During the past year, as I’ve struggled with what Stephen Curry is doing to the NBA, I’ve attempted to qualify different types of basketball dominance. You have your players like Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson, who are physical specimens that cannot be stopped. The issue with this is that LeBron James would also fit in this category. Consequently, my issue with physical dominance is it does not narrow the qualities down enough to be an accurate sorting mechanism.
Then I wondered if dominance was something less describable, i.e., you know it when you see it. This, I think, is the most accepted qualification. It does not matter what traits Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, and Shaquille O’Neal have in common, rather, their effect on the game is what is important. Therefore, these players would more than likely have great clutch numbers and/or many titles. The issue here is twofold: first, it does not create a dividing line between dominant players and those who are not dominant; and secondly, I want something a bit more “neat.”
Thus, my third hypothesis. I was recently lurking on realcavsfans.com where a poster crafted an argument for how to determine all-time NBA rankings. The content is not important, however, it did lead me to craft a new division of dominance. Throughout NBA history, there have been players that excel and redefine one skill and/or aspect of the game. These players are your Shaquille O’Neal’s, Allen Iverson’s, Steve Nash’s, and Stephen Curry’s.
NBA athletes like the above utilize their historical greatness at one skill to dominate the league. At some point, all of these players have been considered the best in the association and will all be top forty all time.
There is, thus, a second type of dominance. You have player’s that, while not historically great at one skill, are elite at many. In this category you find Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, etc. These players, similar to those who are dominant utilizing one skill, are also going to be considered top forty of all time. Consequently, this post is not meant to rank one type of dominance over the other. Rather, it aims to examine how the association deals with each type of dominance.
The one interesting thing with all players who dominate at one position is that defenses learn how to adjust and mitigate their skillsets. We’ve seen this occur with hack-a-Shaq, zone defense, full court press, doubling off the dribble, etc. These changes never stop the dominant players, as they all stay dominant, but it does mitigate how much they can change a game. Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson both recognized this after they became finalists for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame.
Now, as these guys told you, the league changed to address each of the problems these players posed. With Shaq, the “hack-a-Shaq,” and the zone defense for Allen Iverson. Let’s briefly look at their two case studies.
When Shaquille O’Neal came to the NBA as a member of the Orlando Magic, and even later on Phil Jackson’s Lakers, he was viewed as physically unstoppable. During the 1999-00 season, Shaq made 571 field goals in the restricted area with a 74.8% eFG%, had 236 dunks with a 96.3% eFG%, and scored 815 field goals with a 62.8% eFG% within eight feet of the basket. In short, his ability to score close to the basket was unprecedented.
Now, it would be false to say Shaq did nothing else well. He was a true rim protector, a high-IQ basketball player, and a good passer. But nothing, outside of his interior scoring, was specifically dominant. So how did team’s stop it?
In short, they didn’t. But, Greg Popovic discovered how to mitigate O’Neal’s dominance. He devised a strategy that we know today as the hack-a-Shaq strategy. Essentially, every time the big man got the ball in the restricted area, a Spurs player would foul him. This strategy was simple in nature. “When Shaq gets the ball in the restricted area he scores nearly 1.5 points per possession. If we foul him before he can shoot, his ~50% free throw percentage means he will score only one point per possession.”
So was this strategy effective? It depends on your view. In clutch situations, during the 1999-00 playoffs, Shaq was still a net positive on the court. Nevertheless, his offensive impact absolutely was mitigated.
If there was one word to describe Allen Iverson I would say it is “grit.” He represented a lot during his career in the NBA, both good and bad, but his athletic dominance was something unparalleled. Now, I don’t mean athletic like LeBron James. Rather, Allen Iverson used his speed – in combination with special handles and mental determination – to destroy defenders. And while his defense was very effective, Allen Iverson was always known for one trait: his scoring.
Quantifying this scoring is difficult, mainly because Iverson was not necessarily an image of efficient shooting, thus metrics view Iverson negatively. Thus, I used a similar strategy I have for Kobe Bryant, I compared A.I.’s normal stats with his stats in clutch situations.
Figure 1 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page
Thus what Figure 1 shows is that, during the course of a game, Allen Iverson wore down his opponents, eventually defeating them in clutch situations. Additionally, The Answer won two NBA scoring titles. But how he scored is what was so important. While SportVU player tracking does not have data dating back that far, all one needs to do is watch Iverson dominate series against the Raptors, Bucks, or even game one against the Lakers in 2000, and then you’ll know he scored a significant number of baskets off of the dribble.
A.I.’s dribble allowed him to take advantage of his speed and ball handling skills, thus resulting in unstoppable drives towards the hoop. The league’s answer to this was incorporating the zone defense. A 2004 USA Today articles notes that “The next season, 2001-02, the NBA allowed for zone defenses, which enabled opponents to clamp down on Iverson like never before. Meanwhile, Iverson’s lithe body took a beating. It showed last season, when he missed a career-high 34 games because of shoulder and knee injuries.”
This change, unlike the hack-a-Shaq strategy, actually had a demonstrably negative effect on Iverson. The Answer was never able to regain the scoring dominance he had earlier in his career.
So What Does This Mean For The Current NBA?
The NBA has not figured out how to solve Stephen Curry. Hear me out, like Iverson and Shaq, Steph does a lot of things well. Nevertheless, his three point shooting is what is dominating the association. If teams don’t figure this out, Curry will continue to be this dominant, if not moreso, throughout the rest of his career. But, if history repeats itself, Curry will lose the sheer dominance he is currently demonstrating and become more of a Ray Allen/Reggie Miller player as he ages, which is still very high quality. Right now, though, Curry is breaking the mold for NBA players who dominate at one position.
What makes players like LeBron, Kobe, Jordan, Magic, Bird, etc. is their ability to excel at multiple areas of the game, without being inherently dominant at one. On the other hand, those like Shaq, Allen Iverson, and Steph Curry break the NBA with one evolved skill. This dichotomy allows us to evaluate dominant players based on their type of dominance, and not on how dominant they are, consequently allowing for a more nuanced understanding.