Friday, February 26, 2016

Old school, taken to school

I revere Oscar Robertson. Greatest basketball player ever to come out of the basketball state, and don't even try to argue with me on that one. You'll lose.

But I find myself respectfully disagreeing with him right now.

I disagree with him because he went on "Mike&Mike" yesterday and said, essentially, that Steph Curry was nothin' special, that there have been great shooters before and there will be again. It was a refrain a lot of back-in-the-day greats regrettably succumb to, and its language is almost always the same.

So no real surprise when Oscar said this: "If I've got a guy who's great shooting the ball outside, don't you want to extend your defense out a little bit? I just don't think coaches today in basketball understand the game of basketball. They don't know anything about defenses. They don't know what people are doing on the court."

In other words: In my day, we'd have just guarded the guy better. 'Cause we guarded people in my day.

Far be it from me, an utter nobody, to dispute a Mt. Rushmore hoops legend on matters pertaining to  basketball. But I've heard this one many times before -- Old-School Joes were saying the same thing about Oscar, back in his day -- and it hardly ever carries water.

The notion that nobody plays defense in the NBA anymore, see, is as wrong as it is persistent. Part of that is the instinct to mythologize one's own glory days, and part of it is how sentiment about those days tends to fog the memory. I've watched archival clips of NBA playoff games from Oscar's era, and what always strikes me about them is how much more slowly the game was played than I remember. And how players who I could have sworn never missed a shot missed plenty, sometimes badly. And how the defense doesn't look terribly different than it does today -- especially on those occasions when Oscar or Jerry West or Elgin Baylor was putting up a 50-spot.

Great players will always get theirs, in other words. Curry's no different, except in the sense that he's taken what West or Oscar or some other legendary sniper did and lifted it to another level.

Extending your defense can occasionally work if you're talking about a great shooter with great range. But Curry is an extraordinary shooter with range that borders on the extraterrestrial. The man's loading up the second he steps across the timeline, and he regularly jacks up shots -- and buries them -- from 30 feet and beyond. And so suddenly, if you're extending your defense to take that away, you're compelled to cover almost half the floor with five players.

In the NBA,  it can't be done. You extend out to take Curry's shot away, he just goes around you. He does it all the time. And if he's going around you 25 to 30 feet from the basket, there are going to be huge expanses of open space he can exploit. And so you end up getting scored on anyway.

Yes, the man can be stopped. But only if he's having an off shooting night, and only if you focus your defense solely on him. But all that means is someone else nearly as skilled as Curry is going to have a huge night himself.

Extend your defense?

Might as well extend an invitation to your own funeral.

Sorry, Oscar.

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