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Chaos, Confusion and Copycats - Is The Play The Thing Anymore?

Chris Finch sees further into the future than you do.
Chris Finch sees further into the future than you do.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I'll have grounds
More relative than this—the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.
Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

Hamlet, as you might recall, does not live happily ever after.  The play wasn't so much the thing in the end. The conscience of the kings of the NBA drifts ever further from plays, it would seem.

First, though, a little pop quiz.  It's not fair if you google it. Remember, the internet is all about honor.

Who said this?

There is no time for X to call plays after a stop, and the coach likes it that way. "We try not to call any plays if we can," X  says. "We want to be difficult to defend, and the more random we can make it, the more difficult it will be for defenses."

That quote should sound awfully familiar to some of you.  It sounds a good bit like this, from over a year ago.

But it isn't a Rockets coach, GM or player who said it.  It came from another source entirely, one that is doing quite well with offensive production. This is to make a point to the Pro Play Faction, the group of Rockets fans whose constant refrain is (roughly):

"No plays? Lunacy!  We need plays!  The world is made of plays!  Plays are The Truth, and The Light, and All Goodness in Basketball! What do you have if you don't have plays?  Anarchy, that's what! If plays were good enough for my grandfather, they're good enough for you! The play's the thing!"

Despite these forces of tradition and reaction, what appears to be happening is that some of the brighter lights of the NBA have begun to eschew plays. They are moving, some rapidly, towards the inchoate vigor on the attack the Rockets pioneered in the NBA.

As pointed out so well here, this is not a surprise.  NBA rules quite deliberately favor a more open style of play.  The very physical game that demanded constant offensive set pieces to get any sort of open shot off is gone.  The "illegal defense" rules that favored ISOs are gone also.  The NBA is adapting to the new reality, and that adaptation is extemporaneous.

In the current NBA reality, creative, fast play flourishes.  I've asked many times why, in such an environment, you'd want to run 18 seconds of choreography to get a mediocre shot, when you can let the best players in the world do what they're best at - shooting, or breaking down defenders and driving the rim.

I'm not saying there's no room for plays at all, or ever.  Certainly not. There should be certain plays that exploit certain matchups, and for special situations.  The Rockets, I believe, would be much better served, and would achieve tactical surprise, by setting multiple screens for Harden to shoot over when the occasion demands, for example.  Plays aren't the enemy: predictability is.  Running a set playbook increases predictability, and that is a problem in today's NBA.

The defensive styles pioneered largely by Tom Thibodeau exist to destroy predictable playcalling, by anticipating and smothering it with defenders. But what if you don't know what a set of movements are going to produce? It is tough to defend well under current NBA rules (if referees allow throwback physicality, that's a different case).

Yes, the Rockets will run a high pick and roll almost every play. That seems predictable.  Look again.  Does this produce a drive, a pass to the roll man, a pass to a shooter, a pass into the post, or a trip through the paint and a pass to a cutter?  Any of those is possible, but the answer is - when done properly it produces a shot against whatever is defended the worst.

The Rockets and their offense aren't alone on an island anymore, much of the league is heading their way, some swimming, some drifting. (Though one team is looking to recreate the 1990s against the swarming, helping defenses of today.  Best of luck.)  The look may be different but the principles will be the same (and that gives us someone to steal from borrow ideas from).

We are no longer alone.