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In the NBA Playoffs, You’re Only As Strong As Your Weakest Link

Mismatches are the name of the game, and the Warriors have found ways to expose even players with coveted 3-and-D skill sets. Having range is no longer enough. To stay on the floor against the best, you have to be able to put the ball on the floor against the best.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite being among the top five teams in this year’s playoffs in 3-point attempts, neither the Cavs nor the Warriors have spot-up shooters in their starting lineup. Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver are two of the best shooters in NBA history, but they don’t just stand in the corner and wait for the ball. They create their own shot by running around screens and shooting off of movement. And while guys like Andre Iguodala, J.R. Smith, and George Hill don’t have huge offensive roles, they all had the skill to be primary options earlier in their careers. Elite teams need offensive threats at every position. The playoffs have shown that it’s too easy to game-plan pure 3-and-D players out of a series.

That’s what happened to Trevor Ariza, one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA, in the Western Conference finals. He averaged 8.9 points a game on 33.3 percent shooting in the series and was held scoreless in 42 minutes in the Rockets’ Game 7 loss to the Warriors on Monday. With the exception of a 19-point explosion in Game 2, Ariza was a nonfactor on offense against Golden State, which choked off the steady diet of open 3s he received all season. Unlike Minnesota and Utah in the first two rounds, the Warriors switched screens in the pick-and-roll and let their big men defend James Harden and Chris Paul in space, which allowed them to keep their other defenders at home on Houston’s shooters.

The Rockets offense looked ridiculous when they missed an incredible 27 3s in a row in Game 7, but they didn’t have a choice but to keep bombing away. Guys like Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Gerald Green can’t do anything else. Ariza had a minuscule playoff usage rate of 13.5. He can’t take defenders off the dribble, he’s not an effective post scorer, and he doesn’t shoot off of movement. Ariza depends entirely on Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon to create shots for him, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the Rockets’ lead ball handlers when they are playing an elite defense like the Warriors. The math was difficult for Houston in the series, even before Paul went down with a hamstring injury in Game 5, because it had no one else who could create offense.

Ariza struggled in much the same way that Robert Covington, another premier 3-and-D wing, did in Philadelphia’s second-round loss to Boston. The Celtics were determined to make Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid beat them playing one-on-one, and they never allowed Covington, who depends on his stars drawing double-teams and kicking the ball out to him, to get on track. He averaged only 6.8 points a game on 26.8 percent shooting in the series, and he was benched for T.J. McConnell in Game 4 to get another creator on the floor.

Covington and Ariza had similar offensive profiles in the regular season. They were significantly below average in almost every offensive category besides spot-up 3s, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports:

Ariza’s and Covington’s Other Offensive Contributions by Leaguewide Percentile

Shooting off Dribble Shooting off Screens Finishing at Rim
Shooting off Dribble Shooting off Screens Finishing at Rim
Ariza 21st 30th 9th
Covington 24th 13th 28th

There’s an opportunity cost to starting a player who doesn’t threaten a defense because it creates a spot in the lineup for the opponent to hide a weaker defender. Stephen Curry spent most of the Western Conference finals guarding Ariza, which allowed the Golden State star to rest his body and keep his legs fresh for offense. Houston countered that strategy by using Ariza to screen for Harden, Paul, and Gordon, forcing Curry into unfavorable switches. However, since Ariza wasn’t a threat to attack the switch the other way, it still left all of the offensive responsibility in the hands of a few players. There’s no way to know if Paul’s heavy usage in the series contributed to his injury, but fatigue appeared to play a role in the second halves of the series. Harden was clearly gassed by Game 7.

Conversely, having offensive threats at every position allows a team to punch above its weight. The Celtics’ strength-in-numbers approach allowed them to make it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They hunted down the weakest defender on the opposing team, whether it was J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli for the 76ers or Korver and Kevin Love for the Cavs. After devastating the Raptors in the second round, Korver was an afterthought by the end of the conference finals precisely because Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue couldn’t find a place to hide him. It’s no coincidence that his team’s best defensive effort against Boston came in Game 7, when Korver played a series-low 18 minutes.

