Long ago, in a Garden far, far away, Pat Riley ground the entire NBA to a halt, crafting consistently competitive teams around the core philosophy of playing nasty, grind-it-out basketball that typically resulted in final scores like “83-75”. The games were damn near unwatchable, with every matchup turning into a slugfest featuring staunch defense, huge humans crashing the boards and slow, tedious isolations.
Sound familiar? The horror of 90s basketball is rearing its head in the form of the Cavaliers, led by LeBron James isolations on one end and a simple stay-at-home defense, anchored by Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, on the other.
The Jordan Rules, a set of rather aggressive defensive principles designed to slow down one Michael Jordan that was practiced by the Detroit Pistons, were largely adopted by Riley when he took over the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. They fought with the Chicago Bulls in some of the most contentious playoff series of the 90s, and made a point of affecting Chicago’s dynamic wing duo of Jordan and Scottie Pippen at every opportunity.
That style of play proliferated throughout the decade and into the early 2000s. It began to change with an increased emphasis on 3-point shooting and the change in hand-checking rules. The trend towards an open offense, with a ton of shooters and constant ball movement, was an outgrowth of Mike D’Antoni’s offensive system as run by Steve Nash. Even Pop, Tim Duncan and the Spurs were a classic post-up, smashmouth defensive unit until they ran into the Suns. The trend towards more open offense, with a corresponding change in defensive strategies, has seemed to be the inevitable future of the NBA.
And yet, here we are. Cleveland’s tactics aren’t as brutal as the Rileyball Knicks or Heat, but they seem that way against the backdrop of battles against the Warriors, and the Hawks before them. Both Atlanta and Golden State are heavy practitioners of the motion-heavy offenses and quick, agile defenses best designed to stop them currently en vogue in the league. Both are struggling heavily to deal with what Cleveland has become; a throwback team with two bruising bigs and one athletic wing star.
Cleveland is crashing the boards, milking the clock, swarming Stephen Curry – the opponent’s wing star – and generally trying to win by playing the same style that Riles re-created himself with, coincidentally leading to his position as the czar of the Heat, where he helped lure LeBron and win a couple of titles. The Cavs have ground down the entire concept of modern basketball, taking a subpar, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love-less roster and grabbed the homecourt advantage from heavy favorites Golden State.
For those in the League Pass Anonymous support group this could be a bit of a disaster. Slow-down offenses aren’t the stuff that purists’ dreams are made of. There exists a sentiment that Nash and D’Antoni saved the game, finally snuffing out the doldrums of the 90s. How true that is remains up for debate, but Cleveland’s approach is a distinct threat to the free-wheeling approach that’s prevalent in today’s NBA.
This is not just LeBron dragging a team to the precipice of a championship. Cleveland absolutely could not be doing this without him, but he also couldn’t do this by himself. That has been proven more than once. Nothing should take away from the incredible work the King is doing on offense. That does not mean the game is won and lost by him.
The Cavaliers have a real chance of stealing a series that they probably have no business being in at all. They are there for two reasons: they employ, largely through an accident of birth, the greatest basketball player on the face of the planet; and they’ve embraced one of the most successful and infuriating playing styles of the 90s.