Old Dogs, Same Tricks


The more things change, the more they stay the same – or so it is said.  Last season, I wrote about the Spurs’ use of Tim Duncan in pin-down sets, focusing on a game winning play versus the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nine months later, San Antonio faced a similar situation. With possession in the final moments of their game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Spurs were able to gain the lead with a two point attempt. Famous for their motion sets, San Antonio often runs loop plays that flow into pick and rolls for Tony Parker, or sets to free shooters in the corner.  NBA teams rarely rely on big men in end of game situations. Big men are less able to score with only the single move allowed for by the time restraints, while their position on the court makes a clean entry pass less likely. The Spurs entered the ball to Manu Ginobili in what appeared to be the beginnings of a motion set, or a basic isolation. However, rather than running to the corner, the in bounds passer set an unexpected screen for Duncan, freeing the aging center for the game winning jump shot.

Although neither complicated nor especially well executed, this play reveals a subtle piece of the Spurs excellence. From Tony Parker’s off-beat finishes to Kawhi Leonard’s defensive wanderings, the Spurs are able to play off the expectations of their opponents, creating the minute advantages needed to swing possessions, games, and seasons.

Intellectual Theft: Mike Brown

The Cleveland Cavaliers underwent several dramatic changes this offseason. In an apparent attempt to make the progression from rebuilding pushover to playoff contenders, the Cavaliers greatly increased the base talent level of their roster, drafting Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev, and signing veterans Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, and Andrew Bynum.

Yet, among all the offseason’s new faces, one should be familiar. Mike Brown, after coaching the Cavaliers from 2005 to 2010, was hired to replace Byron Scott earlier this offseason. Following a season and five games as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Brown returns to a Cavaliers team entirely different from the one he left.

Last season, the Cavaliers allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions, the third worst defensive rating in the league, according to NBA.com. Mike Brown, considered a defensive specialist, is expected to improve this crippling performance. Under Mike Brown, the 2011-12 Lakers held opponents to 101.7 points per 100 possessions, 14th in the league. Brown’s defenses have experienced even greater success. In 2006-07 the Cleveland Cavaliers held opponents to 98.9 points per 100 possessions, fourth in the NBA, and in 2008-09 the Cavs had the second best defense in the league, allowing 99.4 points per 100 possessions.

While the compositions of Brown’s past and current Cavaliers teams are quite different, the 2010-11 Lakers and the present Cavaliers share some notable similarities. Andrew Bynum, the central piece to the Lakers’ defense, was acquired by Cleveland on a partially guaranteed deal after missing the entirety of last season dealing with various knee injuries. Though Bynum’s presence on the floor is not guaranteed, he may be able to function in a similar role this season.

Under Brown, Bynum took full advantage of his massive frame on defense, dropping towards the paint on pick and rolls, closing driving lanes on help defense, and remaining in position to affect shots at the rim.

Mike Brown’s defensive system did an excellent job ensuring that Bynum was always close to the basket and in position to affect and prevent shots at the rim. Though this may seem to be a basic concept, many coaches do not consistently put their players in the best position for success.


DeMarcus Cousins, despite being a relatively mobile big man, should not be forced to hedge several feet out on Damien Wilkins, the ball handler, and recover all the way to Spencer Hawes in the short corner. Cousins does not always hedge this hard (and under new coach Mike Malone it is likely that he almost never will), but to deny the middle, a basic tenant of most offenses, has to stick on the ball handler for several feet. This makes Cousins’ recovery to Hawes much more difficult while leaving the Sacramento interior defenseless if Wilkins is able to turn the corner.


Contrast this with Bynum defending a pick and roll from a similar location. Rather than hedging on Tony Parker, Bynum drops several feet off his man into the paint, allowing him to prevent a shot at the rim by either Parker or the screen-setter, Tim Duncan.

The Cavaliers, like Brown’s Lakers, feature a high usage perimeter scorer and formidable frontcourt. As it was with Kobe Bryant before him, the interaction between Kyrie Irving and his frontcourt will be key to the Lakers’ success.

This video, grabbed by Conrad Kaczmarek for an excellent breakdown of Andrew Bynum’s ability to score off cuts and off-ball positioning, displays one of Brown’s primary tactics for reconciling Bryant and Bynum in the offense.