The importance of every player on the floor magnifies as the level of competition increases. Golden State was in control against Houston until Iguodala went down at the end of Game 3. The Warriors’ inability to find an adequate fifth option turned the series into a dogfight, even though they still had four All-Stars. Iguodala is one of the team’s best passers, and he does just enough to force defenses to account for him. Golden State’s lack of depth was exposed without him: The Rockets didn’t guard Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell, the moment was too big for Quinn Cook, and Shaun Livingston’s health issues kept a cap on his minutes. Nick Young was its most reliable option at times, which says it all.

One of the things that makes the Hamptons Five lineup so incredible is that Iguodala and Draymond Green allow Curry, Durant, and Thompson to all play off the ball. There’s no way to cover three of the greatest shooters of all time when they are flying around the court and screening for each other. A lot of Golden State’s motion-based offense fell apart without Iguodala because the fifth defender on the floor could play off the ball and clog up the lane. With Draymond losing confidence in his shot, the last few games of the conference finals became a slog, as both teams played multiple non-threats on offense.

Houston pursued Iguodala in the offseason, and its offense would have looked very different if the team had signed him. His inconsistent 3-point shooting would have hurt the Rockets when Harden and Paul were on the ball, but his playmaking would have made their star guards more dangerous off of it. I suspect one of the reasons Harden’s productivity tends to drag over the course of a playoff series is that he has no one creating shots for him and making his life easier. Houston hasn’t had a perimeter player taller than 6-foot-5 whom it could run offense through since Chandler Parsons left in 2014.

Harden will win the MVP this season because the Rockets used him as their version of LeBron. The obvious difference is that he’s not nearly as big, so it’s unfair to expect him to be as dominant against an elite defense in the playoffs. Even LeBron can’t do everything. The Cavs got secondary scoring from Hill in Game 6 (20 points and three assists on 7-for-12 shooting) and Green in Game 7 (19 points on 7-for-14 shooting). Those two aren’t good enough to do that every night, but they have far more shot-creating ability than Ariza. Hill averaged 16.9 points on 47.7 percent shooting and 4.2 assists a game last season, while Green has averaged at least 15 points per game in four of his 10 NBA seasons.

To be sure, Ariza was a much better player than Hill or Green this season, and it is possible to build a championship roster with him as a starter. Teams just have to account for the smaller margin for error that comes with that. Ariza was the starting forward for the Lakers’ playoff run in 2009, when he won a championship spotting up off of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. That team had significantly more top-line talent than the Rockets, and it still upgraded from Ariza in the offseason by bringing in Ron Artest. They wouldn’t have won the championship in 2010 without Artest scoring 25 points in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals and 20 points in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

The standard to be a starter on a championship team, much less a dynasty, is incredibly high: Golden State’s fifth starter (Iguodala) might end up in the Hall of Fame. Depending on LeBron’s next decision this offseason, the Warriors’ biggest challenger going forward could be the Celtics, who, health permitting, will start Kyrie, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford next season. All five can spread the floor, and they can all attack a mismatch. Just having multiple stars isn’t enough, as Philadelphia found out. Embiid and Simmons still have a lot of room to improve, but the weaknesses in the Sixers’ current supporting cast would still kill them in any future series against Boston.

Johan Cruyff popularized “total soccer” in the late 20th century, a system that required interchangeable parts, where every player on the field has to be able to do everything. We may be entering the “total basketball” era of the NBA. The playoffs are cruel and unforgiving, which is why Cleveland and Golden State are facing off in the Finals for the fourth straight year. LeBron is the most versatile player in NBA history, while the Warriors have one of the greatest collections of talents the league has ever seen. Both teams are designed to find and exploit weaknesses. The only way to beat them is to not have any.