When the Golden State Warriors defeated LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2015 NBA championship, it marked the official death of an age-old adage that "jump-shooting teams" can't win titles. It's easy to assume that was the official launch of the 3-point revolution, but the ball on that revolution had long started rolling. From 1997, the year the NBA dropped its three-season experiment with a shorter line, to 2015, the average number of 3-pointers each team attempted per game increased from 12.7 to 22.4.
Do the math, and that's an increase of 9.7 3-point attempts per game, per team, over an 18-year span. It was a big jump, but also a relatively methodical one, with no single season seeing an increase of more than 1.6 attempts per game as teams dipped their toes further and further into the analytics waters. Once the Warriors came along, everyone went splashing in.
Over the next five seasons, the average number of 3-pointers teams attempted per game ballooned from that 22.4 mark in 2014-15 to an all-time high of 34.2 this season. That's an extra 11.8 3-pointers that the average team has gunned since Golden State won it all, signaling what has basically come to be a league-wide acceptance that taking, and making, a ton of 3-pointers is a prerequisite for modern championship contention.
The Los Angeles Lakers just bucked this new convention.
With a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday night, the Lakers notched their 17th NBA title in franchise history. They did it, first and foremost, because they have LeBron James, who was named Finals MVP for the fourth time in his career, and Anthony Davis, who is too big for small guys and too skilled for big guys -- a conundrum for which the Heat, or anyone else for that matter, had no answer in the bubble.
Just as no team could replicate the shooting of the Warriors, no team, at least as currently constructed, has a duo the likes of LeBron and Davis. It's important to understand that before we start thinking traditional size is back en vogue or elite 3-point shooting isn't as necessary as we've come to believe. Still, in the most homogenous era in NBA history, with every team basically looking like clones, the way the Lakers built their roster, and the contrarian tentpoles on which they leaned en route to this title, is uniquely fascinating.
With Davis and LeBron paired, modern wisdom suggested the Lakers surround them with as many shooters as possible. But they didn't do that. Look around the two stars, and you'll see Rajon Rondo (bad shooter), Alex Caruso (bad shooter), and Danny Green (deteriorating shooter).
Adding Markieff Morris at the trade deadline was a major boost. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a lot of big 3s in the bubble, but he's far from elite -- 38 percent from deep in the regular season, 38 percent from deep in the playoffs. Avery Bradley didn't come to the bubble, but he was a 36 percent 3-point shooter this season. Again, average to below-average shooters up and down the roster.
Last summer the Lakers sat back and waited for Kawhi Leonard's decision while sharpshooters like JJ Redick and Bojan Bogdanovic got snatched up, and they wound up with Dwight Howard, who had become something of an NBA dinosaur as a non-shooting, non-perimeter-defending big man. With Howard and JaVale McGee splitting time in Davis' non-center minutes,
I was one of the many analysts who thought this was all a mistake. I consider shooting, both collectively and individually, to be the single-most necessary ingredient in a championship mix. But the Lakers just won the championship by making just 12 3-pointers per game in the postseason, which ranked 12th out of the 16 playoff teams and dead-last among all teams that advanced past the first round.
In fact, in terms of 3-pointers attempted per game, the Heat and Lakers ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, in the postseason, and they were the last two teams standing. As volume 3-point shooting has, for the most part, become a staple of NBA offense, it turns out the ability to defend shooters is just as important as being able to shoot yourself. The Lakers defended like crazy all season, and they were absolutely superb in the postseason.
While Howard, for matchup reasons, wasn't as big a part of the Finals as he was the previous three rounds for the Lakers, he was a significant success story on this team, not just for the rewriting of his own end-of-career story, but for the place he represents in the ongoing struggle for NBA supremacy. Davis got roasted for his unwillingness to play center full time, and it was thought that Frank Vogel would have to force Davis' hand in the playoffs as the Lakers wouldn't be able to keep up with their smaller, faster opponents with a traditional center getting switch hunted on defense and clogging the lane on offense.
The Trail Blazers were supposed to be a run-and-gun threat, and the Lakers squashed them. The Rockets played a 6-foot-5 guy as their starting center, and the Lakers squashed them. Turns out, being big can still be a really good thing on a basketball court. Turns out, rebounding and protecting the rim are still a big deal.
The Lakers bludgeoned teams on the boards and smothered them defensively. That's the way you used to win titles, and the Lakers just proved it remains a viable formula with the right personnel, and you can bet somewhere the Philadelphia 76ers are putting a lot of stock in that theory.
What's really interesting, though, is that the Lakers didn't submit to the perceived tradeoff for playing big, which is that you're usually at a speed disadvantage. To the contrary, the Lakers ran away from everyone by scoring over 22 points per game in transition during the postseason, which was by far the No. 1 mark, and they were No. 2 in transition frequency, getting in the open floor on well over 17 percent of their possessions, commensurate with their regular-season frequency.
It has long been trumpeted that the game slows down in the playoffs, which is another way of saying a team can't rely on transition offense when the going gets tough, but the Lakers ranked third in postseason transition points per possession, besting their regular-season number. Their per-game transition possessions were nearly identical as well.
That's the LeBron factor, who along with Davis brings a combination of size and speed that no team in basketball can replicate, and that's perhaps the most important takeaway from this year's postseason: You have to play to the strengths of your personnel, even if those strengths are not aligned with the league at large.
For the last five years, everyone has tried to shoot a ton of 3-pointers because that's what the Warriors did, but everyone doesn't have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Doc Rivers spoke to this in his introductory press conference as the new head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, who are in the middle of their own struggle trying to win as a big team in a small league.
"I think you have to be who you are," Rivers said. "I think the mistake a lot of teams have made is that everyone wanted to be Golden State, but nobody can shoot like Golden State so, to me, everyone made a mistake."
The Lakers didn't make that mistake. And they have a championship to show for it.