The playoffs magnify the problems of being systemless. Give an elite defense two weeks to scout a single opponent with a blah offense, and that defense will smother those first options.
If you can’t adapt on the fly, you might score at a bottom-five rate, as the Clippers did in the final five games of the Memphis series — a drought that began before Griffin’s ankle sprain. (The Clips actually put up a solid scoring number in the Game 6 closer, when Del Negro submitted one of the most bizarre coaching performances in recent NBA history.) The Clippers and Thunder are similar in that they built play-based offenses, and not systems, around multiple superstars, and learned in the postseason that those play-based offenses simply cannot be sustained without one of the two superstars.
The Bulls provide an interesting contrast. Their offense is boring and unglamorous. They are allergic to the 3-point line. They’re slow in the perimeter when Nate Robinson is on the bench. They run the same three or four actions on just about every possession. But they make good use of all their personnel, and they run a continuous system — a pick-and-roll here flows into a dribble handoff there, which flows into a catch-and-shoot action or another pick-and-roll someplace else on the floor. The Bulls managed to squeeze out nearly 100 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs and a very decent 102.3 points per 100 possessions in their seven-game thriller against the Nets. They maintained something within hailing distance of an average offense despite spinal taps, dudes vomiting on the bench, plantar fasciitis, and a general lack of available NBA bodies.
The Thunder couldn’t manage anything close to that without Russell Westbrook against Memphis, and the Clippers were right on Chicago’s playoff pace after their Game 1 romp.
The Clippers’ offense was fine in the big picture. Del Negro actually designed some pretty nice stuff out of timeouts in that Memphis series, and he made smart use of blind back screens over the last two seasons — screens that took advantage of all the heads turned in Paul’s direction. But the playoffs are about the small picture. The opposition gets better, the margin of error shrinks to zero. Teams need to maximize every possession on both ends, and Del Negro was not the coach to bring out that maximization.
A cadre of players, presumably including Paul, had reached that conclusion during the postseason, as ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz reported on Tuesday.