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How the 2020 NBA Playoffs Proved Teams Can’t Win With Iso-Ball and a Static Offense

| September 24, 2020 5:54 am PDT
Proper Ball Handler to Win the NBA Championship

The 2020 NBA Playoffs have been very entertaining so far and we saw plenty of surprising results. Several teams that were expected to challenge for the title didn’t even reach the conference finals, while others impressed with their performance in the post-season.

One could argue that the whole NBA Bubble situation affected the playoffs heavily and there’s some merit to such a statement.

And yet, I believe that there is another reason that explains why certain teams failed to live up to the hype and others surpassed the expectations. The key lies in the offense they use and how it translates into the NBA postseason.

All the disappointments came from organizations that use heavy isolations on that end of the floor, while all the teams that did well have a proper ball-handler and rely on a free-flowing offense.

The former may work really well in the regular season if you have the right players, but it fades once the playoffs are here.

I explore that topic closely here and share my thoughts on why you can’t win the NBA Championship without a proper ball handler and a variable offense.

Which Teams Failed to Deliver in 2020 and Why

Let’s take a look at the teams that underperformed in the 2020 NBA Playoffs and try to understand what happened.

I believe that three organizations belong in that group. The LA Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks are the most obvious choices. They were supposed to fight for the title or at least reach the conference finals, but they failed in the second round.

My third pick is the Houston Rockets. I don’t think that many expected them to beat any of the LA franchises, but going down 4-1 without any real resistance certainly can be labeled as a failure.

Regular Season Performance

All three teams had a solid regular season which was enough for a good starting position in the playoffs. They were in the top 8 in terms of offensive rating, with the Bucks and the Clippers leading the entire NBA in net rating.

Giannis was completely unstoppable and deservedly won the MVP award, James Harden averaged insane numbers, and the Clippers were dominating with Kawhi and PG on the floor. Even when off them was off because of minutes restrictions, the team was still strong.

It’s safe to say that all three teams looked dangerous going into the NBA Playoffs. And yet, all three failed to deliver when it mattered the most because of their offense.

What Happened in the Playoffs?

If we have to conduct a simple analysis of their offense, we will see that they are too reliant on giving the ball to one or more players that are simply good at scoring.

The Bucks expect Giannis to drive and have surrounded him with outside shooters to create enough space. The Rockets and their small-ball lineups just give Harden the ball and let him figure it out. The Clippers rely on Paul George, Kawhi, and Lou Williams to create offense.

The other guys on these teams are usually there for some spacing and that’s it. There is not enough variety in terms of cuts, screens, and drives. That works well in the regular season because of the immense talent of the superstars at their disposal, but the playoffs are a different story.

The opponents have the time to properly prepare and focus on the next game. They can figure out a game plan that shuts down the main offensive weapons of the opposition and go all-in on that.

An excellent example of that was the Lakers’ defense against the Rockets. LeBron and company shut down the three-point shooting that is the cornerstone of D’Antoni’s system and Houston simply didn’t know what to do, as the video below illustrates perfectly.

The same happened to the Bucks when they met the Heat. Miami built a wall in the paint against Giannis, similarly to the Raptors last year, and the Eastern Conference favorite was eliminated rather easily.

As for the Clippers, they hit a brick wall when the Nuggets adjusted their defense in order to prevent Kawhi, PG, and Lou to find good lucks. Some of the players choked and that contributed, but the lack of easy points certainly can be blamed for the defeat.

It’s obvious that the offensive system of the three teams mostly relied on isolations and the raw talent of their players to succeed. That allowed the opponents to focus their defensive plan on them and it worked like a charm.

The lack of adjustments should be blamed on Mike Budenholzer, Mike D’Antoni, and Doc Rivers. The coaches failed to find alternative ways to the basket and suffered the consequences.

Which Teams Exceeded the Expectations and Why

There were several teams that were excellent in the playoffs and certainly deserve credit. The Denver Nuggets won two series from 3-1 down which hasn’t been done before, the Heat upset the odds and look like a proper title contender, while the Celtics and the Raptors have been great too.

These franchises have several things in common that helped them. They play hard on both ends of the floor, they have excellent coaches, and they have a proper ball-handler and multiple contributors on the offense.

That last part is what made the biggest difference, in my opinion. The Heat have Dragic and Butler, as well a as bunch of players that are involved in constant cuts and screens. The ball is moving fast, the players are constantly looking for advantages, and there are plenty of sources of danger.

The same can be said about the Celtics and Raptors who use typical point guards like Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry. These teams have multiple offensive weapons and a ton of players who can create for themselves and the others.

The situation is similar with the Nuggets who can rely on Murray and Nikola Jokic who might be the best passing big in the history of the league. Just look at his assists from game 7 against the Clippers!

The point is, all of these teams have various options on the offense. If one or two of them are limited by the defense, they can try different approaches and adjust. That makes them hard to stop as there simply is not a single solution that always works.

What Does The Past Tell Us?

The takeaway from the 2020 NBA Playoffs made me wonder if this was just a coincidence or if that was always the case. I usually can’t trust my memory too much, so I decided to take a look at the previous ten seasons to find out.

I couldn’t find a single case of an NBA champion or even a finalist that didn’t have a true playmaker and an offense that could go different ways when required. The Golden State Warriors had Curry, the Cavs had Kyrie and LeBron, the Spurs had Parker and Ginobili, the Heat had LeBron and Wade … the list goes on.

There’s some case to be made that the 2020 LA Lakers are an exception to the rule. And yet, they have one of the best players in the history of the game who’s excellent on the ball, another generational talent in AD, as well as Rajon Rondo who is the quintessential point guard and plays over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs.

And let’s not forget they are not in the finals yet!

Conclusion

If you are a fan of a franchise that relies on an offensive system built specifically around one player and/or relies on a lot of isolations, I have bad news for you. Your team might be excellent in the regular season, but chances are it will fall apart when the playoffs are here.

Do you agree with my opinion or do you have another theory on why some of the favorites failed to deliver in the 2020 NBA Playoffs? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Jerry Summer
Jerry Summer

Jerry Summer has a wide-ranging interest in gambling and the gambling industry. He's made a living out of both playing poker and betting on sports.

The English Premier League and the NBA are among Jerry's primary areas of expertise. He's knowledgeable about many other sports, too, along with poker and several casino games.

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