The latest NBA strategic battle

"A lot of the defensive strategies you see now are a natural evolution from rule changes," says Houston GM Daryl Morey, in reference to the league's decision a decade ago to abandon illegal defense rules and essentially allow zone defenses. "First the defense evolved by overloading the strong side, and now the offenses are evolving to beat that."

The Heat are the most obvious example of a team that has torn down and rebuilt its entire offense over 18 months to counter defenses committed to clogging the lane, sending an extra defender toward the ball, and forcing offenses into second, third, and fourth options. It's no coincidence Miami plays in the same conference as Boston and Chicago — the two teams most associated, via Tom Thibodeau, with that strangling defense. Thibodeau didn't invent this system, and he's loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA's newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses. Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt. The evolution will have long-lasting consequences on multiple fronts — on the league's entertainment value, the importance of smart coaching, and the sorts of players that GMs seek out in the draft and via free agency.

Zach Lowe on how NBA offenses are evolving to counter the trendy Thibodeau-style defenses which have become so popular and effective. Smart throughout.

Lowe notes that a key in countering these types of defenses is being able to pass the ball well. This matches what I've seen with offenses that have given the Bulls problems in the past. Because the Bulls attack the strong side so aggressively, a team that can quickly swing the ball all the way back to the other side of the court quickly often gets open 3-pointers against the Bulls.

To beat a team like Miami, with its habit of sending a whole series of fast, good defenders at the ball from among Lebron, Wade, Battier, Chalmers, Cole, and Anthony, quick passing is the only way to win. You can't expect to beat them off the dribble which is one reason the Bulls struggled so much in their last playoff meeting. Once they put Lebron on Derrick Rose and neutralized Rose's dribble penetration, the Bulls offense choked. When the Bulls have had success against the heat, it is with quick passing, not dribble penetration.

Just as football has gone through a series of back and forth chess moves between offenses and defenses (Buddy Ryan 4-6, West Coast offense, Cover 2, spread offense, option read), basketball is in the midst an inflection point too. 

The fairly rapid transitions in these cycles make sports an underrated way to study evolutionary systems.