Bynum and Bryant are the only offensive players on the strong side. If Bryant drives left, Marcin Gortat, Bynum’s defender, is the only defender in position to help. If Gortat leaves Bynum, Channing Fry, would likely attempt to help. However, a defender entering the play off balance has little chance to prevent Bynum from finishing in such deep position.

If Bryant drives left, either Frye must leave Gasol, allowing an open jump shot and driving lane, or Gortat must help off Bynum. As Kaczmarek shows, Bynum is excellent at finding the ideal position to receive and finish a pass in these situations. Expect Mike Brown to apply a similar offensive strategy to the Cavaliers.

Brown has always been known for his attention to detail defensively. His stint with the Lakers may provide a few offensive wrinkles to bring to Cleveland.

As Bryant rotates through what finishes as a pin down, he sets a screen for Bynum in the post, both giving Bynum an opportunity to establish post position on the strong-side and giving Bryant separation as he releases from the screen. These intricacies, often missing from the Cavaliers offense last season, provide players with slight edges in the battle for efficient opportunities.

As with any team, there are many variables affecting the Cavaliers upcoming season.  If Mike Brown is able to put the talented roster in a position to succeed, the Cavaliers should be an imposing lower-tier playoff team.

Analyzing the Warriors Best Plays

(Written For Blue Man Hoop)

While the Warriors’ offense often boiled down to a simple high pick and roll, they featured many complex set plays and reads to increase scoring efficiency.

The Warriors’ most distinct offensive play is the “Elevator”.  This play is generally initiated out of a Horns set.  Horns begins with two high posts and a player stationed in either corner.  The player intended to come through the double screen, generally Stephen Curry, typically starts the play at the wing.  The Warriors also developed a few misdirection variations of the elevator play.  In one version, Curry will begin with the ball at the top of the court and make a pass to the wing. He then runs towards the corner, typical of a horns set, but quickly reverses direction and cuts back up through the double screen.

While it appears to rely on a single outcome, the beauty of the elevator play is that if the initial action is well defended it flows directly into a basic horns set.  The Warriors will generally simply have the two big men who set the elevator screens run a double screen with the ball handler.

The emergence of Klay Thompson as an offensive weapon led to an increased reliance on the “Corners” set.  This constant motion offensive set leads into several screen and rolls, pin downs, and spot up jumpers.  Teams such as the Dallas Mavericks and, most consistently, the Minnesota Timberwolves rely on the Corner as the basis of their offensive system.  While the Warriors were not as committed, their use of this set increased as the year progressed and players became more comfortable with the reads and wrinkles.

The Corner set allows the Warriors to decrease their reliance on Curry as the offensive initiator but, with the pick and roll opportunities, does not limit his role as an on-ball scorer.

Against teams like the Miami Heat that aggressively hedge on and off-ball screens, this set opens opportunities for the Warriors’ excellent passers to find open layups and weak side spot ups for teammates, while more conservative defenses are susceptible to giving the Warriors a damaging extra step on pick and rolls.

The Warriors were often simplistic in their offensive approach.  Basic Flex sets consistently led to high pick and rolls and there was an unnecessary reliance on motionless post ups.  However, many of the wrinkles that were added were very effective in leveraging the Warriors’ significant offensive talents.  As this core gains more experience after an injury-interrupted year, expect an increase in the complexity and effectiveness of many of the Warriors’ sets, as well as the addition of further plays.

Play of the Day: Pacers X-Cuts

(Written for Pelican Debrief)

One action common in the Indiana  Pacers’ offense is the cut across a big man with the ball.  This generally occurs in the high post, but the Pacers use this action in several situations, allowing wings like Paul George to catch the ball on the move off a faux-screen from the big man, and clears space for the big man with the ball if he does not make a pass.

This action is often generated as part of a motion strong set. If the intial pass to the big man in the low post is denied, the Pacers will often run a cross-screen, or simply have the big man flash, to open a pass to the high post, creating an x-cut opportunity.

This X-Cut set has a few interesting wrinkles:

While the Pacers generally rub cutters off a big man in the high post, this set is initiated in the low post, and involves a pre-planned screen by one wing for the other.

Here is another iteration of the low-post x-cut:

This type of action could be useful in the New Orleans Pelicans offense.  It requires the big men to decide between keeping the ball and passing to one of his offensive options, but does not force the big man to create the offensive opportunity.  This decision-making responsibility could help further the development of Anthony Davis, while clearing help defenders could benefit his post game.

