September 21, 2010
For the next few weeks, I'm going to pick an NBA-related subject, A-through-Z, and tell you why it's worth your time, and why it's one of the reasons I love covering this league. Because that's why I wanted to become a scribe who's paid to cover this league. Sharing the things I know and love with those of my kind. All that stuff.
Because I'm lucky enough to have your ear for however long, I don't care that this might come off as a bit twee. A little embarrassing. A little too forthright. I'm OK with that. Hopefully you are, as well.
"I" is for "isolation plays."
It doesn't take repeated viewing of Hoosiers, or some history teacher-cum-gym coach to tell you that basketball at its aesthetic best usually involves five players in unison pulling off something that is greater than the sum of their respective talents.
And while it might be a reflection of the inherent insecurities of the typical pro coach, the willingness to keep a steady income and/or the interest in keeping that best perimeter player (oft-confused as the best player, more often than not listed as the best-paid player on the team) happy, I'm not sure. But when you need a score at the end of the quarter, and when the game is on the line, typically an isolation play results.
For better or worse. I'll leave the "worse" part for another day. For now, yes, the isolation play is what we all rely upon, when it's a bucket or bust.
Now, there are several types of isolation plays to choose from. A dump down to Dwight Howard(notes) against (initial) single coverage is technically an isolation play, but as much as we respect Dwight on both ends, you rarely see this type of play called. You rarely see it even for the low-post scorers that can hit free throws. Usually, you know, it's for the hot shot.
And the hot shots, as you've known them since grade school, are the ones that can dribble the ball. They're not passing unless the defender hacks a limb off.
If the best dribbler has managed to make it to this level, chances are they've turned into their team's best scorer. And often, because they've had so much in game practice of getting to use up possession after possession (whether the game calls for it or not), they've worked their way into becoming a team's best passer, and/or best shooter. Or, at least, someone who gives off the whiff of a best passer because everyone's seen them make obvious passes so much. Or the best shooter because they take five a game from long range at a 37 percent clip, even if that isn't always the smartest thing to do.
At this point, this is your team's best isolation player. And when it comes time to win a game, to really, really win a game with just a few seconds left, this is your go-to player. The one that can get a good look off, no matter the defender.
It should be noted that this only goes for end-game situations. Isolation guys toward the end of the half, or third quarter, or even shot clock situations are notoriously non-sneaky. Always looking for an excuse to launch that bomb, as opposed to driving in. You know guys like Kobe Bryant(notes) or Chauncey Billups(notes) want an excuse to take that three instead of drive. "See, they were up on me. I had no time left. I had to shoot." I can't blame them, but I reserve the right to yell at them.
That's what they get, though, for becoming an isolation player, working isolation plays. They've earned the right, perhaps, to chuck. When you're able to still get what you want, even though everyone in the building knows what you want? Yeah, you get some leeway at the end of a broken play and with the shot clock dying in the first quarter.
They've also earned our eye, and the big "I." Clear out, flatten out, give the ball up. Let the man go to work. I'll never love isolation plays, but hot damn do I respect them.