If I ran an NBA team…

The Phoenix Suns had the worst record in the NBA this season. They won only 1 out of every 4 games they played. While they are young enough to get better next season, and have a great young shooting guard in Devin Booker, they are also likely to be playing in a league where most of the best teams become much better this offseason. This year many of the best players were either stuck on really bad teams (Lebron), or had injury problems (the Celtics, Warriors, Spurs, 76ers, Timberwolves, Thunder, and others). With Lebron and other good players about to enter free agency, who knows how many superteams there will be next year?

Here’s the question, then: Is it possible to employ a strategy that could turn a bottom-ranked team like Phoenix into an instant contender?

In amateur basketball leagues, bad teams sometimes try an “it takes a village” type of strategy to compete with good teams. They do things like play at a really fast tempo on offense and press aggressively on defence, the idea being to tire out the opposing team’s star players so that the game ends up being decided by a more balanced competition between the two teams’ bench players. The problem is, in the NBA this strategy would not work. Elite NBA teams often excel at playing at a high tempo, so by the time their starters get tired they will have already run up the score a too much for your team to mount a comeback against their bench players.

What I would suggest trying is a very different type of high-tempo strategy: a “specialization and trade” strategy.

In this strategy, a team like the Suns would do three things:

1) Use three different types of units during the course of the game: an offensive specialist unit, a defensive specialist unit, and a general purposes unit. (NBA teams can only use 13 players a game, so at least two players would have to play on more than one of these units. A player like Booker, for example, would play on the offensive specialist unit and on the general purposes unit)

2) Substitute your players as much as you possibly can, in order to maximize the number of offensive possessions the offensive specialist unit has, maximize the number of defensive situations the defensive specialist unit faces, minimize the number of defensive situations the offensive unit faces, and minimize the number of offensive possessions the defensive specialist unit has.

3) Play a style of basketball that would maximize the number of opportunities to substitute players you get. Such a style would be very high-tempo, and might even involve your team contesting many of the inbound passes the opposing team makes, in order to try to maximize things like the ball going out of bounds, jump balls, and non-shooting fouls. Basically, whenever your offensive specialist unit gets caught having to play defense, they will play very aggressively, trying to go for steals, deflections, jump balls, and taking charges. If they succeed in getting these things, great, if they don’t succeed, that’s okay too: they will then get called for a non-shooting foul, and therefore be able to substitute for the defensive specialist unit. A high tempo offence will also benefit the defensive specialist unit: by playing fast on offense, the defensive unit will be more likely to score than it otherwise would, since defensive specialist players are generally bad at scoring against a set defence. And the high tempo will serve the team as a whole, by tiring out the opposing team’s starters. Once the team enters the penalty situation, and also runs out of time-outs it can use to substitute players, then the general purposes unit comes on to play (at a more normal tempo) for the remainder of the quarter.

Most NBA teams already use an offense-defense strategy in the final minutes of the game. They should think about using it the entire game.

A team like the Suns is not going to beat a team like the Warriors, or player like Lebron, if it sticks to playing basketball. But if it were to play hockey, then maybe it would have a chance. In hockey, hundreds of player substitutions are made every game. In basketball, in most cases, only about two dozen subs per game are made. To compete with superteams like the Warriors, a team could strive to get closer to the hockey subs number. If the team could improve their score by even a small fraction of a point for every substitution they make, they might be able to go from a terrible team to a great one. The Suns, on average, were outscored by only 9.4 points per game this season (by far the most in the NBA); the league-leading Houston Rockets outscored teams by only 8.3 points per game.

This strategy would be especially useful in overtime: whereas in the 48 minutes of regulation time a team gets six timeouts and 4 pre-penalty fouls per quarter, during a 5-minute overtime the team gets two timeouts and 4 pre-penalty fouls. This creates more opportunities to make cost-free substitutions.

This strategy could even be used by good teams that are otherwise unable to compete with superteams. What if, for example, this strategy were to be used by the Thunder in the playoffs? The Thunder already have a player who is almost unrivalled at playing high-tempo basketball – Westbrook – and another player who is one of the elite defensive specialists in the league (but a terrible offensive player): Roberson. If the Thunder used their offseason to add offensive and defensive specialists, they could run this strategy to attempt to beat Durant and the Warriors next year, with Westbrook playing on his team’s offensive specialist unit, defensive specialist unit (every defensive specialist unit will need at least one player who isn’t bad at offence), and general purposes unit.



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