The more things change, the more they stay the same, and the 2016 NBA playoffs have been a referendum that for all the tenets of basketball we've recently surrendered in the name of ball movement and three-point shooting, there is still a place in the game for size, individual talent and athleticism. The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Toronto Raptors are proof of this.
In the past three seasons we've seen the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors --and the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets to a lesser degree-- obfuscate everything we thought we knew about the game. All of a sudden, having a stud post scorer was more of a detriment than a liability. Offensive rebounds were fool's gold. Point-a-shot scorers were seen as team-killers rather than stars. The best teams were destroying everybody with passing, three-pointers, alert transition defense and not relying on highlight dunks or bully-ball. It made it seem like Princeton could win the Larry O'Brien trophy if only they could find enough good shooters.
The truth is that the narrative of the Spurs and Warriors did not reflect the reality. Yes, they shot threes and passed the ball better than the other teams. Yes, they exploited small-ball to full effect. But there was more to what made them successful than just shooting and passing. They had size, athleticism, smarts, and above all, star power.
When people think of size in relation to the NBA, they think of interior scorers. The dominant center has gone the way of the dodo, but that doesn't mean that size isn't important. The brighter bulbs in the league's front offices have figured out running a half-court offense based on post-ups --we're talking about ordinary people like Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond here, not legends like Tim Duncan or Hakeem Olajuwon in their primes-- is the second-least efficient thing you can do after taking a bunch of mid-range shots (there are some dinosaur teams out there who still post-up and shoot a bunch of mid-range shots, I mean can you imagine?).
However, size still has a place in the league because you need it for rebounding and rim protection. It's why Duncan is still an asset, even at 40. It's why Bismack Biyomobo, one of the least "skilled" players in the NBA, has been a huge star for the Raptors recently. Dwane Casey and his staff figured out that he can be an asset as long as they never run any plays for him on offense, similar to how the Clippers use DeAndre Jordan.
One of Biyombo's best traits is his offensive rebounding, and again, the Raptors and Thunder have shown us the conventional wisdom about offensive rebounding lacks nuance. Yes, it's critically important to get back in transition. Teams should absolutely have their guards scramble back whenever a shot goes up. However, while fast break opportunities are the most efficient way to score, a close second is a half-court offense after an offensive board -- when defenses are scrambling and vulnerable. You either have the ball right at the rim or people wide open at the three-point line. It's not that chasing offensive rebounds are bad, it's who you chase them with. Having the whole team pursue them at the expense of not having anyone back in transition is foolish, but having a big who can get them like Biyombo or Steven Adams or Enes Kanter is invaluable.
Finally, there's star power. Talent. It was always a false narrative that the Spurs and Warriors didn't have enough of it to hang with "the Heatles" or the Thunder. Kawhi Leonard wasn't a high-volume shooter, but he was already a defensive superstar by 2013 and an efficient scorer. Duncan was still the best all-around big-man in the league. His only limitation was playing 32 minutes as opposed to 42. They were every bit the stars in their own end of the floor that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were on offense. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili was still a top-30 player in his 22 minutes per game. Tony Parker was a top-5 player in 2013 and still very efficient the next season. Danny Green shot the ball almost as well as Kyle Korver did for the Hawks, while providing much better defense. Maybe they didn't get the coverage or the attention the contenders got --mostly because they didn't want it-- but the Spurs very much had stars.
And the Warriors did too, of course. Stephen Curry is an otherworldly player, a transcendent talent who has changed the way we look at the game and what we think is possible. Klay Thompson is the modern day Ray Allen, but better defensively. Draymond Green is Boris Diaw, but with Westbrook's drive and intensity. And they round out that trio with people like Andrew Bogut, who's as good a rim protector as anyone, Andre Iguodala, who's long and athletic and turned the Finals for them last year, and others like Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes, et al.
In short, the Warriors and Spurs weren't the Hawks. They could both rebound, protect the rim and put star power on the court.
But the Thunder and Raptors aren't the Hawks, either. Atlanta doesn't have anyone like Adams, Kanter or Biyombo. They certainly don't have anyone like Durant, Westbrook or Kyle Lowry. We spent two rounds mocking Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for their poor play, but the Raptors sure look different when those guys have it going. It doesn't look pretty, but Lowry and DeRozan can create their own shots, unlike Atlanta's guys. Lowry isn't the best marksman, but he has three-point range. DeRozan doesn't shoot threes, but he gets to the line a lot. They're not megastars, but they're good enough to give anyone in the East problems, including Cleveland.
Conversely, star power has never been a problem for the Thunder, but we're seeing them leverage that talent by playing intelligently around it. Adams, Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson give them three very good defenders. Their size, length and quickness is overwhelming the Warriors and making them hesitate to pass or take it to the rim. On defense Golden State's normally well-choreographed switching and rotations keeps looking a step slow. It's a frustration the Spurs and their fans know only too well.
Shooting threes and moving the ball are here to stay. NBA offenses will never again resemble the grind-it-out post-wars of the 90's. But it's not the be-all and end-all to a championship. The best teams still need to be able to blend those skills with size, athleticism and talent, and the smarts to find that perfect mix.