Change, and how we get there

The NBA has seen its shifts over time, some trends become the standard, others cast aside, why?
Change, and how we get there
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Remember Jack Taylor?

Does 138 points at Grinnell College ring a bell? These are absurd numbers setting a college record and surpassing even Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point NBA game. The aftermath was predictable, Sports Illustrated and ESPN wrote articles about him, The Dan Patrick Show and Jimmy Kimmel invited him on their shows, even Kobe Bryant congratulated him in an interview. But after a couple of years, things returned to normal — there were no lasting effects on basketball. What’s even more surprising is this isn’t Grinnell’s first time having players score an absurd number of points. Players like Griffin Lentsch in 2011 had a similar game, hanging 89 and Taylor repeated his feat of having a 100+ point game later in 2013. This wasn’t a one-time incident.

Grinnell’s Jack Taylor holding up the number of points he scored in a single game.
Grinnell’s Jack Taylor holding up the number of points he scored in a single game.
Image: Getty Images

In reality, it was less about Taylor and Lentsch and more about the scheme they were running – Coach David Arsenault’s gameplan dubbed The Grinnell System. Arsenault had implemented The System in 1984 following a long streak of losing seasons. He intended to utilize every member of the team instead of any singular player – to play despite having a lack of talent on the team. But as The System slowly evolved, having a designated shooter was more efficient. The System proved to have an immediate impact on winning. The season after it was implemented, Grinnell improved by six wins, finishing 9-8. There were no prerequisites in terms of roster make-up as practically any team could run it. So why has it never been used in the NBA?

New perspectives on the game, like The System, often struggle to make it to the NBA. The only exception was the 2019 Houston Rockets. The Rockets, led by GM Daryl Morey, implemented an analytics-based offense: give the best player the ball, shoot 3s, no mid-ranges. But the Rockets were an exception, the league isn’t known for being prone to radical changes.

“Rockets can’t win a championship with James Harden dominating the ball,” - Kobe Bryant. 

There were serious doubts that a system like the Rockets’ could succeed. But in the end, the Rockets were part of a sea change in the NBA as the league shifted more and more toward analytics and a Moneyball-inspired offense. Over the last decade, the number of 3s has gone up, the pace has gone up, and teams are generally more efficient. So why did this offense work but other anomalies like the high-scoring Grinnell System, Rick Barry’s granny shot that helped Wilt get 100 points, and 4-on-5 cherry-picking schemes never seem to seep into the league?

How the Grinnell System Works

When Coach Arsenault arrived in Iowa in 1989, the team was struggling – 25 consecutive losing seasons led players to lose interest. “These guys aren’t having any fun. I’m not [having any fun],” Arsenault recalled. The next day, Arsenault started brainstorming. He was looking for what was “fun” and would spark the team’s energy.

The Grinnell system is what Coach Arsenault described as “trying to create perfect chaos.” His system is an analytics-based system on steroids. Players follow three main guidelines:

  1. Shoot the first shot possible; treat the shot clock like there are only 12 seconds instead of 24. This shot has to be either a layup or a 3.
  2. Press no matter what, double the ball-handler, and go for steals. The ideology is giving up layups is better than giving the other team a long possession time.
  3. Sub out all five players every minute. This keeps players fresh and able to push the pace.

Push the pace and disrupt the flow of the opponent’s game. Score fast, run back on defense, and get steals. Opponents who run a more traditional system become shell-shocked and are outscored.

“The other thing I really love about it is everyone on the team gets to play every night,” Lentsch said, “so everyone gets to feel they’re really part of the team and part of the victory.” Within the first season, they averaged 109.2 points and finished with the first winning record in 30 years.

Attempts of recreating The System

Surprisingly, The System did enter the NBA – kind of. King’s owner, Vivek Ranadivé, concocted his own experiment by hiring David Arsenault Jr. as the head coach for their D-league team, the Bighorns. The System was now imported into the developmental league for the NBA.

In short, it started as a disaster. As Hassan Whiteside of the Iowa Energy put it after dominating the Bighorns in a 152-144 win, “I loved it man. They just kept driving at me, I couldn’t understand it.” Five days later the Grizzlies, along with other teams, called and he signed a $98 million dollar contract with the Miami Heat, likely due in part to his 30 points, 22 rebounds, and 8 blocks in this game.

So why didn’t it work? Mainly due to players not accepting the new change. Players ignored the coach, refused to be subbed in, and didn’t buy into The System. Grinnell’s players had no reason to push back, they had a history of losing and were promised more scoring and playing time for everyone. D-league and college players don’t have the same value system. D-league players are presenting themselves to NBA teams to potentially make a roster. They need to show they can fit on any team with any offense, winning games isn’t their main priority. So a scheme that diverts from an NBA offense, that doesn’t play man defense, and worst of all splits playing time evenly isn’t attractive to players.