Also, allowing Eric Gordon to catch the ball on the move, whether off the high or low post set, would help him create more efficient offensive opportunities.

Adding a weak-side back scree could free shooters for wide-open corner three point attempts, an ideal result for any offensive possession.

Wrinkles such as these will help improve the efficiency of the Pelicans’ offense, and hopefully aide the development of the players.

San Antonio’s Excellence: A Lesson For The Warriors

(Written For Blue Man Hoop)

In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs made a Finals record 16 three pointers en route to the third largest victory in Finals history.  Other factors contributed to the victory but it was the three point shooting, led by Danny Green, 7-for-9, and Gary Neal, 6-fo-10, that blew open the game.

The 16-of-32 three point shooting is incredible but more significant is the ease with which San Antonio found open three point opportunities.

The Spurs understand Miami’s defensive system and are able to take advantage of its flaws.  Here is an example indicative of a common breakdown in the Miami defense.

This is a variation on the “Loop” set San Antonio often runs.  After passing to Manu Ginobili at the top of the court, Tony Parker runs through a series of screens, curls towards the ball, and receives a pass from Ginobili.  San Antonio knows that Miami is a very aggressive pick and roll trapping team.  The loop often flows directly into a pick and roll with the last screener serving as the roll man after Parker makes the catch.

Picture 1

On this play, Duncan expects Chris Bosh to trap Parker off his screen and immediately drops into post-position.  Parker makes a nice pass into Tim Duncan, getting him the ball before Bosh is able to recover.  This forces LeBron James to switch off Kawhi Leonard to guard Tim Duncan, leaving Dwyane Wade to defend Leonard.

Leonard instantly recognizes that Miami has overloaded the strong side and moves to basket, forcing Wade to stay tightly on him.  This leaves Mike Miller to defend both Ginobili, his original man, and Danny Green, now in the corner. Duncan, and excellent passer, finds Ginobili, who swings the ball to Green for a wide-open corner three.

Picture 2

San Antonio uses a clever misdirection to further take advantage of Miami’s defense.  On a typical Loop set, Green would be positioned in the left corner.  At the beginning of the play, he appears to be headed to this spot but stops at the post area near Tim Duncan.  Green than fakes as if he were setting a screen, another common variation of the Loop, but cuts back and runs to the opposite corner.

Thought this shot was missed, San Antonio was able to find open opportunities out of similar sets designed to take advantage of Miami’s pick and roll traps.

So, what does this have to do with the Warriors?

To achieve future success, the Warriors will have to consistently overcome defenses geared to stop them.  Like San Antonio has done to Miami, the Warriors must be able to acknowledge and take advantage of defensive tendencies, a test in both innovation and execution.

San Antonio Drops The Hammer: Death By Execution

(Written for Blue Man Hoop)


Game after game, year after year, the San Antonio Spurs exercise their calculated, methodical genius.  Possession after possession, play after play, the Spurs pass, cut, screen, and penetrate their way through the opponents’ defense, and though the defense resists, the Spurs almost inevitably find their shot.  “The hammer”, the set shown above, represents many of the principles of San Antonio’s offense.  While San Antonio’s system whittles away at a defense, it is the aptly named “hammer” that often drives the final nail.San Antonio’s hammer sets, as the video shows, generally involve off and on ball movement prior to this point, but the first key step is what appears to be a high screen.  San Antonio knows that many defenses attempt to prevent the ball handler from using the screen.  In accordance with the set, San Antonio has cleared the middle of the floor, leaving an open lane for the ball-handler, in this case Cory Joseph, to drive.As the guard drives, the weak-side defensive big man is forced to step in to contest.  Meanwhile, San Antonio’s big man sets a back screen on the defensive wing, usually a couple steps off his man in help position, while San Antonio’s shooter cuts to the corner, setting up an easy pass to a wide-open man for the best shot in basketball.While the specific play may have been used no more than a couple times against the Warriors, it displays the intelligence that couples with San Antonio’s talent to make the team as successful as it is.  The Spurs account for the nuances of the opposing teams expected defense on the initial deceptive screen, and take advantage of help schemes with the back screen.The Warriors may have resisted San Antonio, riding their own hot shooting and San Antonio’s unexpected turnovers and inconsistent shooting to two victories, but a large part of the Warriors performance was simply unsustainable if the Warriors hoped to win.  The Warriors presented an intriguing case, but not one that held up against San Antonio’s aggressive examination.  From their own shooting to the Spurs’ struggles to convert on repeated open corner threes, among other opportunities, the Warriors could not maintain their performance, and were, like many teams before them, sentenced to death by San Antonio’s compassionless execution.

