NBA teams taking note of Oregon's fast-break style on gridiron
The Oregon Ducks are sprinting toward the BCS title like a basketball team. When they play No. 1 Auburn for college football's national championship on Monday, the No. 2 Ducks will fast-break whenever they can while deploying quarterback Darron Thomas like a point guard, giving him the freedom to read the defense before deciding whether to pass or drive the ball himself. The Ducks press relentlessly on defense, they thrive in transition and their game is built on speed.
The basketball world is taking notice of the similarities. The Trail Blazers and Rockets have both visited Eugene, Ore., this season to attend the practices of Ducks coach Chip Kelly.
"Their conditioning is unbelievable for them to play at that tempo and speed in the fourth quarter," said Kaleb Canales, a Blazers assistant coach. "So is their ball-handling in terms of the handoffs, the keepers -- you can relate that to the pump-fakes you see in basketball or the fake pass you make against the zone defenses."
Canales came away from his visit to Eugene with thoughts of new applications for basketball.
"The pace and tempo they practice with really stood out to me," he said. "It was right at the start of practice and the players were out on the field stretching, and Coach Kelly started counting down -- 20, 19, 18 -- like their game clock was going down. And the field-goal unit ran onto the field and lined up for a 20- or 30-yarder. They line up with five seconds remaining, they hike the ball and make the field goal, and then they go right into practice.
"I put that into our terms: Why not start our practice with an end-of-game play? When we start, why not call a 20-second timeout? Or maybe we say we don't have timeouts and simulate what, for us, would be a play to win the game. Obviously, they're working on their end-of-game situations and they're telling their guys the alertness and awareness has got to be on right now."
Kelly has exchanged ideas with Paul Westhead, the Oregon women's basketball coach who pioneered the modern era of fast-break basketball while coaching Magic Johnson to his first NBA championship, in 1979-80, with the Lakers, and then leading Loyola Marymount in 1985-90 to the equivalent of land-speed records in college basketball.
"The moment you get possession, whether by make or miss, the goal is to run the ball down the opposition's throat -- just run it at them," Westhead said. "Of course that can be via the dribble or the pass, which is like the run or pass if you want to use the football analogy. It's all about the instantaneous transition from defense to offense and the continual repetition of that. It's not just the one time getting the ball and going quick -- it's going quick play after play after play. It's the wear-down that fast-break basketball thrives on."
So, too, does Kelly's style of football. It's why the Ducks have outscored opponents 115-24 in the fourth quarter this season.
More than ever, NBA teams are seeking to push the ball in transition with the hope of scoring before the defense can set up in the half court. Kelly has applied the same principle by lining up his offense without a huddle.
"It must have been 15 years ago that Chip told me the huddle was the most overrated thing in all of sports," said Mark Linehan, a longtime Boston radio personality who was Kelly's roommate at the University of New Hampshire. "He didn't understand why you have to line up and call a play for 30 seconds when you can send it in two seconds."
Added Westhead: "The need for a basketball coach to identify a play to his team is like a huddle in football. In fast-break basketball when you really have it going, the plays are put away. You don't need to call plays because they're just going to run the break. It is basketball's version of the no-huddle, because as soon as you start giving plays, you slow the game down.
"I've seen all of our home football games. Chip wants to get that no-huddle going to catch the defense when they're not ready. Do it once and you catch them; do it over and over and not only do you catch them but you tire them out."
Westhead isn't concerned that Auburn will be able to apply five weeks of preparation to solve the unique riddles created by Kelly's offense.
"When you really live the speed game, it doesn't matter when people say they have time to prepare for you," Westhead said. "Go ahead and prepare, because we're going to play faster than your counter."
While it's easy for people to predict that other football programs will follow Kelly's example, Westhead isn't so sure. He has heard the same talk in the NBA for decades, but few teams -- apart from those of Mike D'Antoni and Don Nelson -- have been committed to running all out.
"To really play the speed game, the problem is that it's very hard to do and therefore you need a special group of people who are willing to play that way," Westhead said. "For traditional basketball players -- and not just NBA players -- it's not easy for them. So that may be the ultimate compliment to Chip Kelly -- that he's gotten his players to do something game after game that's very hard. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. This is a special kind of hard [assignment] to be ready to go play after play after play. And in Chip's case, as the possessions mount, they play faster and they play better."
Appreciate the speed, urged Westhead, because there is no guarantee of seeing anything like it again, whether on a 100-yard field or a 94-foot court.
"In basketball, the last thing that makes it work is that you can do it at high speed longer than the defense," he said. "The risk is that you can't do it that many times, and then it begins to reverse on you, and you get tired. I marvel at how Chip has succeeded in getting his team to do as many plays as it takes, and that doesn't happen in basketball or in football very often. I'm a fast-break guy, I've done it for 40-some years, and I can't tell you that every year you get this kind of result. You get it occasionally."
Don't fret: The two-time defending champs have the most experience, the biggest and most talented front line, the most ruthless postseason winner in Kobe Bryant and the winningest coach. Their record isn't so bad either -- the 25-11 Lakers are two games behind the No. 2 Mavs in the West, and Dallas is dealing with major injury concerns. The elderly Spurs, who lead the Lakers by 4½ games despite back-to-back losses to New York and Boston, have avoided those injury woes so far, but will their health endure? In the meantime, the Lakers are just beginning to work Andrew Bynum back into the rhythm of their offense.
The Lakers won last year with little scoring from Artest, and in the playoffs Fisher will again be their version of Robert Horry, which is why Miami tried to recruit Fisher last summer. Weren't we hearing the same outcries about Miami in the opening month? The only surprise will be if the Lakers don't pull their act together.
The breakdown of Andrew Toney killed the mid-'80s Sixers, and then when Moses left, that was the end of that.
The new-millennium Sixers were guilty of the same kinds of mistakes that have haunted New York. The pressures of their franchise heritage and large market convinced them to keep trying to build an instant winner around Allen Iverson, rather than to make long-term investments in talent. As their payroll went up, their options decreased. The pressure in some of these big markets to win now at all costs -- rather than to build and rebuild realistically -- is a killer.
The reason the Celtics turned things around after two forgettable decades was because the front office and ownership ignored criticism (I was among the critics) and developed young talent around coach Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce that enabled them to eventually trade for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. New 76ers president Rod Thorn understands that model, though at the moment he is hamstrung by the enormous salary commitments to Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala and others.
They aren't going to make trades that take on long-term salary, Chris. The Bobcats are among the smaller-market franchises waiting for relief from revenue sharing and a new collective bargaining agreement after this season. It makes no sense for owner Michael Jordan to develop a team for the final months of a system in which he can't compete financially. He needs to position himself for a new era when he may be able to compete with the richer franchises. So if he can unload the contracts of Stephen Jackson (owed $19.4 million over the next two seasons) or Wallace ($21 million for the next two seasons) in a promising way that delivers draft picks and other considerations for the future, then he should have at it.
As of this week, the answer is no one. The Mavericks are without Caron Butler for the rest of the season (knee surgery) and Dirk Nowitzki temporarily (strained knee), the Spurs are defensively inconsistent and the Lakers just seem bored. Among these three, the contender with the biggest upside is the Lakers. They have the potential to show the most improvement over the next four months, and I continue to believe they'll show it.