One of the structural aspects of the NBA that sets it apart from other leagues is its high-intensity and incredibly active trade deadline. Each February teams are active in trade talks, with rumors swirling for months about which players will get dealt and which franchises are buyers and sellers. The excitement is unfathomable from the comfort confines of fandom and a fantastic exercise in strategic thinking for those who put their analyst cap on.
From a coaching perspective though the trade deadline is one of the more difficult aspects of managing the NBA season. Integrating the new into the culture of the old with limited practice time is no easy task. The greater the player and more of a role he has on his new team, the more difficult it can be to catch them up on both offensive and defensive schemes, play calls, and coaching preferences. That doesn’t even factor in how a player learns to gel with their teammates.
With all the warnings to heed, there are certain types of players that are easier than others to integrate at the trade deadline or work into a rotation on relatively little experience with their new team:
There’s an old saying within basketball circles that the point guard is “the extension of the coach on the floor.” Getting used to a new offense is always difficult for the maestro that helps orchestrate it, but veterans who have run multiple schemes throughout their NBA careers have a large bank of knowledge to draw upon. Jarrett Jack for example, currently playing with the New York Knicks, has already been led by nine different head coaches during his career. If that doesn’t prepare someone to pick up a new offense quickly, nothing will.
Most teams looking to bring in a veteran point guard do so for a backup role, hoping that a steady hand controlling tempo can help anchor a bench unit. The role isn’t too large, and regardless of play type or scheme the point guard can make a great impact on the game by getting teammates easy baskets no matter what the play call is.
2. The sharpshooting wing
No role is more universally transferable across any offense than the ability to catch-and-shoot. Instant offense on the wings provides spacing around other more cornerstone players that most organizations try to build around. Ball handlers/ focal points of an offense are constants, as are big men that patrol the paint or set screens. Those shooters that stretch defenses out provide immediate relief for those players, giving them more space to operate and let their own skills thrive.
Sharpshooters are usually acquired solely because the team trading for them has an absence of perimeter shooting, meaning they’ll be propelled into the rotation right away. That can mean two different things from a coaching perspective. First, the team could run their offense entirely the same way as before the trade, just with a better player in the shooter’s spot, serving as a decoy away from the ball or a knockdown threat to run actions for. There’s advantage to the rest of the team to not overhaul an offense at the trade deadline; continuity helps make the first four months of the season feel as important as the final two.
The second path is to gradually incorporate new sets and plays that leverage the skills of elite shooters. Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers did this with Kyle Korver, using his elite shooting as a gravitational force to suck defenders away from the rim. That opened up more space for LeBron James, Kevin Love and company to operate in the lane.
Adding a shooter doesn’t require a complete retooling of the offense, but it can provide coaches an important toy that allows them to leverage their best player’s skills to their fullest. Those few feet of space created on any given play can be the difference for a team during crunch time in the postseason.
3. The pick-and-pop big man
The term “stretch-4” is synonymous with pick-and-pop big men, a positional skill almost vital in the modern NBA. With the league drifting towards being ball screen-dominant over the last decade, the need for spreading out players away from the ball on offense became paramount. Instead of having two big men on the floor with one standing at the block the entire possession, coaches began to move the 4 to the perimeter, opening up the lane completely for rim attacks off drives or vicious dunks from the roll man.
Player skills have caught up, as big men now shoot the three-pointer with high efficiency and confidence. That being said, being a reliable pick-and-pop threat that can defend against the same action is highly coveted, and much more rare than it might seem. The reason pick-and-pops are so effective on offense is that most big men struggle to guard those actions. Elite shooters from the big man position are still a thorn in the sides of defenses.
Pick-and-pops aren’t generally difficult plays in design – the execution of them is what creates the advantage, not the trickery before the screen. A role is always there in today’s NBA for a big man that comes off the bench and stretches the defense. Once that big gets accustom to the team’s pick-and-roll scheme on the defensive end of the floor there’s very little that could keep them off the floor during crunch time.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).