It is tempting to describe Golden State’s NBA Finals victory as a triumph of the style of play popularised by the Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash Phoenix Suns.
Both teams featured 6-3 point guards with ballhandling wizardry, crafty passing and astounding marksmanship. Both teams featured small line-ups that played at a fast pace and shot a lot of three pointers.
There are also personal connections between the franchises. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, assistant coach Alvin Gentry and key reserve Leandro Barbosa all were members of that Phoenix franchise in some capacity.
Have D’Antoni and Nash been vindicated at the expense of commentators like Charles Barkley who insisted that jump shooting teams cannot win a championship?
That theme has been trumpeted loudly throughout Golden State’s great regular season, has gained volume during the Warriors’ playoff run and figures to become deafening in the wake of the team’s 4-2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, it is an oversimplification to suggest that the Warriors won by doing the same things that the Suns used to do.
The Warriors not only ranked first in scoring and three point field goal percentage but they also ranked first in defensive field goal percentage and second in blocked shots.
The Warriors maintained their suffocating defence in the playoffs, ranking second in defensive field goal percentage and fifth in blocked shots. In the NBA Finals, the Warriors held the Cavaliers to .384 field goal shooting.
The Suns never had that kind of mindset. The Suns focused on scoring over 100 points and assumed that they could always score more points than their opponents without placing any particular emphasis on stopping their opponents from scoring.
That philosophy can work during the regular season, particularly for a team that has a lot of gifted offensive players. That philosophy will not likely ever produce an NBA championship. In the playoffs, with time off between games to prepare and rest, teams are not just going to get run off of the court.
The Suns’ opponents found ways to make it more difficult for Phoenix to score and they also exploited Phoenix’ uninterested defence.
D’Antoni never emphasized defence. He might argue that his roster did not have many great individual defenders but that is a falsehood and a copout. He had excellent defensive players like Shawn Marion and Raja Bell, plus defence has at least as much to do with mindset and strategy as it does with talent.
The great coaches develop defensive game plans that suit their personnel and they instill a defensive mindset into their teams.
The Suns never made it to the NBA Finals because they did not play good enough defence. Previous teams that shot a lot of three pointers and made it to the NBA Finals played good defence. The Houston Rockets won back to back championships in the 1990s not only based on their excellent three point shooting but also based on a very good defence anchored by Hakeem Olajuwon.
The 2009 Orlando Magic made it to the NBA Finals with a similar formula: a great big man (Dwight Howard) surrounded by three point shooters and a team that embraced playing defence.
The coach and the best player set the tone. How many championship teams have had coaches and best players who were below average defensively? The only recent NBA champion that arguably had a below average defensive player as its best player was the 2011 Dallas Mavericks but coach Rick Carlisle certainly emphasised defence to that team and 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki at least made an effort at that end of the court, using his length to contest shots.
In a sense, Golden State’s success did not vindicate the D’Antoni/Nash Suns but rather exposed the fatal flaw of those teams. Golden State emphasized defence and every member of the rotation was engaged defensively.
The Warriors did not have to hide anyone or do any kind of gimmicks, while the Suns did not emphasise defence and their best players (Nash and Amare Stoudemire) were subpar defensive players. In contrast, 2015 MVP Stephen Curry has become an above average defensive player, setting the tone for the entire team.