2021 Draft Theory: Three Different Sports

In Everything’s Different in the Adult World (2016), I wrote about the difference between college basketball and the NBA and why those differences made it so difficult to scout players and project how they will transition to the NBA. Five years later, college basketball has changed little, while the NBA has continued to push deeper into the space and shoot era.

College basketball and NBA basketball are so divergent at this point that they are barely the same sport. The shorter 3P line and no 3 second violation means that there is no space to operate inside, and most teams simply do not have enough shooters to create the space. None of the schemes that work in the NBA work in the NCAA and vice versa, and players are asked to do wildly different things.

I watched very little college basketball this year, and it was not pandemic related. College basketball simply did not resemble NBA basketball. Because of the lack of defensive three seconds, both offensive and defensive schemes were wildly different from NBA schemes. I found the average game to be full of slow pace, poor shooting, and a showcase of skills I was not interested in, either for enjoyment or scouting purposes.

Additionally, more and more players are leaving early or not even going to college to begin with the rise of G-League Ignite, meaning there is less talent and the talent is less consistent and ready. All this is to say that I believe scouting college basketball for future NBA talent is going to become more and more difficult, and there’s going to be a lot more guessing and projection involved, as all the roles are different and players develop at different rates, if at all.

But a second rift has formed and has been widening even quicker: the difference between regular season NBA basketball and postseason NBA basketball. There’s a lot of adages and conventional wisdom regarding what happens in the playoffs, but many don’t hold true anymore. The referees do not allow more contact. The game slows down a bit, but not a huge amount.

The real change is just how much teams can gameplan and adjust to specific opponents, tendencies, and plays. In the regular season, every team has its standard offensive and defensive schemes. Usually it’s a few base schemes and a few wrinkles, useful against whatever team happens to be the opponent that night, simple to execute consistently. However, come playoff time, teams can make major adjustments on both ends.

One of the best examples of this was game 6 between the Clippers and the Jazz in this year’s playoffs. If you were to design a terrible, inefficient offense, it would look a lot like what the Clippers were running. A player would iso at the top of the key or the wing and, with no screen, drive ineffectively towards the basket. Against most teams, this offense would be an ugly failure. But something weird happened:

Clippers vs. Jazz, game 6 highlights

No matter how well the initial penetration was stopped or defended, Rudy Gobert would inevitably wander away from his man, giving up wide open 3 after wide open 3 for absolutely no reason. This turned the offense into an unstoppable juggernaut, keying a 25 point comeback.

Similar examples dotted the playoffs. Teams exploited switching defenses to get the same favorable matchup on every possession. Weak defenders were isolated until they were forced off the floor – Bryn Forbes went from 6th on the Bucks in minutes in round 1 to barely playing in the Finals because of this. Offensively limited players go from mildly problematic in the regular season to offense killers in the playoffs.

Over the course of an 82 game season, it is neither feasible nor reasonable to laser in on targets. There is not enough time to implement major changes, and spending practice time to focus on one opponent instead of refining and perfecting your own schemes is time poorly spent. There are minor adjustments made for individual opponents, but that is the extent of game to game changes typically seen.

Another huge difference is the effort level. There’s just too many games in too short a period of time to give maximum effort at all times. Most players and teams give enough effort for the first 3.5 quarters and then turn it on at the end of the game. In the playoffs, the effort level is far higher for far more of every game. Some defensive schemes require max effort level to work consistently, and offenses that could work against a normal defense suddenly get completely stuffed.

As a result of the major differences between the regular season and the postseason, centers go from the most important players in the regular season to the least important in the postseason. This twitter thread succinctly summarizes it. If you want to win in the playoffs, your center should be a roleplayer who is defensively sound, sets strong picks, and rebounds well, but who you can easily pull off the floor for another wing.

The more you are built around a center, the less likely you are to win, for all the reasons above. On offense, centers can’t bring the ball up the floor, and teams scheme to limit where centers touch the ball. The extra effort also means that the help is always a little bit quicker, the recoveries a little bit cleaner. It’s just harder for a center to generate efficient offense. On defense, the high quality teams will make rim protection meaningless by dragging the center away from the basket or bombing from deep if the center stays close.

Basically, in the regular season, you want Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, and Nikola Jokic. But in the postseason, you want an old vet on a small contract who knows every trick in the book to stop opposing centers and won’t affect the rest of the team if they’re pulled.

As we head into the draft, keep in mind the differences between the three versions of basketball. Ultimately, the goal is to win a championship. That means that the most valuable players are efficient ball-dominant creators and quality 3-and-D wings. Every other player should be significantly devalued accordingly.