Meet the Acid Trip Team That's Breaking Basketball

There is no professional basketball team anywhere that plays remotely like the D-League's Reno Bighorns. There might be a reason for that.

by Patrick Morris
Jan 16 2015, 3:25pm

Image by DeviantArt user fabioaugusto106

"That is in-," the color commentator stops, and searches for another adjective, "W-we're seeing an amazing shooting--," a quick pause here, as if what he's seen has caused him to lose track of time itself, "evening. We're seeing--," the color commentator chuckles, "We're--," he tries once more. There follows three or four seconds of dead air. "This is the invention of fire," he finally manages.

In fairness, there are not yet words in the basketball lexicon to describe what he was trying to describe. This was November 29, 2014, and this broadcaster had just seen a 47-35 Reno lead balloon to 62-38 over the course of just 109 seconds of game-time. In the following minute and 35 seconds, the Bighorns would hit a layup and two more threes to push their lead to 70-41.

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The 23 points scored by the Reno Bighorns in those three minutes and 24 seconds of game-time would beat the average 12-minute output of four different NBA teams in any given second quarter. In those three and a half minutes, the Bighorns took eight three-point shots and made seven. Their lead would never shrink below 12 for the rest of the night.

The city's basketball team has tried to learn from the casinos that surround it. When the rapid-fire series of coin-flip situations that Reno lays out along the length of the court--all of them designed to be slightly in the house's favor--start coming up the same way in succession, the Bighorns can look unstoppable. Teams, even bad ones, go on scoring tears. But it looks different when the Bighorns do it.

Image by DeviantArt user dylanmorgan17

A Bighorns layup rattles around the rim, then settles through the hoop for two. The opposing in-bounder prepares to put the ball back in play and pauses to survey the pairs of players grappling for position in front of him. The five second clock, not something the in-bounder typically has to worry about at the professional level, starts ticking in his head. Four seconds, gotta get the ball out. He tosses it to his point guard, who is immediately double-teamed in the corner of the baseline.

The guard twists this way and that with the ball, trying to see around the tangle of arms surrounding him. Off-balance, he spots an open teammate up-court and hurls the ball in his direction. But just as the pass is about to reach him, a Reno player rotates over from further up-court, leaps into the path of the ball, and deflects it away. It's entirely possible most of these opponents haven't seen sustained pressure defense like this more than a few times since high school. Very few teams above that level play this way, but this is the only way the Bighorns play.

As the ball tumbles away toward halfcourt, it's scooped up by an advancing Bighorn. Reno hurries the turnover back up the court and, before the defense stops backpedaling, and fires a quick three. Swish.

The ball is in-bounded again, but this time, with two looping cross-court passes, the opposing team slices through the pressure and glides to the rim for an easy layup. But no sooner has the ball dropped through the net than Reno is flying back up the court, as though they hadn't been scored upon at all. The Reno guard immediately tries to take his man to the hoop, and as the defense collapses around him, kicks the ball out to an open teammate behind the three-point line. You know how this ends.

That is one way things can go for Reno. But coins can also come up tails. In December of 2014, the buzzer sounds, the period ends, and the score is 56-42, the Los Angeles D-Fenders over the Bighorns. No one heads to the locker room for halftime; the teams had only played one quarter of basketball, during which the D-Fenders hit 24 of their first 33 shots, nearly 73 percent. Any team can get hot for one quarter, but against the Bighorns teams can get hot for all four: the D-Fenders went on to score 175 points in regulation, setting a D-League record for points scored in a single game. In January, the Bighorns and D-Fenders met once more; this time it was the Bighorns who scored 174 points, the second most points scored in D-League history. They, um, "held" the D-Fenders to 169, and won.

Image by DeviantArt user BobbertM

The D-League is a peculiar hothouse basketball environment, populated by players looking to score their way into the NBA and defined by final scores that reflect that. Even by the D-League's amphetamized standards, the Bighorns are not like any other professional basketball team that has ever existed. They score, on average, 141 points per game; they allow, on average, 141 points per game. What the hell is going on here?

In 2013-2014, the Reno Bighorns were remarkable only for how ordinary they were. They played at the third-slowest pace of any D-League team; in an 18-team league, they finished as the 12th best offensive and 12th best defensive team. They finished 27-23, and fired their coach after the season.

What came next was not so much a cosmetic change as a personality transplant. The Bighorns tabbed a 28-year-old first-time coach named Dave Arseneault Jr., with the mandate that he make the Bighorns more closely resemble a Division III college team.

Arseneault is the son of Dave Arseneault Sr., and was the lead assistant under his father at Grinnell College, in Iowa. If Grinnell College rings any bells, it's likely as the school where that kid scored 138 points in a single game. Things like that happen at Grinnell all the time, thanks to the extremely particular, extremely peculiar brand of basketball that the team plays. Grinnell runs a system that emphasizes three-pointers and layups to the exclusion of all other offensive plays, and emphasizes defense not at all. Grinnell does this with wave after wave of Midwestern liberal arts students. The junior Arseneault would be doing it with professional basketball players.

