Slipped Screens & Broken Dreams: How the Utah Jazz Attacked the Houston Rockets’ Switching Defense in Game 2

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Facing adversity after a lopsided loss, the Utah Jazz did what they’ve done all season: regroup, make the necessary adjustments and outexecute the opponent. The Jazz stumbled out of the gate in Game 1 as the Houston Rockets’ switching defense stymied their offense. The hand-offs and motion that make up Quin Snyder’s playbook were often negated by Houston switches, and Utah’s pick-and-roll offense struggled to find any oxygen. The results were very different in Game 2, and Utah emphasized their counter from the very first possession: slipping the screen. Continue reading

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The Pivotal Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford Matchup in Sixers – Celtics

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This Boston Celtics – Philadelphia 76ers series has something for everyone: superstar-level talent; an injury-depleted roster that won’t quit; a tactical battle on the sidelines; and so many narratives that writers have to choose between revisiting the history between the franchises or gazing into their crystal balls at the two squads that could potentially define the Eastern Conference for the next five years. But most of that stuff is window dressing. The most important aspect of the series will be the matchup of Joel Embiid and Al Horford.

That’s not to detract from the talent and importance of the other players on the floor. Ben Simmons will rebound from a subpar Game 1 and show us why he’s the closest thing to a LeBron James successor we’ve ever seen. Jayson Tatum will continue to marinate in the slow-cooker as the “third wheel” in the Rookie of the Year debate who could very well end up being the best player of the bunch. I guess Terry Rozier could actually continue to play like this and make us all (myself included) cringe at those jokes we made at Danny Ainge’s expense.

But Joel Embiid and Al Horford are not merely the best players on their rosters; they are the stylistic anchors that dictate the identity of their teams. In Game 1, we didn’t see them go head-to-head that frequently, but those minutes will be the bellwether for this series. Continue reading

The Importance of Paul George’s Defensive Assignment and Other Things to Watch in Thunder – Jazz

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Paul George is currently the best perimeter defender on the Oklahoma City Thunder roster (get well, Andre Roberson), but he hasn’t spent much time guarding Utah’s best offensive player (Donovan Mitchell). Instead, most of Playoff P’s defensive possessions have involved harassing Joe Ingles. Why is George guarding the lesser threat?

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Perhaps the decision to have George matched up on Ingles is about conserving his energy for offense, but PG is hardly taking plays off on the defensive end. On the contrary, he’s made it his mission to limit Ingles’ impact. Though George has been unabashedly disrespectful to Ingles on the court and at the podium, the matchup assignment itself is an implicit nod of acknowledgment from OKC with regards to Ingles’ playmaking abilities and his importance to the Jazz offense. Continue reading

Making it Wayne: How the Miami Heat Have Unleashed Wayne Ellington’s Shooting

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As the NBA embraces the 3-point revolution, the league is extracting more value from elite shooters than ever before. Teams fortunate enough to pay the game’s most versatile shooters (e.g. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard) usually build their offenses around that singular skill. Even the more one-dimensional shooters can create headaches for defenses by sprinting around screens/hand-offs and letting it fly (e.g. Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick).

With the growing acceptance—nay, reliance—on shots from downtown, role players have adapted to their changing surroundings by refining their jumpers and shot selection. One of the best examples of this phenomenon has been Wayne Ellington. Ellington entered the league as a knockdown shooter (career: 38.1% 3P), but his skill set was never fully optimized until he signed with the Miami Heat in 2016-17. His shot chart highlights this evolution and underscores the extent to which he’s played to his strengths this year (data from Basketball-Reference.com):

Graph 1 - Shot Distribution

Over his last two seasons in South Beach, Wayne Ellington has focused on his greatest talent: shooting the long ball. Many players have tweaked their shot selection in this Moreyball era, but Ellington has taken that process to the extreme. His 2017-18 season ranks as the fifth-most 3-point dependent season on record (min. 1,000 minutes played):Graph 2 - 3PArNote: Credit to Dan Majerle for being way ahead of his time. His 2001-02 season is the only one on the list before 2010-11.

Ellington has cut out the fat from his shot selection and his diet—he’s in the best shape of his career (another win for #HeatCulture). The result? He is now a major weapon for Miami. So much so that the front office faces a dilemma this offseason: do they lose Ellington for nothing in free agency or wade into the luxury tax by re-signing him?

