The NBA playoffs have been prequel to the Finals, the third in a heart-pounding trilogy, in the same way that Episodes I to III of Star Wars are prequel to the original trilogy. Sure, they take place nominally in the same galaxy and involve many of the same people, but the quality gap is wider than Jabba the Hutt. So, as we’ve trudged towards the inevitable – Golden State vs. Cleveland in the rubber match – we’ve become increasingly reliant on our announcers to carry us between stretches of sublimity from Steph, dominance from LeBron or shotmaking from Kyrie.
Jeff Van Gundy is perhaps the best in the business at filling the time in blowouts. That’s damning him with faint praise. When he teams with Mark Jackson, Doris Burke and Mike Breen, Van Gundy is the star of the top team in the business. No wonder they’ll be calling all the games for ABC.
Since exiting coaching in 2007, Van Gundy has been a perennial candidate for the highest-profile jobs. Though none has panned out yet, he has stayed completely abreast of the game. The only way in which he seems to lag behind is his distaste for resting players, one he shares with his famously rest-averse acolyte Tom Thibodeau.
On the phone, Van Gundy is just as wry and irascible as you’d hope he would be. Talking to him is a bit like having the best part of the NBA broadcast happening live, over the radio. In other words, like you’re talking to an extremely opinionated encyclopedia.
These playoffs haven’t been very competitive leading up to the Finals with only one loss between the two remaining teams. We’ve heard chatter about super teams ruining the competition before but this seems to be sort of a different animal. Do you think that a team as good as the Warriors adding Kevin Durant has ruined the playoffs?
No, I think there are two things. I think greatness is always good for the NBA. Great players, great teams, it’s always good for the NBA. Has it sapped the drama from the NBA playoffs? Yeah, it has. The Warriors, in my estimation, have a bigger talent difference between them and the next best team than has ever happened in my time in the NBA.
I just think they’re so much better than everyone that I didn’t believe it before the playoffs started. I didn’t believe that they would be truly pushed or challenged in the playoffs. I do not believe they will be.
Even as well as the Cavs are playing you don’t think they’ll be able to take a game or two?
No, I think that’s a little bit different. Taking a game is different than taking two and obviously taking three and pushing the Warriors to the brink. I think those are all different things.
I do believe that the Cavs are playing extraordinary basketball or have for most of the time. Their side of the bracket has been just as uncompelling as the Western Conference. I think in tandem that’s what really has been difficult for the NBA fan is that neither side has really been challenged.
I just think that Golden State is that good. Even despite Cleveland having an all-time great player in James and other outstanding players I just think the Warriors are that much better.
The Warriors are absolutely beautiful to watch but you really only get to watch them for maybe a quarter or two at a time and then they start coasting.
There will be what, a 14 game difference in the regular season? Which only gets you the one extra home game. Just like last year. I give Cleveland a lot of credit for taking advantage of Green’s mistake and winning the final three. But even last year without Durant they were on their way to being pretty dominant against Cleveland. I don’t see how adding Durant will do anything but push that dominance to a higher level.
Not to get too deep into the weeds here but the enduring memory I have from last year’s finals is the Lebron/Kyrie pick-and-roll where they get Steph Curry switched onto LeBron and the Warriors just over the last three games couldn’t really stop it.
In that game I thought the Warriors offense was a much bigger problem than their defense. They just couldn’t find a way to score, which for the Warriors is almost unimaginable. It happened. I actually thought Curry’s defense versus Kyrie Irving on that last shot was very good defense and it shows you even if you play really good defense in the NBA these great offensive talents can score.
Again, the Cavaliers did a great job defensively last year in that seventh game. What Golden State has I think again comes back to adding Durant. If Curry is struggling in the pick-and-roll and maybe Klay is not making his catch-and-shoot 3s they still have this top five NBA player that they didn’t have last year.
Listen, if Cleveland wins then I’m wrong. If they even get them to a seventh game then I’m wrong. I don’t think I’m going to be wrong.
If Cleveland wins that’s got to be LeBron’s biggest accomplishment ever, right?