Fortunately for the Warriors, the NBA death is not finite.  The Warriors have next year, and an eternity after that, to build on this season.  While a loss is never welcome, the San Antonio Spurs gave the Warriors a model on which they can base their aspirations.  While the brilliance of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli may be responsible for much of San Antonio’s success, the Spurs have set the standard for player development and on court execution for several years.  Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green, recent products of San Antonio’s system were key in carrying out the Warriors’ sentence.

The Spurs, at least more so than other teams, take advantage of their players’ talents, bringing success not just to the players but to the entire team, and apart from a few creative diversions from Manu Ginobli, the Spurs’ players generally stay within this system.

The Warriors have a bright future, but as the Spurs have shown the last few years, success is not guaranteed.  While loss is not always a learning experience, the Warriors could learn learn a lot from the Spurs.

Yet Another Piece of Offensive Brilliance from the San Antonio Spurs


(Image from http://www.48minutesofhell.com)

The San Antonio Spurs serve as a direct contradiction to the “old dog new tricks cliché.”  After winning four championships with a Tim Duncan in the post-centric, slow paced offense, the Spurs began the shift towards their modern offense, relying on off ball movement, misdirection, and Tony Parker’s creation out of the pick and roll to generate offense.  They had seemingly perfected the system by the 2011-2012 season, when they finished first overall in offensive rating at 112.4 points per 100 possessions.  The Spurs had struggled defensively in recent years, but finished this season ranked third in defensive efficiency, surrendering only 101.6 points per 100 possessions.  Prior to the 2011 season, they traded effective guard George Hill to Indiana for the first round pick that became Kawhi Leonard.


The Spurs have never been hesitant to make changes, but in last year’s conference finals, were unable to adapt to the Kevin Durant pin-downs the Thunder ran repeatedly.

Here is the basic alignment of a double pin-down set.  5 and 4 are setting pin down screens for 1 and 2.  The pin down allows a player to receive the ball in good scoring position, allows for an easy entry pass, and provides an easy set up for a pick and roll close to the basket.

Here is an example of the pin-down play the Thunder used to beat San Antonio:

The Spurs, famous for their own innovation, have adopted the pin-down screen as an important feature of their offense.  They often set up pick and rolls or open jump shots by setting pin down screens for Tony Parker, but recently, have been running an inverted pin down, in which a guard is setting a screen for the big man (almost always Duncan).

Picture 1

To begin this play Tony Parker dribbles the ball up the court, towards the left baseline.  Tiago Splitter waits in the high right post, and Duncan runs to the left low block.  Gary Neal cuts from the left corner to the top, and Parker passes him the ball, filling Neal’s position in the left corner.

Picture 2

Tiago Splitter moves towards the three point line and receives a pass from Neal.  Duncan is now the only offensive player in the middle of the court, and is flanked by two Spurs ready for a corner three point attempt.  Kawhi Leonard shoots 38.9 percent from the left corner three, and though this may appear low it is the equivalent of a 58.3 percent field goal percentage on a two point field goal attempt, while Parker shot 47.6 percent on his 19 right corner three attempts.

Picture 5

Neal sets the pin down screen for Duncan, freeing him for the in-rhythm midrange jump shot.  This season, Duncan shot 43.4 percent on 272 midrange jump shots, many of which came off pick and pops or plays similar to this.  Neal is still holding the screen, and had the shot been better contested, Duncan is in excellent position to drive, in which case Isaiah Thomas would likely have helped off of Tony Parker, freeing Parker for an open corner three.

As has come to be expected of San Antonio, the intricate Spurs have added several variations of this pin down set to their offense.

Picture 6

On this play, Duncan is positioned at the short corner on the right side of the court when he receives the pin down.  Instead of coming vertically off the screen, he curls towards the right elbow, where he takes the open jumper off a pass from Manu Ginobli.