Miami’s roster is stocked with rotation players—I count 10 under contract for next year—but the payroll is already butting up against the luxury tax. Ellington will be 31 next season, but his market value will almost certainly exceed the $2.8M in breathing space the Heat have under the projected luxury tax line for 2018-19. If he walks in free agency, the team will be able to replace his minutes with in-house, competent NBA talent. It’ll be very difficult, however, to replicate Ellington’s offensive impact. Nobody else can keep defenses on edge without the ball in his hands.

Goran Dragic spoke to Ellington’s unique role in a post-game conversation with Jack Maloney of CBS Sports:

“We need [Ellington], because he gives us a different type of scoring. You know, not only pick-and-roll, or penetrating, or putting the ball inside, but when you need a 3 or when the other team is inside the paint, then Wayne Ellington can do his job. Probably he’s one of the purest shooters in the game right now.”

Ellington’s improved conditioning, footwork and balance have coalesced to make him one of the most unguardable shooters in the league—the type of sniper that makes mind-boggling shots look routine regardless of his speed, his positioning or the proximity of the defense:

Spoelstra has taken to calling Ellington a “wide receiver” because of all the route-running he does to get open. When his speed alone doesn’t do the job, the sharpshooter has shown some receiver-like shiftiness to shake his defenders and break free from the coverage:

When the defense succeeds in shutting down Ellington’s first look off a screen, he’s mastered the art of immediately pitching it to a nearby teammate and flowing into a secondary handoff to create a shooting window:

The 3-pointers obviously help his team, but his impact goes far beyond the points he scores. Ellington bends the defense with the gravitational pull of his shooting. Defenses must commit multiple defenders to navigate the obstacle course of screens Miami deploys to free him. If too much attention is thrown at him, he has the ball skills and passing chops to find open teammates:

Ellington frequently creates baskets for his teammates without even touching the ball. He doesn’t get credited in the box score with points or an assist on any of the following plays, but he is the Heat player most responsible for creating these easy buckets:

Ellington has always been a knockdown standstill shooter, but he deserves immense credit for drastically improving the versatility of his jumper. More importantly, Ellington has developed into a quick decision-maker—a coveted trait in today’s NBA. If he has a window, the shot is going up. If the shot isn’t there, he’ll immediately move the ball and continue his perpetual motion machine. It’s unreasonable to expect other players to replicate Ellington’s crazy shot-making ability, but many shooters could benefit from adopting his hot potato mentality. It remains to be seen whether Ellington is a member of the Heat next season, but his juiced-up skill set has made him a dangerous offensive weapon that will easily fit in on whichever team he signs with in free agency.


Time for the Xs and Os segment of the show! Here are some of the sets in the Miami Heat playbook designed for Wayne Ellington.

FloppyAh, the ol’ faithful! Floppy sets have been a part of NBA basketball for decades and have served as a go-to set for the game’s best shooters. The play is so simple, but it’s difficult to stop (even though the defense often sees it coming) when you use a shooter of Ellington’s caliber.


Loop 52 Flip

This is a really nice (and effective) set to get Ellington an open look because it keeps the defense occupied with the diversity of actions involved. The first diagram is just the set-up. Note that 1 and 3 sometimes flip directions, but the key is making sure they don’t both go to the same side of the floor and mess up the spacing. The first pass almost always goes to the big on the right side of the floor (5 in the diagram) because it’s easier for Ellington to curl off a hand-off going to his right.

Ellington sets a backscreen for 4, but it’s really just a decoy to divert the defender’s attention. This diversion gives Ellington a half-step advantage and he only needs a quarter-step to get his shot off.

Another key to this play: the playmaking chops of Miami’s non-Whiteside bigs. Hand-offs are tough to defend anyway, but the difficulty increases exponentially when it’s run with a big that passes and can make plays off the bounce (James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo). This plays ends with what is functionally a Gut DHO (or uphill DHO). Ellington receives the hand-off sprinting away from the basket, which makes it incredibly difficult to defend without conceding something (especially when the hand-off recipient can square up and shoot so quickly).


Horns Split Handoff

This set is similar to the core action of Loop 52 Flip (above). As you’ll see in the clips below, teams have definitely scouted this play and recognize when it’s coming (Ellington being at the elbow in the Horns formation is a dead giveaway), but that doesn’t mean they can stop it.


BLOB Corner Elevator

It’s a little surprising how well this has worked considering how cluttered it can get in the corner, but this play is a nice example of how minor details matter. 3 could spot up in the left corner and the core action would remain intact, but his positioning on this play makes a subtle yet important difference to how it’s defended. 3’s cut towards the rim keeps the defense honest. If too many defenders commit to Ellington’s elevator action, the defense risks conceding a layup at the rim.