The D-League faces heavy roster turnover as a matter of course, but the one that accompanied Arseneault's arrival was particularly thorough. Of the 21 players that saw court time for the Bighorns in 2013-2014, just three were brought back to the team: backups Ra'shad James and Tajuan Porter, and the little-used Alfred Aboya. The team's top seven players in minutes played were all out the door, as were 17 of the top 19 in minutes played. They were replaced with a cast that, even by the D-League's itinerant standards, was heavy with oddballs.

Image by DeviantArt user Dusty-Old-Clock

Brady Heslip played three seasons at Baylor, taking 80 percent of his career attempts from beyond the arc, and making nearly 44 percent of them; of the 254 attempts he took during his senior season, he made 46.5 percent. Never highly recruited out of high school and a rotation player at Baylor, the Bighorns nevertheless made Heslip the 11th pick of the D-League draft. Arseneault had plans for him.

Quincy Miller, Heslip's teammate at Baylor in '11-12, was Heslip's opposite: a McDonald's All-American who chose Baylor over offers from Louisville and Duke, in the understanding that he'd likely just be passing through on his way to the NBA. Miller did that, declaring for the NBA draft after a mostly unremarkable freshman year, then slid to the 38th pick of the draft. He played sparingly in two seasons in Denver and was a D-Leaguer by his third season.

These two definitionally marginal players are respectively second and third in scoring in the D-League. Heslip is taking 13 three-pointers per game, and making 48.5 percent of them; Miller is getting to the free-throw line more than all but five players in the D-League, and making just over 90 percent of his foul shots.

The rest of the roster is similarly fringe-y in terms of prospect status, and posting similarly implausible numbers. David Stockton, the son of Hall of Famer John Stockton, is tied for the league lead in steals and third in assists. He's one of four players on the roster averaging more than 18 points per game. The fourth is David Wear, the identical twin of Knicks backup Travis Wear; he is 6'10", takes seven three-pointers a game and makes 45 percent of them. The rest of the team is comprised of players too small (Tajuan Porter is 5'7", weighs 155 pounds, and averages nearly two steals per game despite playing just 22 minutes per game), too large (Sim Bhullar, at 7'5" and a not-so-nimble 355, is one of the biggest humans playing any sport, and tied for second in the D-League in blocked shots), or otherwise too strange to play for any team but the Bighorns.

This makes sense, given the ultra-intense, freebase strangeness of Bighorns Ball. Four signature oddities define the way the Bighorns play, all of them recognizable basketball trends pushed beyond recognizable limits.

Ridiculous Pace

The fastest team in the NBA this season is the Golden State Warriors, who play at about 98 possessions per game. Likely the fastest team in NBA history, particularly given their competition, were the '90-91 Nuggets, who averaged a little under 114 possessions per game under the stewardship of run-and-gun apostle Paul Westhead.

Reno averages 121. One twenty-one.

This is blindingly quick, even for the freewheeling D-League. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey's own basketball science experiment, average 111 possessions per game. The Defenders average 110, perhaps mostly by virtue of having already played Reno three times. There is no basketball team anywhere playing nearly as fast as Reno.

Ridiculous Reliance on Three-Pointers

45.5 percent of Reno's attempts come from three-point distance. The second-place Maine RedClaws shoot 43.5 percent of their shots from range, and the Vipers around two percent less than that. In the NBA, only Houston shoots more than a third of their attempts from three, at 40.2 percent.

And though many teams prize the so-called 'corner three'-which counts for three points like every other shot from behind the arc, but is slightly closer to the hoop given the curvature of the three-point line-Reno seems happy to pull up from anywhere. By rate, Reno takes 195 percent more threes from the left and right wings than their average D-League peers, and 140 percent more shots from the top of the key.

This reflects a fundamental Grinnell tenet, which holds that the first good look at the basket should result in a shot at the basket. Often a Reno player will bring the ball up the court and almost immediately pull up for three.

Or, alternately, make one basketball move and pass to a player who... takes a three-point shot. Reno doesn't concern itself so much with working the ball into the corner for a three, primarily because setting up that shot takes more time and effort than Arseneault would like to exert. Teams know enough to deny corner threes where possible, after all.

Defending the front arc of the three point line from right wing to left wing, on the other hand, is nearly impossible, which means the shot is always there if Reno wants it, which they do. It's hard to tell if this a new basketball efficiency being unlocked or simply Grinnell ball doing what Grinnell ball does. The results are the results.