You know, that’s interesting when you start listing his accomplishments. I think the one that doesn’t get enough play is 2007 when he got a very, very limited team to the Finals and they lost to the Spurs. That team was beyond limited and he was so scintillating against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. You know, the 25 straight points and the four. I still rank that as his greatest accomplishment. If he’s able to slay this dragon then you’re probably right.
There’s no defending the Warriors but were you to try to design a pick-and-roll coverage with this Cleveland team what might that look like? What might that look like?
Well, they’re different combinations and they’re different combinations on the floor. I think you first have to decide for yourself what you can and cannot live with as a defense. I think everybody would agree you can’t live with Curry shooting the ball coming off of the dribble in space where the bigs not up.
You also can’t live with Draymond Green catching it in the middle of the floor off of a short roll and playing four on three because he’s a great decision maker. Then you have to start thinking, okay, how can I with the different combinations they play, who are you going to help off? Who are we okay with them shooting from three? Knowing that they can make them still obviously. Who can we live with?
I think that’s where it starts. Knowing that nothing is going to boost steam is the real thing. It comes down to having a start steam but defensive fundamentals, playing with an extreme level of basketball IQ, knowing your plan, knowing what you’re willing to live with, and what you can’t live with, and then a intensity and a tenacity and a relentlessness that allows you to keep competing even when you’re playing good defense and they score.
You cannot get discouraged. Not for one play. The only thing that gives you a chance against one of the elite offensive groups ever assembled is an intensity and a tenacity that never stops.
The beginning of your coaching heyday was during the beginning of a very different era for NBA basketball. The ’90s. Hand-checking was still legal, no zone defense. From a purely philosophical aesthetic point of view, do you think that the NBA is better now or worse than it was when you were coaching?
It’s the same sport now but it’s a different game. I think the teams and the players have adjusted and adapted exceptionally well. When people say, “This is the best the NBA has ever been” I think that’s more a function of recency bias where we don’t want to remember or we just don’t remember, put in the back of our minds, how good that Bird, Magic, Isiah Thomas era was. Or you forget just how good watching Jordan was.
You know, I think that it’s a really good time in the NBA. I think it’s a different game within the same sport. You adapt, you adjust, you watch. There are many things that are good. Like most sports, every rule change is trying to benefit the offense. Some of the numbers get inflated because of that. That’s why I’m not really willing to say team X or player X is better than the players back 10, 15 years ago.
When Jordan was averaging over 30 and shooting over 50 percent he was doing it with less shooting on the floor for himself. He had less spacing to work with. He was going against defenses that were allowed a lot more liberties as far as physical contact, how hard they fouled, and all those things. I think that’s why it’s sometimes that old saying comparison is the thief of joy. I think it’s really true when you start trying to compare different eras with different rules. It’s really difficult.
It’s striking how differently defenses played not just from a physical standpoint but also you don’t have the same strong side overloads because they weren’t legal. It seems like it was a little easier maybe to get the open corner three but teams just didn’t scheme for that.
The emphasis on the three both offensively and defensively has evolved, right? The fast-paced, play quick, and offensive-minded, we’ll talk about these Warrior teams but the Run-TMC Warrior teams led by Don Nelson had a huge impact on the NBA. It was like the precursor to the Mike D’Antoni Seven Seconds or Less Suns.
I think Mike and his team really had a profound impact on how offense is played today. Not just by what they do in running predominantly pick-and-rolls at the expense of basically every other action in NBA history. It’s also how you group your players on the floor. Everybody is bumping up. What used to be a small forward is now a power-forward and on and on.
There’s been a lot of evolution. A lot of people played a huge part in it. Again, I think sometimes because we’re in this day and age we forget about all those that came before us that have really helped in this evolution of the game.
It seems like more than ever the players are picking their own destinations. Do you feel like that move towards the players self-determination is ultimately good for the league?
I think the players have earned the right through the contracts they’ve signed to do that. Wouldn’t we all want to control where we work if we could?
I hold no ill will to them for exercising the same right I would try to get as well. I don’t look at it that way. What I do have a problem is if they don’t put maximum effort in in trying to win in their present situation.
Once they get to free agency, they determine for themselves what’s important for them, where they want to live, where their family is more comfortable, we’d all like to have that freedom and flexibility. They deserve it as much as anybody else.
This interview has been edited and condensed.