Corner DHO

This isn’t a set play as much as it’s just a part of Miami’s freelance game, but this simple action is incredibly effective. Unless the defense switches this DHO seamlessly, Ellington is going to get a clean look or an open driving lane to the rim. In the reel below, you’ll see defenses trying to go over the hand-off, under it, and switching the play. It doesn’t matter to Ellington. He’s canning a jumper regardless of your defensive strategy.

James Johnson, in particular, has developed tremendous chemistry with Ellington on this play (I think mostly because Johnson likes to blindside people with screens). The Johnson-to-Ellington connection has been productive for the duo, as more of Johnson’s assists have gone to Ellington than any other teammate.


Slip Loop

There are arguably more effective ways to get open looks for knockdown shooters (using them as screeners is particularly devastating), but there are few methods more aesthetically pleasing than having your shooter run off a barrage of screens.

This play starts with some deception. Ellington acts as though he’s going to set a ball-screen, but he then slips the screen (usually there isn’t even an attempted screen) and sprints off a double screen waiting for him on the wing. This part alone is tough to defend, but it’s only the first step for Ellington’s poor defender.

The sharpshooter then loops all the way around and comes off a pindown on the left side of the floor. This is where you see Ellington’s impressive conditioning. He’s able to run in a giant circle and knock down a three without breaking a sweat.

The Plays & Numbers Behind the Houston Rockets’ Record-Breaking Offense

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General Manager Daryl Morey has been upfront about his “obsession” with beating the Golden State Warriors. After the Houston Rockets bowed out of last year’s playoffs early—without even facing their admitted obsession—Morey set to work retooling his roster with the Warriors firmly in mind.

He signed versatile wing defenders (P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) to form the backbone of a switch-heavy defense and brought in Chris Paul to share the offensive load with James Harden. While adding any player of Paul’s caliber would have been helpful, one aspect of Paul’s game was particularly intriguing for a matchup against Golden State: his isolation brilliance.

The Warriors’ team defense is so exceptional that relying on isolation basketball to score against them is one way to minimize the talent differential. Golden State’s switching scheme neutralizes many pick-and-roll actions, and the team’s collective IQ allows them to diagnose and disrupt designed plays. To beat this kind of five-headed defensive monster, there is some logic in focusing on one head at a time (i.e. iso ball) if you have world-class talent.

Golden State’s two biggest challengers during this run happen to be teams that featured a pair of unstoppable isolation scorers. The 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder stormed to a 3-1 series lead due to the individual brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the 2016-17 champion Cleveland Cavaliers clawed back from a 1-3 hole by force-feeding their own isolation dynamos—LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

With Harden and Paul, the Rockets have two of the game’s best decision-makers steering the most efficient offense the NBA has ever seen. Houston is setting all kinds of records for isolation efficiency because the offense unlocks the genius of Harden and Paul by giving them more space than either of them have ever experienced in their careers.

On both team and individual levels, these Rockets are posting the best isolation season on record:

Harden and Paul can wreak isolation havoc in many ways, but they’re courteous enough to let the defense choose how it will meet its demise. If defenders are left on an island, both players can dismantle their prey and get to the basket with frightening ease:

Both players are also adept at lulling defenders to sleep with a hypnotic array of dribble moves before splashing a pullup jimbo in someone’s face (or while they’re on their ass):

If the defense instinctively rotates too far away from one of the other Rockets, Paul and Harden have a finetuned radar system capable of picking out the open man, and Daryl Morey has stacked the roster with elite shooters:

Some are skeptical about Houston’s chances in the postseason, mostly due to the track records of Harden, Paul and D’Antoni. While defense typically improves in the playoffs, this is usually because teams have more time to game-plan for their opponents and scheme coverages to defang the most potent actions. I’m not sure if that’s really possible for an offense so reliant on isolation basketball.

We saw the San Antonio Spurs counter last year’s Rockets by making their bigs defend the pick-and-roll with a deep drop. This allowed them to defend the pick-and-roll with only two players, stay home on shooters and left Harden to settle for mid-range jumpers (something he didn’t do) or try to finish at the rim over the length of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Some teams have defended Houston’s pick-and-rolls like that this year, but there are three things worth noting about the deep drop and how it relates to this year’s Rockets:

1) If you deep drop against Chris Paul, he will feast in the mid-range. As part of his baptism by MoreyBall, Paul is shooting fewer mid-range jumpers but they haven’t disappeared from his diet. More importantly, he is still incredibly efficient from the mid-range. Per Cleaning The Glass, Paul is shooting 50% from the mid-range (94th percentile for PGs) and a blistering 56% on 2-pointers outside 14 feet (98th percentile for PGs). Forcing those mid-range looks is a favorable outcome for the defense compared to the alternatives, but it’s still not a good outcome when Chris Paul is involved.

