So often, the hue of hindsight appears to be vividly clear. We remember defining innovations as if they were always sure things. We forget that the assumption behind the telephone’s invention was that telegraph operators – not everyday people – needed to communicate with each other. We forget that the first automobiles were almost universally regarded as mere toys for the rich. We forget that for a time we thought Facebook was a fad- as of yesterday, it has 1.59 billion users.
History has virtually guaranteed that the great innovations of the present will be somewhat trivialized. The Warriors are not enabling global communication or transportation but in the lens of basketball they are an innovation. Yet, what makes them truly innovative? The team is so highly covered by the media (which I guess I am weirdly a part of) that analysis on them has become as full of buzz words as a Silicon Valley elevator pitch*. Positionless defense! Malleable playing styles! Three-pointers! To be fair, I am guilty of this myself.
*An example of your classic Silicon Valley elevator pitch that is more of a lesson on tech buzz words, than an actual product explanation: “We’re a mobile, social, sharing, cloud business, with network effects, strong monetization potential, and the flexibility to pivot.”
I do not think the Warriors’ true innovation derives from a theory their analytics department calculated or a revelation that Steve Kerr unearthed during an all-night game tape review with Luke Walton. I think the Warriors’ true innovation is more simple than that and relates to something almost all of us can identify with: pickup basketball games.
Pickup (or open gym) basketball is illustrious for its lack general lack of passing on offense. It has no structure, no plays and no one really cares if their teammate scores. The worst kind of basketball offense is a bad pickup basketball offense. That said, there is another side to this because I believe that the best type of basketball offense is a great pickup basketball offense. This means an offense with minimal structured plays that relies on players reading the situation as it develops. In this structure, everything is a reaction. Thus, it becomes impossible for the defense to predict the next move.
This offensive structure becomes easier to understand if you think of it as an “If-Then” statement, like you would use in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. “If-Then” basketball shifts the dynamic from a more classical basketball offense (Pass A, to Pass B, to Shot C), into one that is entirely dependent on the defense.
The Warriors play an If-Then offense and Monday night’s Spurs game was a prime example. The Spurs often tried to hide point guard Tony Parker on Warriors wings because he (understandably) cannot guard Steph. When the Warriors saw this, it immediately triggered an If-Then statement: the “If” was Parker guarding someone half a foot taller than him (Livingston, Iguodala, Klay or Barnes, mostly), and the “Then” was that the Warriors would immediately post-up whoever Parker was guarding.
- With seven minutes left in the first quarter, Parker was defending Harrison Barnes. So, the Warriors immediately posted-up HB. Bucket.
- With nine minutes left in the second quarter, Parker was back guarding wings. So, the Warriors posted-up whoever he was guarding three possessions in a row. Bucket, bucket, bucket.
This story of If-Then basketball is present in almost every big opponent the Warriors play.
The Cavaliers: If Kevin Love is in the game, then the Warriors incessantly run pick-and-rolls with the player Love is guarding because Love lacks the footwork to switch on to guards or effectively hedge the play. This simple If-Then correlation has made Love almost unplayable vs. the Warriors in the fourth quarter and is part of the reason the Cavs just fired a coach who was 83-40!
- The Clippers: If DeAndre Jordan is guarding Draymond or Harrison Barnes (because the Warriors have gone small), then the Warriors immediately run pick-and-rolls with the guy DeAndre is guarding.
The story of If-Then offense is not limited to just exploiting mismatches, it is omnipresent in the flow of Warriors games. You can see it when Draymond cuts to the basket out of a pick-and-roll because his defender double-teamed Steph and when Klay curls from under the basket to the free throw line and immediately tosses a lob because his screener’s defender followed him too.
Once you begin understanding this If-Then offense, the pertinent questions change. How was it created? How can other teams replicate it? What makes this situation unique? Like most questions, these yield a couple answers.
- The Warriors have incredible roster continuity, with 12 returning players from last year’s championship team. The most important component of a reactive offense is trust. If Klay recognizes the double-team but Festus does not, then Klay’s lob is just a turnover discouraging future reactive plays. Give Bob Myers, the Warriors’ General Manager, credit for the continuity he emphasized. As a GM, the hardest thing to do is nothing. If you mix up the team, you can sell your owner (your boss) on the future of this group but not changing things means immediate judgment on the present.
- The Warriors placed a value on acquiring players who can pass and have high basketball IQs. Most teams have one high IQ passer, maybe two if they’re lucky. The Warriors have four: Steph, Draymond (currently seventh in the NBA in assists per game), Iguodala and Livingston.
One of Bob Myers’ go-to quotes is that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” At its most basic level, that is what If-Then basketball is.
When everything is a reaction, game-planning for the Warriors become futile. It leads to quotes like this from ESPN’s Zach Lowe, “Seriously: waiting out Golden State’s run of dominance is already a topic of conversation among team executives.”
While the Warriors get enough credit and respect for their emphasis on threes, small-ball, and switching defense, the foundation of their offense gets overlooked. Most basketball offenses are still defined by linearity: this play call leads to this formation which leads to this movement which leads to this desired outcome, very much like football. What the Warriors are doing is like soccer. Reacting instead of predetermining.
The reason it will prove challenging (if not impossible) to copy the Warriors is because as Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank says, “trust is built in drops, and lost in buckets.” If-Then offense requires years of built-up trust and that is the true innovation we get to watch three times a week.
A big thanks to Sam Esfandiari for a tweet that inspired this piece’s title. He’s a great Twitter follow @samesfandiari if you are into basketball nerdom, which if you read this piece there is a decent chance you are.
Now, for the podcast recommendation of the week: Concrete from the show Surprisingly Awesome at Gimlet Media. This show is about finding the hidden awesome in things that are supposedly boring. What if I told you that concrete was the first thing that genuinely brought people together? Check it out!