Greed, heliocentrism and the future of the NBA

January 10, 2020

As children we are taught certain values. Sharing, compassion and cooperation. This is exemplified in the childhood rhymes we all remember like “sharing is caring.”

However, it is these exact American social values of sharing and cooperation that are deliberately being ignored by some of the best and smartest basketball teams on the planet. Welcome to heliocentric basketball. 

The term “heliocentric basketball” was coined by Seth Partnow of The Athletic. The term intends to reflect the modern style of play we have seen some teams adapt in which a team’s offense revolves largely and/or entirely around their star. The idea has existed in the NBA as long as it has been around, but has not been accepted widely until recently. For a large part of NBA history, offensive philosophies have been built around a pass first, pass often style of offense in which teams could generate easy baskets through teamwork and efficient passing. However, the three point revolution as well as tweaks to how the game is officiated have led to an increased efficiency in the average player playing “hero ball.”

Teams with established superstars have used heliocentric offenses (when the star player usage rate is over 35 percent) and seen their offenses flourish. The Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets have been using this system this season and currently hold the top three offenses in the NBA (based on offensive rating). Each team’s “star player” carries with them a different style of play, but one thing has been consistent throughout all three: it’s incredibly efficient. Giannis Antetokuonmpo, the league’s reigning MVP and favorite to win this year, dominates defenders with his sheer size and athleticism. His freakishly long arms, giant strides and quick jumping ability make him nearly impossible to stop in isolation, but the Bucks’ array of three point shooters mean that defenders are often unable to play help defense until it’s too late. 

For Luka Doncic and James Harden, it is a little different. They shake defenders with a variety of crossovers and hesitations before deciding to either drive towards the basket or step back for a three. Their strength and touch around the basket, as well as their ability to draw fouls (9.2 and 12.3 free throw attempts per game respectively) are so efficient that they permit them to launch threes at a historic rate, without the need to be historically efficient. 

The heliocentric style can be seen even on less successful teams. The Washington Wizards, the 26th best team by record, hold the seventh best offense (by offensive rating) in the league. Their offense revolves around their star guard Bradley Beal playing in a high paced system surrounded by shooters. Due to Beal’s ability in the isolation, Washington has scraped together a top offense, despite the lack of offensive talent to surround Beal. 

The heliocentric offense is revolutionizing how we think about offense, and how we think about sharing. Throughout the early 2000s, players who thrived at scoring in isolation like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson were maligned as “ball hogs” for their score first, pass later playstyles. Perhaps for the new era of basketball, talented ball hogs should not be maligned, but rather celebrated.

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