2) James Harden and Chris Paul are EN FUEGO on pull-up 3s. Per NBA.com/Stats, Harden and Paul are 6th and 8th respectively in 3P% on pull-ups (min. two pull-up 3PA per game). The only players ahead of them are Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans (??), Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, C.J. McCollum and Paul George (who sits at 7th sandwiched between the two Rockets). Paul has historically been very good at the shot, but he’s amped up the volume in Houston. Harden shot a measly 33% on these looks last year (the product of having to barf up too many of them in late-clock situations and/or when he was tired), but is up to 39% on pull-up 3s this season. Furthermore, the Rockets are setting ballscreens very high on the floor giving Harden and Paul more space to pull-up from deep if the defense drops too far back.

3) The deep drop doesn’t help teams defend Harden and Paul in isolation. This wasn’t as troubling last year when Harden was the only real creator on the team. Forcing Harden to carry the entire offense on his back in isolation was too much to ask from any player not named LeBron James. But he has a partner-in-crime this year, and they’re running roughshod over the entire league. The Rockets will use any player as the ball-screener in an attempt to single out the weakest defender in the herd. If the defense switches, Houston gets the isolation matchup it wanted. If the defense doesn’t switch, Paul/Harden carves them up with their pick-and-roll mastery. If the defense traps/shows, the other Rockets have made good decisions on the short roll.

But what does it all mean, Basil? Everything comes back to isolation basketball. Golden State’s entire offense is built around Stephen Curry’s pull-up shooting. It’s an unsolvable riddle that paralyzes defenses and unlocks the Warriors’ glorious ball movement. Houston has its own unsolvable riddle: Harden and Paul in isolation.

Unless opponents can field a 5-man lineup where everyone can credibly defend those two in isolation, nobody is stopping these Rockets over a series. There is, of course, one team that come close. Houston’s approach to the Warriors’ Death Lineup (Curry, Klay, Iguodala, Durant, Draymond) will mirror Cleveland’s in recent years: pick on Stephen Curry. The Warriors excel at protecting Curry on defense, but that won’t be easy against these Rockets thanks to their immaculate spacing. Houston’s title hopes rest on whether Harden and Paul can sustain this ridiculous level of isolationist basketball in a playoff setting. I don’t know if the Rockets will win the title, but I’m betting that Harden and Paul will continue to cook.

If Houston’s isolation game drops off in the postseason, the Rockets will need to lean more heavily on their designed plays. Mike D’Antoni has unleashed a system that dominates through minimalism, but his team has also sprinkled in a variety of set plays and actions that keep the defense on edge. I’ve broken down 11 of their sets below. Continue reading

Exploring the World of Assists, Passing and Ball-Movers

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If you asked a bunch of knowledgeable NBA fans about the best passers in the league, it wouldn’t be long before John Wall’s name came up. His assist numbers are eye-popping (with a career 9.2 assist per game average that’s good for 6th all-time) and he constantly creates easy shots for his teammates. Whether he’s whipping cross-court passes to open shooters or dishing to his pick-and-roll partner for an easy layup, Wall’s passing ability remains his greatest skill and the primary fuel for the Washington Wizards offense.

Consequently, things looked grim for Washington when it was announced in late January that Wall would miss six-to-eight weeks after a knee procedure. To everyone’s surprise, however, the Wizards have put together one of their best stretches of basketball this season, winning 12 of 19 games without Wall. Moreover, the WAY they’ve played without their star PG has been more fascinating than the impressive record. Wall may be one of the league’s best passers, but his team’s passing and assist numbers have spiked without him.

Wall has missed two chunks of time this year (once in December and his current prolonged absence), and the table below shows how the Wizards’ passing stats have fluctuated with and without him.Table 1 v2 - WAS StatsFirst, take note of the December stretch without Wall. The Wizards went 4-5 during that period and their offense sputtered to the tune of 101 points per game on a 49% effective field-goal percentage (numbers you’d expect from one of the league’s worst offenses). They passed the ball much less, and the team is not built to run smoothly that way without Wall running the show.

During Wall’s most recent absence, however, they’ve played a different brand of basketball and have been an excellent offensive team. Over that period, Washington has stylistically looked more like the Golden State Warriors than the Wizards we’re used to seeing. John Wall’s strengths and weaknesses have a lot to do with those differing styles, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of misinterpreting the aesthetic differences for improved results.

