Back To The NBA Journey, Week Six: New Gameplay Mechanics

There's been a new addition of shots among NBA guards, and players like Kemba Walker are capitalizing on a new skill. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

The 2018-19 NBA season has begun. The Association still believes that its destination will be another championship for the Golden State Warriors. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the season as a whole. Last year was wonderful, so let's return to the path. Let's go back to the Journey.

Song of The Week: J-Live feat. Oddissee and Posdnuos - "The Upgrade"

Gaming consoles have come a long way since the Commodore 64. As Nintendo, Sega, Sony and Microsoft entered console development, games were able to become more complex. As core processors could handle better graphics and more detailed controls, long-standing franchises were able to expand their features to allow for different ways to play. For example, for those of us old enough to remember Super Mario Bros. For the original Nintendo Entertainment System, we know that the A button was to jump and the B button performed actions such as running faster and shooting fireballs when equipped with the fire flower. Now, as Nintendo introduced Super Mario Odyssey for its latest console the Nintendo Switch, Mario is able to do things in the game such as throw Mario's hat — that, in itself, is new to anyone who hasn't kept up with the lovable plumber this century — upward and downward or to have the hat home in on an enemy. This is certainly different from even the 3D Super Mario games on the Nintendo 64.

Sports games have also evolved in the past three decades. While playing NBA 2k19 the other day, I recalled having only one button to pass, one to shoot and one to shoot a layup or dunk when playing NBA Live 98 on the PSOne twenty years ago. Now the right analog stick controls everything from which dribble moves a player does to which shot he shoots from the post, depending on directional movements and button presses. The most intriguing thing is that there are three separate buttons for passing. The x-button is a standard pass, circle does a bounce pass and triangle executes an overhead pass. It can be a bit overwhelming for someone who is used to playing games one way and hasn't committed to changing with the updated times.

Basketball is currently in the midst of an identity change. It is not a crisis because that would imply that basketball is beginning to be played incorrectly and that's not applicable for a sport predicated on individuality. Steph Curry is the game's best and most electrifying shooter, and he has optimized the three-point shot in a way that even the best shooters of a generation ago couldn't foresee. In particular, I'm referencing the three off the dribble. Before, the three was only slated to be an open shot off a pass if a driving player's path to the basket was cut off. The aim for any player was to get to the rim, no matter one's size, and only shoot the open three after a "good pass." Steph has led the way in changing that thinking, as an open three is still an open shot whether it comes off a pass or dribble.

Steph Curry has led a revolution that involves guards shooting more pull-up threes. It's no longer a terrible shot. (Sports Retriever)

The result is that across the league, the pull-up three off the dribble has been added to many scorers' repertoire. This tweet by Advanced Stats writer for John Schuhmann highlights a short list of 22 players with at least 300 pull-up threes attempted in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

A few things jump off the page. First, James Harden has taken 1,100 of this type of shot in fewer than 200 games. Second, Donovan Mitchell only has one full season under his belt and he took 300 pull-up threes last year. Finally, everyone on this list except for LeBron James is a guard 6'6" or shorter.

It's that last detail I want to focus on in relation to Steph. One of the primary roles of guards in basketball is to use their speed and quickness to get into the painted area to break down the defense. This can lead to receiving contact from bigger defenders. Those hits add up over a game and season, thus increasing injury risk. To counter that, Steph and others have added this pull-up three to their arsenals as a way to put pressure on the defense by forcing it to extend uncomfortably. An extended defense creates more space for offensive player movement and can put individual defenders in tough situations. All the pull-up three requires is for the player shooting it to be a good shooter.

Using this formula has helped a number of guards elevate their offensive games. Kemba Walker has especially gotten better, as he's the Association's third-leading scorer as of Sunday. He's averaging 28.2 points per game, but the more staggering stat is that he's averaging 10 three-point attempts per game. A big part of this is Walker implementing the pull-up three. It is a simple cause-effect relationship between more threes (good or not good) and more point totals. But shooting these shots has not hindered his aggression in any way, evidenced by his increased scoring averaging. The notion that he's settling because he is shooting jump shots is a bit shortsighted. He's just shooting the shots he feels are good and a good number of them are good despite being from distance.

This is the first generation of players where the three is more than a catch-and-shoot type of shot. Guards now treat the three as a necessity rather than luxury, as taking unnecessary contact in the name of drawing the defense may not always be the best decision. While it is still important to penetrate and get in the lane, it is still not as important as the main goal on offensive— a good shot. Sometimes, the closest shot is not always the best.

Sure, getting to the basket is still vital for guards like Donovan Mitchell, but constant contact and tough shots at the rim are being balanced with pull-up shots from distance

That ideal has been met with some disapproval from people who are used to basketball from a couple eras ago. It's hard to adjust to what's happening in the game if one is used to how the game was played when they first got into it. Different gameplay mechanics can appear to cause confusion, then that confusion is met with disdain. It is important to maintain the perspective that new things are not necessarily worse things just because they're different from what we've previously experienced. We should always push towards reaching and surpassing the limits of our capabilities. Basketball is perfect grounds for that.

Post-Thanksgiving Blurbs!

  • Jimmy Butler has already improved the Philadelphia 76ers . He hit a game-winning three to beat the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. He had 34 points in that game, and he gives the Sixers a perimeter scorer who can get his own bucket.
  • Allen Iverson is my favorite player ever. His influence over a generation of people and his cultural impact are virtually unmatched by any American athlete in recent memory. His mark has made its way to other sports. The Seattle Seahawks' Tyler Lockett scored a touchdown and celebrated by mimicking Iverson's famous step-back jumper over Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals, even stepping over his teammate as Iverson did Lue. Iverson, like his pet move, is truly a crossover athlete.
  • This Week's Hooper Appreciation Blurb goes to Orlando's Nikola Vucevic. The Swiss center is averaging 20.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game on the season, posting 31 and 15 to help the Magic beat the Lakers on Sunday. Vucevic has always been a steady and productive player, but he's currently having his best year to date, helping a rebuilding Orlando franchise continue to trend upward.
  • Finally, Vince Carter scored his 25,000th point last Wednesday against the Raptors. He even achieved it in style — with a dunk. Vince has had a remarkable career and he deserves all his accolades.

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