Picture 7

The Clippers’ defense of the Duncan pin down partly reveals why it is effective.  Had a guard been coming off the screen, the DeAndre Jordan would likely have hedged, following the guard towards the elbow and denying a driving lane while the Clippers’ screened guard recovered.  Normally, this would allow the Spurs guard to pass back to the screen setter for an open short-corner jump shot.  The Clippers do not take this approach with Duncan, and appear confused with how to defend the play.  Possibly because Leonard is perceived as a greater threat to take the jumper, his defender is unwilling to hedge on Duncan while Jordan struggles around the screen. Also, because guards are not accustomed to guarding screen setters, this likely is a miscommunication by the defense.  Duncan takes the wide open jump shot, foreshadowing the Spurs’ final play of the game.

In this game-winning play, the Spurs again run a pin down screen for Duncan, who enters the cut earlier than expected.  Jordan scrambles to beat the screen and catch Duncan, who hesitates after catching and draws the foul on Jordan as he hits the game wining shot.

The pin down adds yet another fold in the Spurs often-dynamic offense,  and represents the Spurs continual willingness to reshape and adapt their roster, style, and strategy.

Klay Thompson’s Game Winner vs. Sacramento

Last night, the Boston Celtics upset the Indiana Pacers on a nice set that feigned an isolation for Paul Pierce and resulted in a wide open layup for Jeff Green  The reaction to this play, exalted by some as the “best set of the year,” and referred to by bleacherreport.com, slamonline.com, and celticslife.com as “great,” displays the valuing of results over process that often infiltrates sports analysis.  Had the Celtics run the exact same play and David West taken a better angle on Green’s cut towards the basket, he likely would have gotten around Pierce’s screen to cover Green and forced Kevin Garnett to enter the ball to Pierce for the Celtics secondary option, a wing isolation for Pierce.  Though Pierce has good position, he likely would have struggled to score on Paul George.  Had this happened, the Celtics set, hailed as the triumph of team play, would likely have been criticized as “hero ball.”  The Celtic’s play was very well designed, as it gave them the Green cut, Pierce iso, and Garnett jumper as viable options, but may have been praised for the wrong reasons.  I originally planned to look at this play, however Hoop Chalk beat me to it (http://hoopchalk.com/2013/03/06/celtics-use-the-elbows-to-take-out-pacers/), so instead I will break down Klay Thompson’s game winning three pointer against the Sacramento Kings, a broken play that fittingly ended a poorly executed game.

To begin the play, Jack sets a down screen for Steph Curry, freeing Curry to catch Thompson’s inbounds pass, while Jack clears baseline to the right corner and Thompson fills the left.

Though many teams wait until the final seconds to run a play, hoping to end the game with one shot.  The Warriors initiate their play immediately, leaving themselves the opportunity for an offensive rebound and a second chance at a score.  Bogut and Lee both move above the three-point line, preparing to set a drag-type screen to either free Curry for a jump shot or force a King’s big to switch onto him.

However, Andrew Bogut’s defender Jason Thompson, hedges the screen, stopping Curry and taking the Warriors out of their play.  Typically, Patrick Patterson, David Lee’s defender, would have been the one hedging, as Lee set the first screen.  Instead Thompson leaves Bogut, likely fearing that Patterson was not in position.

Toney Douglas, Curry’s original defender, clears Lee’s screen and, along with Jason Thompson, traps Curry.  Thompson is expected to then recover to Bogut, but Bogut, recognizing that Thompson was overplaying Curry, had run away from the play into the paint.  Because two defenders are guarding Curry, Patterson is forced to account for both Bogut and Lee, and sags off Lee.  This leaves Lee open for Curry’s pass, however, because the original screening occurred so far from the basket, Jason Thompson is unable to immediately recover to Bogut, forcing Patterson to hesitate before stepping out on Lee.

To cover for Patterson’s hesitation, Klay Thompson’s defender, John Salmons, steps into the paint, denying Lee the driving lane, and giving Jarret Jack’s defender Tyreke Evans time to help on Andrew Bogut as Jason Thompson sprints to guard him.  Seeing John Salmons pulled into the lane, Lee, an excellent passer, immediately hits Klay Thompson in the corner for an open three. Though they did not execute their initial option, the Warriors late game improvisation and Klay Thompsons shooting prowess allow the Warriors a little breathing room over the Rockets in the race for the 6th seed.