Ridiculously Frequent Substitutions

"It's Wear, James... Hannah," the announcer says, ticking off the team's five new substitutes as Reno brings the ball up the court, "Mill- uh- Hamilton who launches a three from the left wing. I can't, uh, even get the lineup in before they launch a three," the announcer expresses with some noticeable irritation. Jordan Hamilton's made three-point comes a mere five seconds into the 24-second shot clock.

In a recent game against Rio Grande Valley, Reno made a full five-man substitution just 80 seconds into the game, and effectively never stopped. Over the course of the game they made 70 substitutions to Rio Grande Valley's 26, a margin that was made possible through Reno's wholesale use of large, platoon-style substitutions.

Rio Grande Valley subbed out two players at once three different times, and made a single player-for-player swap 20 different times. By contrast, Reno subbed out all five players on the floor four different times, four of the five players on the floor seven times, and three of the five players twice.

Ridiculously Aggressive Defense

Aggressive full-court press defenses can be found at every level of basketball, from middle school on up, with the exception of the pros. The understanding, at the professional level, is that a trapping, full-court press simply requires too much energy to run, especially relative to its expected effectiveness against professional-grade guards. It just isn't worth it.

Reno does not do much to counter this argument. Their defense is horrible. It's the outright worst in the league by efficiency-their Defensive Rating of 116.7 means that they give up nearly 117 points every 100 possessions-and by volume, as the 140.6 points per game they give up is nearly 14 more per game than the D-League's second-worst defense.

Opponents make an astonishing 62 percent of their two point attempts against Reno. This is not good defense, except for when it really, really is.

Reno's press forces 23 turnovers per game, which leads to a league-leading 29.6 points-off-turnovers. These turnovers also make sure that Reno takes an average of 9.1 more field goal attempts per game than opponents.

This is another Grinnell principle at work, one that's grounded in arithmetic so simple as to seem frankly cockeyed--the idea being that it's okay if the opponent makes as many two-pointers as they wish, as long as each is answered with a three-pointer. If an opponent makes 13 of 20 two-pointers and your team makes 9-of-29 threes, you just won the "game" 27-26 despite getting outshot from the field 65 percent to 31 percent. It adds up, although there's a certain taking-a-loss-per-unit-but-making-it-up-in-volume aspect to it. As with all things Bighorns, it's both floridly insane and sneakily rational.

It is worth noting, at this point, that the Reno Bighorns are the minor-league affiliate of the Sacramento Kings. This is perhaps more relevant than we know just yet.

For the rest of his basketball life, Sacramento Kings' owner Vivek Ranadivé is likely to be associated with the time that he casually mentioned to his general manager that his NBA team-which, again, plays in the NBA-should consider playing four-on-five on defense, with the absent defender cherry-picking on the other end. That approach, in conjunction with a hectic, full-court pressing style, had served Ranadivé well in his prior experience in the game, which happened to be coaching his daughter's middle school team.

That anecdote, bolstered by several spasmodic personnel decisions, has raised the possibility that Ranadivé's Kings might be preparing to take #disruption a lot more seriously than any NBA team ever has. It's hard to know just what this might mean, or how weird it might get, but Reno might be a hint of things to come in Sacramento. This would not necessarily be a smart choice-it's tough to argue that the Kings would be smart to ditch a system built around DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the best big man in the NBA, for one that's seemingly custom made for Brady Heslip.

It would be impossible even to imagine what a professional team that plays like this might look like, if Reno were not already out there doing it. They press relentlessly, they play up-tempo, they sub heavily, and they follow a Big Data offensive strategy centered around the primacy of the three-point shot. Like his tech-business brethren, Ranadivé seems obsessed with two things: numbers and doing things his own way, not necessarily in that order. The Kings, bound as they are by existing contracts, a salary cap, a highly unpredictable draft process, and several generations of generally accepted best practices, have to be a certain way. The Bighorns, on the other hand, could be reformed essentially overnight and rolled out as Ranadivé's open-beta basketball team.

The results have been, not transformative, but not a failure either. The Big Horns are 8-12. They are 4-2 at home, but only 4-10 on the road; when the schedule comes into a home/road balance, they're probably on track for a record similar to last season's. In short, there is just enough success in the win/loss column, alongside all those enticingly record-breaking performances, to convince Ranadivé to let this experiment in Reno keep running for at least one more season.

And, in a handful of years, as the great basketball beta test continues--and if Ranadivé and his front office really wanted to push the Disrupt Everything mantra that is presently de rigeur in Silicon Valley--we could see Arseneault Jr. and his system, or parts of his system, rolled out in the NBA. Plenty of NBA coaches have D-League roots, although none of them preach Arseneault's ultra-caffeinated gospel.

Arseneault's experiment in the Biggest Little City In The World may be a low-risk sacrifice in exchange for new data, or it might just be weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Bighorns are test-running the grander philosophies of their ambitious owner in real time. Or maybe they're just gunning threes and gambling for steals non-stop because it's fun, and works some of the time, and because there's no compelling reason not to. That's fun to watch, too.