michael Jordan was, he couldn’t play anyone on the floor. LeBron James can. LeBron can defend any position, from the one, to the five. The fact that LeBron is technically a 1 through 5, that allows Miami to play some unique offensive schemes.
Miami’s offense is surprisingly easy to understand. It all revolves around LeBron James. (Duh.) The opposing coach has three options in defending LeBron James:
Option 1. Play a soft zone. There’s a chance LeBron will drive on you, pass to Chalmers to play low with Bosh or shoot a jump shot. Since LeBron is a good jump shooter (at best), most coaches are happy to let him take long jumpers.
If LeBron drives, it’s likely he’ll dish to Chalmers/Battier on the wing, or Wade at the top of the key. At this point, your defense has to change. If you commit to pushing a player to defend the wing, James or Bosh will have a man-to-man post down low. That’s higher percentage for Miami.
Should LeBron elect to pass the ball to Chalmers (or sometimes Wade), he’ll end up playing on the left side of the court (90% of the time - statistically), and wait for Wade or Chalmers attempt to collapse the zone. When the zone collapses, it’s going to LeBron while he cuts into the lane, or Battier on the wing.
This is the Pat Riley system. It’s exactly what he used with Magic Johnson. The reality is, LeBron is more Magic than Magic ever was. He’s like Magic-Plus. This isn’t meant to slight Magic, it’s just the truth. LeBron is a better rebounder, and can defend centers.
Option 2: Play LeBron man-to-man with a quick, but small shooting guard, and commit a big man to collapse for double teams if LeBron is near the lane.
LeBron James is crazy fast for a man of his size. In order to guard him on the perimeter where Miami begins their offense, you need someone who can stay in front of him. A quick shooting guard, or even a small forward can usually accomplish the job on the perimeter. It’s fairly well known if you force LeBron to shoot long range jumpers, you have a better chance of keeping him from scoring.
However, that comes with a caveat. In Miami’s scheme, if LeBron chooses to post up that smaller defender, the opposing defense is screwed. LeBron posting up on a smaller player means easy buckets. That forces a double team, generally from another big man inside.
When this happens, Chris Bosh leaves the lane, heading towards the top of the key. His defender won’t follow him, and the opposing team will switch over a point guard for a mismatch.
Dwyane Wade will rotate from the top of the key towards the wing. This gives LeBron three passing options: 1. Bosh up top. 2. Wade cutting towards the basket. or 3. Whoever is on the opposite wing. (Battier/Chalmers/Jones/Miller).
Option 3. Play LeBron with someone near his own size. Of course, this presents another mismatch, because LeBron is going to be faster off the dribble. He’s going to penetrate inside, and there will be one less big man for him to get past.
These matchups generally see LeBron spending an extended amount of time at the free throw line, along with Wade and Bosh.
Playing a big man means the help on a drive is going to be nearby in the form of a small forward. The goal is to collapse and call help as soon as you think LeBron is moving inside. As soon as a second man is committed, someone is going to be open. It’s generally Wade or Bosh.
When LeBron drives, Bosh will commit to boxing out the Lane, and Wade will float to the perimeter. This is where it gets really complicated: LeBron often drives inside just to jam the lane and kick a pass to the perimeter. He then returns quickly to the top of the key. If the opposing defense doesn’t switch quickly enough, either Bosh or Wade will be open cutting to the basket.
Skip Bayless Note #4: Miami is not a fast-break oriented offense. It just so happens they generate a lot of turnovers. In what alternate reality has a Pat Riley offense ever been built upon fast break points? I rest my case.
Let’s just go ahead and blow another point up, and this one happens off the floor: LeBron left Cleveland because Dan Gilbert never put a team around him. He never had a plan. I mean, he still doesn’t have a plan today. For seven years, LeBron was stuck in a city that totally relied on him, didn’t have a meaningful general manager, or coach. Study Cleveland’s offensive schemes with LeBron long enough, and you realize why he failed: He wasn’t Michael Jordan.
LeBron James is a pass first player, and Gilbert wanted him to be a shoot first player. Gilbert was given a gift, and he squandered it for seven years. LeBron owes nothing to the city of Cleveland. If you want to hate someone in Cleveland, hate Dan Gilbert.
Michael Jordan never won a championship until he was put into the right scheme. Remember that. The same goes for LeBron James. What happened last year? Dallas played a zone against LeBron when they needed to shut him down, and made him pass. All those Bayless comments about him “not taking a big time shot” are completely insane. He passed the ball because he wasn’t open for a shot. That’s what good basketball players do. Did he look frustrated? Of course. That’s because Dallas built an entire defense to stop one player.
Think about that for a moment: In order to beat Miami, you need to allocate all your defensive resources and game-planning to stopping one player. Oklahoma City did that - sort of. The reality was they allowed Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade a lot of high percentage looks, because that’s the trade off.
Let’s go back to Oklahoma City for a moment and dispel another Bayless myth…
Skip Bayless Note #5: “Durant choked. He needed to take more shots. Westbrook needed to take fewer shots.” In what alternate reality? Durant didn’t choke. He was being smothered by one of the greatest defensive players of all time. LeBron James is easier 50 pounds heavier than Durant, and probably faster on his feet. Durant is a catch and shoot scoring option. That’s his game. He can’t even catch the ball if James is smothering him.
So what happened? Westbrook did an impressive job of making whoever was guarding him look inept. Wade look slow. Chalmers looked slow. Westbrook was impressive, because Miami didn’t have an answer for him. In fact, Miami played man the entire time. They could have stopped Westbrook with a zone, but that would have meant opening up Harden on the perimeter, and Durant as… well, Durant.
Their only two goals were to shut down who they could: Durant and Harden. They knew they couldn’t stop Westbrook, and they were comfortable with “two out of three ain’t bad”. The fact is, conceding you aren’t going to be quicker than Westbrook was the smartest decision Miami made.
I said Miami in four games. I was wrong about the first game.
What’s the recipe to beating Miami? Interior players. You have to beat Miami with two reasonably mobile big men. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Hibbert and West. (Marion and Chandler in 2011.) Face that you really cannot defend against LeBron, Wade and Bosh - and a decent three point shooter from the wing. Riley’s system works perfectly. It’s designed for a player like Magic Johnson. It just so happens to work even better when a player better than Magic is working it.
Skip Bayless Note #6: ESPN should fire you.
Great analysis! Straight-up, and clear of unnecessary jargon and technicality. It made me appreciate the game even more. Also, GO BULLS!