Willie Cauley-Stein did not set foot on an NBA court last season. He was invited by the Rockets to training camp, was waived before the season started, then spent much of the year in the G-League. He signed two 10-day contracts with Houston and finished the season on their active roster. He is headed to Italy this season and will play for Openjobmetis Varese.
Cauley-Stein is going to Europe by choice because he prefers the style of play, he said to the media after arriving in Italy, via Sportando.
Here in Varese, however, I must say that I have found a great organization and strong teammates, I am very happy. I chose to come to Europe because of the more ‘tactical’ way of playing compared to the 1vs1 basketball that is played today in the NBA, which is conditioned by the players’ desire to produce personal statistics. Here in Europe every game and every ball is important, not like in the NBA where all 82 games are equal.”
You can say this is Cauley-Stein sucking up to the fans (and media) of his new team), or discuss how one thing we do as humans is to adapt and think the situation we are in — whether we want it or not — is best for us. One thing is for sure: Cauley-Stein will have backers for his position.
Here are my three quick thoughts on this:
1) Every European game matters more than the 82 of the NBA? Cauley-Stein is making the case for shortening the NBA regular season. He argues that scarcity adds value to each game (like how every college or pro football game matters more because there are fewer of them), so the NBA and the owners would not be giving up money with fewer games.
2) The European game is different than the NBA version in part because of the rules. We saw it in the World Cup, where the lack of any illegal defense rules — specifically a defensive 3-second rule — changes defenses, and that changes how offenses attack that defense. Size and bulk matter more than in the NBA game, where quickness and shooting are highlighted. Fans and players may prefer one style to another, but they are both tactical — an NBA spread pick-and-roll is a tactical choice. Isolating an elite player is a tactical choice. Which ties into…
3) There are far better athletes in the NBA, and it’s a good tactic to turn them loose in isolation. There are outstanding basketball players in Europe, but the athleticism in the NBA is at another level. To use elite names, if you have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving or Luka Doncic, then having them go 1-on-1 is good basketball (they were all well above a point per possession in isolations last season). James Harden thrived in isolation for years and is still very effective at it.
The better athletes in the NBA mean many more players capable of getting to the rim or creating space for their own shot, and if they are efficient at it then it’s smart to get them in isolation or simple pick-and-roll actions. It’s been that way since before Michael Jordan was in the NBA, and that has not changed.