The first time anyone wrote about Vivek Ranadivé and basketball, it wasn't about the Kings. It was about a team of 11- and 12-year-old girls from Menlo Park and Redwood City, a team Vivek coached. His daughter Anjali played on the team. Vivek had no experience with basketball -- he hadn't yet bought into the Warriors, he had never played. Yet he recognized that for his girls, the full-court press was the team's best chance to beat taller, more skilled, more experienced players.
So they ran the press. And they won a lot. Even skilled 11- and 12-year-olds weren't used to being challenged the full length of the court. It flustered them. From Malcolm Gladwell's excellent New Yorker piece:
Redwood City's strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that's not an issue, because teams don't contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she's guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn't guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team's best player. "Think about football," Ranadivé said. "The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it's still damned difficult to complete a pass." Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn't make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé's girls were maniacal.
The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent's end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City's opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and "trap" her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She'd sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she'd steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic-or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. "When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything," Anjali said. "So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.' It's the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them."
Spoiler alert: they finally lost in the national championship third round at a 8 a.m. game in which the referee didn't like the press strategy and called repeated touch fouls. Ranadivé called off the press, and the dream ended.
Will the press ever work long-term in the NBA? The advantage Team Vivek had isn't present at this level: players can handle the ball and find openings. Most lineups have two or three good ball-handlers on the court. Rick Pitino has made it a staple of his college teams, but those games are shorter and college recruiting allows Pitino to find coaches that fit the scheme. Michael Malone hasn't said anything about using a press, though he wants an aggressive defense and transition opportunities. I see two massive red flags to any sort of prominent press defense for Sacramento at this point: DeMarcus Cousins and a lack of small forward depth.
The Kings might have the backcourt depth to hold up with a press for a substantial chunk of the game, especially considering that there are a lot of young legs back there. But up front, I don't think it's viable: small forward is three-deep if you include Johnny Salmons, and power forward features three bodies. Cousins is a whole 'nother matter. He's kept himself in really superb shape through most of his NBA career. But his type of body is not meant to sprint up and down the court. He's agile, but he's never looked agile on defense (except when taking a charge). I struggle to envision most NBA centers in a press. I especially struggle to see Cousins in a press.
I'd love to be wrong, because it'd be interesting to watch the Kings be innovative again. But I'm not sure this is one of 3.0 concepts that will translate.
More from Sactown Royalty:
- Arena Legislation Overwhelmingly Passes, Goes to Gov. Brown for Approval
- 30Q: Will Chuck Hayes see more playing time under Mike Malone?
- Kings sign DeQuan Jones to training camp deal, according to report
- 30Q: Will the absence of Tyreke Evans be noticeable, and if so how?
- 30Q: How much will the fan experience change next season? Andy Miller weighs in