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#BuyoutSZN: Buyout Budgets for Every NBA Team

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A ridiculous NBA trade deadline has come and gone, but that doesn’t mean teams are done making moves. The next round of roster upgrades comes in the buyout market. Every year, veteran players on bad teams or in undesirable situations agree to give back some of the money they’re owed so they can become free agents and sign with a new team.

There has already been some movement on the buyout market: the Boston Celtics signed Greg Monroe, the Houston Rockets signed Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright, and Marco Belinelli is officially a Truster of the Process after signing with the Philadelphia 76ers.

For bought-out players, the key factors in the choosing their next team are usually money, playing time/role and winning. It’s still unclear which players will actually agree to buyout arrangements (I recommend Frank Urbina’s piece for HoopsHype if you want a list of possible candidates), but we do know how much teams will be able to offer so I explored every team’s buyout budget.

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The Disrespectful Block Rankings: Part II (Nos. 5 – 1)

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For Part 1 of this article, with an explanation of the overall concept and Nos. 10-6 on The Disrespectful Block Rankings, click here.

Before we continue with the Disrespectful Block Rankings, I want to discuss the issue of blocks that fit multiple categories. As you read through this list and watch the many clips, there will be rejections that combine aspects of multiple categories. A Chasedown swat that’s also a Napoleon, for example, or a Poster Block that’s also a Warcry. Classifying these blocks is equal parts art and science, and there isn’t always a correct answer. In these instances, I’ve chosen to classify them by what I feel is the essence of play; you may feel differently.

The point being: these rankings are based on so much more than the physical characteristics of the block. This is all about what these blocks make you feel. How would you react if you were in the stands watching the play unfold? What would you feel if you were the blocker in the scenario? How would you feel if someone rejected you like that?

(Side note: that last question made me wonder if there’s an equivalent to these rejection categories in the non-basketball world. I’m sure someone out there has shot down a love interest by yelling “Get that shit outta here!” A particularly confident gentleman once hit on my sister with a bold opening move: “Your place or mine?” She responded: “Both. You go to your place; I’ll go to mine.” In the dating world, that’s a classic Volleyball Spike.)

But I digress… On to the top five! Continue reading

The Disrespectful Block Rankings: Part I (Nos. 10 – 6)

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Future President Shea Serrano created the disrespectful dunk index: an extremely scientific attempt to quantify how damaging a dunk was to the psyche of the dunkee. Even in a league comprised of grown men with families to feed and bills to pay, there is a need to exert alpha male dominance over your opponent. That battle of masculinity is often a sideshow to the actual game—a staredown after a dunk, or a flex of the arms after an and-1—but the purest form of this concept comes when a play does the talking for you.

Shea explored this phenomenon in the context of the dunk and, in true Blog Don’t Lie fashion, I’m going to tweak a fantastic idea from a former Grantland writer and bring it to you, the people.

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Shea has already covered the offensive side, so I applied his thought process to the other end of the court. There is one event on defense that matches the mano-a-mano theater and athletic splendor of a dunk: the block. I present to you the Disrespectful Block Rankings.

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How the Luxury Tax Impacts the NBA Trade Deadline

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There are two competing forces that drive NBA front offices: talent and money. Talent frequently draws all the headlines, but the finances play a major role in dictating the outcome. The blockbuster trade for Blake Griffin is an example of the interaction between these two elements: The Detroit Pistons were eager to land a talented star like Griffin; the Los Angeles Clippers feared the potential downside of paying an aging, injury-prone Griffin $142M over the next four seasons. Every team is in a unique situation, but talent and money are the components that shape their thought processes.

On the money side of things, it’s not as simple as adding up all the salaries for this season. Teams have to plan years in advance while worrying about when a star is going to hit free agency, when to hoard cap space for a free-agent splash, and whether they can afford to pay the luxury tax.

This last point—the luxury tax—is particularly fascinating to me given the role it played in the recently completed Nikola Mirotic trade. Discussions between the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans almost fell apart because the Pelicans didn’t want to pay the luxury tax next season. Even though swapping Omer Asik for Mirotic is a clear on-court upgrade, the finances were a key part of New Orleans’ calculus.

The CBA nuances surrounding the Mirotic – Asik trade intrigued me, so I analyzed the cap sheets for every team and investigated some of the scenarios where the luxury tax may dictate trade strategies at the upcoming trade deadline. Continue reading