The Difference Between Ball Movement and Isolation Styles of Play


By Griffin Finch

Over the last several seasons the NBA has been going through a subtle transition in the style of play that is most effective. I’m not talking about the revolution that has seen guard play become infinitely more important than the dominant big men of the past. I’m referring to the fact that running an offense that relies heavily on isolating the best player on the team is being made obsolete by teams that employ superior ball movement in order to create the best possible shot on every possession.

Since basketball’s inception the winning team would be the one that had the best big man. The strategies for these teams were to give the ball to their center and let him go to work because more often than not he could not be stopped. Michael Jordan showed the world that a guard could be just as dominant in isolation if he had the requisite skill set. This inspired a generation of players who all wanted to “be like Mike”. This generation included Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. Since then more all stars have come about that specialize in devastating their defender through isolation play. Notable examples of these players include Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and Blake Griffin to name a few. The problem with running a system like this is often times the team ends up relying on one player far to much during the course of any particular game. By the end of the game the guy you rely on to take you to victory is exhausted and has to work a lot harder to score due to his fatigue. The other major problem with this style of play is that it has a negative impact on the rest of the team. When one player controls the ball for the majority of each possession the other four players on the court do not get involved in the offense. As a result the fail to get into any rhythm so that when they are called upon to produce they are ice cold. This also affects the defensive side of the ball for both the man controlling the ball and his teammates. For the star player that spends his time in isolation, he has to expend so much energy to break down his defender and then make his move to score. Whether he is to tired or he is saving himself for the next offensive possession often times these players will rest or at least not give maximum effort on defense. For the role players when they don’t get involved on offense they want to get involved on defense. When this happens the head coach will often call a timeout to try to get his team focused and motivated to play tougher defense. Overall teams that isolate a majority of the time find that it is very difficult to win championships with that strategy.

The transition to unselfish basketball predicated on trusting each other, ball movement and a desire to always find the best available shot started with the San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich proved that a team with less talent can beat a loaded team if the team with less talent plays the right way. This was the case when the Spurs beat Lebron’s Miami Heat teams in the finals. I don’t think anyone would argue that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli with a very young Kawhi Leonard was more talented than the original big three of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Yet Gregg Popovich had enough talent to beat Miami because everyone on those Spurs teams trusted each other and sacrificed their personal agendas for the betterment of the team. In more recent years The Golden State Warriors have seemingly perfected this style of play and gotten several stars to run it. They have Kevin Durant who is a top two player in the league, they have the splash brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson who by the end of their careers will hold every three point record imaginable and Draymond Green who can do a little bit of everything and is the heart and soul of that team. Usually when players are that talented they want to be the star of the show and dominate the ball when they are on the floor. Give credit to Steve Kerr for developing a culture that promotes unselfishness and a sole desire on winning rings, as well as getting several stars to buy into that culture. The Warriors took what the Spurs started and built upon it. Hopefully more teams will follow suit and soon the majority of the league will be using off ball movement and precise passing in order to win.

The evolution of basketball is something truly marvelous to behold. The changes that have happened just in my lifetime are drastic and in my opinion only for the better. After a while watching one guy hold the ball and score every time gets repetitive and boring to watch. Teams pass the ball and run off ball actions until someone gets an excellent opportunity to score is far more entertaining. When teams use this style you never know who is going to beat you on any one possession. This makes it more fun to watch and much harder to defend. As more teams and coaches realize that isolation is slowly becoming more and more obsolete and move towards this new style of play the NBA will become an even better league that puts out an even better product than it already does.



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