The NBA has been evolving for several years. That’s not exactly a secret — the Golden State Warriors, with their small-ball Death Lineup, historic three-point shooting, and ability to switch everything on defense, have taken the league by storm over the past two seasons and showed everyone where the future of the league lies. More and more teams are accepting that future and playing a style similar to that of the Warriors, and the team that beat them in this year’s Finals is perhaps the best example.
Looking back, last year’s Finals matchup felt like the old NBA’s last stand — the Cavs came in with a behemoth lineup including LeBron James and two more traditional big men in Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. They put up a good fight, but eventually fell short to the Warriors and their smaller group, one with Draymond Green playing as the nominal center. If the 2015 Finals were a battle for the soul of the NBA, Golden State and their small ball won, and the league moved into the future.
This year, the Cavs came back with a different group — Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are the obvious differences, but there have been other big changes as well. Iman Shumpert, an average three-point shooter, was benched for JR Smith and his spacing-friendly .375 long range average. Richard Jefferson played 24 minutes per game in the Finals, which is absolutely incredible when you consider the fact that he is actually 84 years old. Tyronn Lue may or may not have forgotten that Timofey Mozgov is even on the roster. Last year, the average height of the Cavs’ most-used and most-efficient lineup (per NBA.com/stats) had an average height of nearly 6’8”. This year, their most efficient group (Irving, Smith, Jefferson, James, and Thompson) is down to 6’6”. That doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but it indicates that Cleveland has accepted the new NBA, and it’s given them their first NBA title. It’s time for other teams to follow suit.
The Charlotte Hornets are one of those teams stuck on the outside looking in, and they could take a leaf out of Cleveland’s book and move towards the future. Of course, it’s impossible to truly replicate this Cleveland team without a once-in-a-generation player like LeBron James. Despite that, there are still some important lessons that can be learned from this group.
The first and most important lesson may be painful to some Hornets fans. Al Jefferson helped the franchise return to prominence, but he just can’t be a starter in today’s NBA. He may be a valuable player in certain situations, just as the Warriors used David Lee last year, or Oklahoma City used Enes Kanter against Golden State this year. He can’t be a centerpiece anymore, and he can only stay if he’s on a new contract that reflects his lessened role.
Another interesting case is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If the jump shot he showed in his limited time this season sticks around and he can become even an average long range shooter, he immediately becomes one of the most important players in the league. If not, things become more difficult. The importance of spacing in the league means that a player on the perimeter has to be able to spread the floor, even a little bit. Charlotte could try to use him the way the Cavs use Tristan Thompson, as a power forward and undersized center, but he’s might not be quite big enough to effectively play that role.
Kidd-Gilchrist could be joined by Courtney Lee and Nicolas Batum next year, a group that has the potential to be an absolutely monstrous three-headed monster on the defensive end. Each player has the ability to guard multiple positions (though Batum’s defensive skill is often more theoretical than literal), allowing them to switch anything if they want to. That’s the same principle that the Warriors can use, and it helps cover Steph Curry on that end. Curry isn’t a bad defender, but he’s not a great one, either. His offensive responsibilities can hinder him on that end, too. The Hornets are in the same position with Kemba Walker, a mediocre defender that leads the offense. If MKG is joined by one or both of Lee and Batum, helping Walker becomes much, much easier.
If Charlotte wants to become the next franchise to win their first NBA title, there’s plenty for them to learn from the Cleveland Cavaliers.