For those who don't know, when I am not living the dream as an NBA writer at BasketballNews.com, I moonlight as a law school student at the venerable Michigan State University. (Sidebar: That’s also where I got my undergraduate degree. We bleed green for life here, folks).
Over my first year of law school, I like to think I learned a thing or two. However, the bit of information I will rely upon the most as I continue my journey as an analyst is my experience with the argumentative technique of concessions.
Before we continue, a quick vocabulary lesson: The term concessions, as it pertains to argumentative literature, means:
This technique is highly prevalent in legal arguments. It’s basically the lawyer saying, “Yeah, this, this and this may be in the opposition's favor, but my client should win because of this, this and this."
In legal situations, seldomly does one come across a fact pattern that 100% favors their client. There’s almost always some small piece that they end up having to heed to their opponent. But that doesn’t mean they lose because, in the law, you don’t need a bulletproof case to win. You just need to present enough evidence to meet the standard of review necessary for victory in that jurisdiction.
In many ways, the NBA playoffs are like a legal argument. In order to advance, you don’t need to best your adversary in every singular component of the game. You just need to beat them four times in a best-of-seven series.
Such conditions open the door to the possibility of concessions. In the NBA, teams are too damn good for one team to completely stymie all their sources of income, so teams need to strategically pick and choose which aspects they will hone in on stopping and what aspects they are willing to concede.
To further paint this illustration in your mind, let’s go over some overarching examples of concessions in this year’s playoffs.
No Middle For You
After DeMar DeRozan decided it was time to stop playing Mr. Nice Guy and lit the Bucks up for 41 points in Game 2 of the first round, Milwaukee decided it was not going to let him get two feet in the paint anymore.
So, the Bucks chose to turn to ICE pick and roll coverage on ballscreens featuring DeRozan and his co-star teammate, Zach LaVine.
The hallmark feature of this alignment is that the point-of-attack defender forces the ball-handler to reject the screen and lures them towards the sideline, in the process hindering their quest for the interior.
Defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau is often credited with popularizing this configuration, but the coverage does come with an inherent fatal flaw.
You’ll notice in the above plays that the player defending the screener has to sink back into a drop position, which helps protect the interior. But it leaves them vulnerable if the screener decides to pop out for a three-pointer.
The Bucks knew such a shot was a necessary evil in order to execute their gameplan, so they decided to concede this shot to the Bulls’ most prominent screener, Nikola Vucevic.
To his credit, Vucevic has developed into a pretty solid outside shooter over the last couple of years, but this season he regressed to a 32.6% conversion rate on wide-open attempts.
The Bucks were willing to surrender these open looks to Vucevic over having DeRozan and LaVine knife their way into the paint. They did the “Yeah, but” thing. Yeah, you’re going to get open threes with Vucevic, but your two best players won’t be able to collapse our defense with drives to the paint. Ultimately, this argument worked for Milwaukee, as they held the Bulls to a 91.1 offensive rating over the final three games of the series. For reference, the 1964 Boston Celtics posted a 90.9 offensive rating.
We’ve also seen Dallas turn to this defensive philosophy a little more against Phoenix, and it’s contributed to their ability to claw their way back into that series.