“Forget about Shaq!” Lakers coach Phil Jackson bellowed to his team at the desperation moment in Sunday’s contest against the Trail Blazers, down 15 points with 10 minutes left in Game 7. “Forget about Shaq!” he repeated during a timeout. “Just play your game. Play your game.” Jackson was abandoning the game plan—work the ball to NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neal—and giving his troops the green light to free-lance. In b-ball slang, “play your game” means do whatever you think you’re good at.
Somehow this directive worked. When Los Angeles switched from prepared strategy to playground mania, career underachievers Brian Shaw and Robert Horry hit improbable threes, Portland came unglued, and the Lakers completed one of the most exciting from-behind wins in NBA annals, punctuated by the Kobe Bryant-to-O’Neal lob play that was as pretty as they come. And it was fitting that tossing out the game plan in favor of improvisation is what got the Lakers into the league finals, since nobody in the NBA uses strategy anymore.
Teams barely even use plays. Watch the Indiana Pacers in the finals, and try to detect a strategy, any strategy, other than move and shoot.
Indiana endlessly runs “curls”—modified screens in which a man without the ball sprints past a teammate, hoping his defender will be “rubbed off” by the teammate’s defender (ideally, they’ll collide). Reggie Miller loves to curl along the baseline or at the top angle of the key. He loves to curl so much he does it on almost every possession—and he might as well, because the Pacers don’t run any kind of offense that anyone has been able to detect. They just shuffle and curl, jog and weave, which is exactly what playground players do when they’ve just formed a team. And the Pacers are coached by Larry Bird, who carries the mantle of the Boston Celtics, the all-time fundamentals franchise winner, with an inches-thick playbook. Bird openly complains that his Pacers are erratic and unmotivated. But if he ever tried to teach them Celtics-style coordinated movement, he’s given up and now just tosses out the ball. In the age of the guaranteed salary and the shoe-contract ego, maybe that’s all a coach can do.
Consider a Pacers play called “C-5.” You’re sure to hear the announcers use this term during the series, since everybody (including the opposition scouts, of course) heard Mark Jackson shouting it out over and over against the Knicks. On C-5, Rik Smits, the Indiana center, goes to the low post and takes an entry pass. He either turns to shoot a hook or flips it back to a guard, while the other players weave around trying to get open. That’s it, that’s the play. No coordinated screen-and-roll, no backdoor, nobody cutting to the basket as in Celtics lore. Playground pickup teams that have been together for five minutes swing the ball low to whoever the tallest guy is, then wait for him to kick it back.
Or consider the Lakers’ vaunted triangle offense. You often hear announcers speak in hushed tones of the “intricate triangle offense,” as if it were developed by human genome researchers. Announcers gush that the triangle is complex because they don’t understand how little is happening.
In the Lakers’ triangle, someone heads to the far corner as a “point forward.” A guard brings the ball to that side, and one of the big men comes to a high post on the same side. Now there’s three of them there, and they form a—triangle! Usually the guard will pass to the point forward, who will either shoot or pass back. If that’s not open, the off guard will come around to take the ball, or the near-side big man will exchange positions with the off-side big man. There. Now you’ve mastered the triangle offense. Watch any basketball team at any level, and tell me when the three guys closest to the ball aren’t forming a triangle.
The triangle acquired its mystical reputation when the Bulls ran it in Chicago with Michael Jordan, but it was Jordan, not the formation, that was great. As a practical matter, when the Lakers call the triangle, what usually results is a “swing around”—players pass the ball from side to side around the perimeter until someone is open or the clock runs down. Swing-around is basketball’s most rudimentary form of motion, happening on about 50 percent of possessions by all NBA teams, to say nothing of junior-high teams. Swing-around requires little coordination, other than that players observe the tenet of never dribbling more than three times before they pick up and pass. (Only really good players like Jackson and Bryant can get away with dribbling more than that; the rule is that the longer you hold the ball, the more trouble you’re in.) Yet by current NBA standards, swing-around looks like a play, because teams are using so little strategy that any motion requiring players to cooperate seems impressive.
Swing-around certainly looks like a play compared with, say, “clear,” in which four players get out of the way while the guy with the ball goes one-on-one. Clear plays, which don’t deserve to be called plays, can be run by five guys who have never even met, let alone practiced. When the Bulls were calling clear plays for Jordan, it was beautiful to watch. But that was because Michael was Michael—at North Carolina he even made the four corners, normally basketball’s most tiresome strategy, exciting to watch. Today, when Philadelphia calls the clear for Allen Iverson, for humanitarian reasons the networks should pan their cameras away.
Years ago, the NBA essentially banned strategy on defense by banning the zone. This guaranteed simplistic action, since the offense always knows where the defenders will be. (If zones were legal, the 24-second clock would still ensure a fast pace, while coaches would sometimes use man defenses anyway; that is to say, there’d be a battle of wits.) Now strategy is falling out of fashion on offense too, other than the use of elementary instructions such as “swing it down to the post.” It’s an indication of the low, low state to which the league has shriveled when it comes to fundamentals that today whenever a guard and forward exchange the ball on one side of the key, some announcer will mumble, “two-man game.” To the extent this cliché means anything, two-man game means the guard and the forward actually have something in mind, like a give and go. This has become sufficiently rare in the NBA that it gets remarked on.
Speaking of the two-man game, for years now NBA coaches, fans, and commentators have been expressing amazement that the aging, creaking Karl Malone and John Stockton have kept the aging, creaking and talent-thin Utah Jazz in the league’s elite. The Jazz remain in the league’s elite mainly because they are the last NBA team that runs a real play on almost every possession—that actually executes a pick-and-roll or backdoor cut or the like. Other NBA teams continue to be amazed by how well the Jazz do this, but not a one tries to emulate Utah, because that would require strategy and discipline. No doubt the NBA is eager for Malone and Stockton to retire so that tactics can vanish from the league entirely, and there will be no one left reminding fans of what thinking-player’s basketball can be like as every team endlessly clears, curls, or swings around.