The Granny Shot

Rick Barry is credited for popularizing the underhand toss, making 89.3 percent of his career attempts, a record at the time. Here’s Barry shooting granny style:

Rick Barry Makes Free Throw With Eyes Shut During Bulls/Cavs Game

Theoretically, The Granny Shot is more effective than the traditional overhead shot at the free-throw line. The physics behind it shows an underhanded shooting motion is optimal. When you shoot underhand, it gives greater backspin to the ball that increases your chances. In addition, players have more control when they shoot underhanded – it minimizes error from the ball being off-target to either side. After being fatigued, players are much less accurate at the free-throw line. Because the shooting motion behind The Granny Shot is more natural, it is much easier to recreate and more consistent than an overhead shot.

Barry remains the loudest proponent of the underhanded shot. He’s tried to convince players ranging from his teammates to greats like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal. In Wilt’s case, Barry convinced him after he had a season shooting around 50 percent. The impact of his new form was immediately noticeable as The Stilt’s free-throw percentage went up to an all-time career-high of 61.3 percent and even contributed to his legendary 100-point game.

But Chamberlain stopped. He opted to go back to his regular form, shooting a dismal free-throw percentage the following season. Why did he knowingly choose to be a worse free-throw shooter? In his words, “[because] I felt silly, like a sissy.”

He wasn’t the only one who shared this sentiment. Shaq stated he was “too cool for that” and the rest of the NBA has felt ridiculous even trying it. Players are actively choosing to use a worse method for shooting free-throws and voluntarily leaving points at the line.

On his podcast “Revisionist History,” in an episode titled “The Big Man Can’t Shoot” Malcolm Gladwell discusses the factors of choosing not to shoot underhanded. Gladwell brings up external factors prevalent outside of strictly winning such as how players want to be perceived by the public. Because shooting underhanded is seen as ridiculous in the basketball community, players like Chamberlain and Shaq have decided they’d rather be bad free-throw shooters than be decent ones that are laughed at.

Gladwell argues that for The Granny Shot to be a prominent part of the NBA, there has to be enough people with a low “threshold”. The concept of threshold is what he describes as “the number of people who have to do something before you join in.” Similar to the mob mentality, once enough people are using The Granny Shot, almost everyone would be willing to try it. Think of the Fosbury Flop for high jumping. When Dick Fosbury introduced arching ones back over the bar in the mid 1960s it was lampooned. But today? It’s the standard, and has been for decades. The problem with The Granny Shot is, unlike the Fosbury Flop that quickly swept through high jumping, there aren’t enough players in the NBA willing to attempt this radical change.

Why do these oddities fail?

James Harden attempted 1,028 3s in the 2018-19 season. For reference, the ’98 Bulls, featured in The Last Dance, attempted a total of 962 3s as a team. Harden is shooting more 3s now than entire teams were 20 years ago — that’s a radical change.

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The engine behind Harden’s 3-point assault was Daryl Morey, then-general manager of the Houston Rockets. Morey is known across the league as a data guru. Before entering the league, he received a degree in computer science at Northwestern and worked as a statistical consultant. The NBA had never seen someone so analytical at the helm of a franchise. The Moneyball revolution that author Michael Lewis detailed in his book on GM Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s had slowly worked its way into the NBA.

So when the Rockets acquired Harden in a blockbuster trade with the OKC Thunder, Morey now had his conduit on the court later stating, “James Harden changed my life.”

This data revolution has convinced everyone. Teams and players that tried to hold on to traditional styles end up at the bottom of league standings. Take the Spurs. Their dynastic era has long ended. But the team has not yet adapted to newer high-powered offenses. Unsurprisingly, they also have the fewest three-point attempts in the last three seasons. Like many other teams, a lack of 3s has become a sign of a subpar season to come. Once a few teams were successful at using the three-point line, every team was in some ways forced to keep up.

Let’s lay the groundwork for what it takes to make a change in the NBA.

There has to be enough radical leaders in the NBA. This is the Rick Barrys, Ranadives, and Moreys of the world; for there to be change, someone has to be the first, the Fosbury. The NBA isn’t known for having many radicals. A big reason for that is parity. For teams to have the freedom to experiment with new ideas, they have to already be losing. No team likes to be losing for long.

Once someone gives the idea a chance, they have to be able to convince others that it works. For Grinnell, its system was unable to conquer the D-league. Barry convinced Wilt, but only for a season. Star players have to consider their image and brand when stepping outside of the paradigm, and executives run the risk of media calling for their job if what they introduce is not considered the correct way to play basketball.

Finally, the new change has to produce such stellar results that it pressures everyone else to join. Fosbury winning gold with his unique style at the Mexico City Games in 1968 got everyone’s attention. By Munich in ’72, more than half of field were using his ‘Flop”. Teams that refuse to shoot more threes are outscored and end up at the bottom of the standings. Players who can’t shoot from outside (like Ben Simmons) are liabilities and eventually become traded or cut. In the late stage, it becomes about convincing those who are dead set on traditional old-school ways.