League Pass Don’t Lie: Kyrie’s Wizardry; Speedy Simmons; The Waiters Cut; Pick & Roll Chemistry

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics

League Pass Don’t Lie is an outlet for me to nerd out and celebrate some of the cool/bizarre/fascinating things I noticed when I got sucked into the League Pass wormhole this week.

The Wizardry of Kyrie Irving in Transition

When my mind was still confined by the boundaries of traditional positional roles, I used to hate Kyrie Irving’s game. Now that I’m very much woke, I’ve embraced the joy of watching Uncle Drew work his magic—especially in the open court. Though he lacks the overwhelming physical tools of LeBron James or Russell Westbrook, there is something exhilarating about watching Kyrie take on the defense in transition.

I’m not much of a fútbol fan anymore, but he reminds me of Lionel Messi. The unparalleled control of his dribble in tight spaces; the way he’s able to maneuver his body and the ball in concert; how he’s able to dance around/over/under/through multiple defenders without seeming to touch any of them.

Whether it’s his uncanny sense of when to attack, his mind-boggling handle or his gravity-defying layup package, Kyrie uses his entire repertoire to make a 1-on-3 attack look easy.

The beauty of basketball is in the artistic license granted to its players, and Kyrie takes full advantage. There are still holes in his game, but when you surround him with an adequate infrastructure (CLE: LeBron James; BOS: Brad Stevens and Al Horford), his weaknesses are less glaring.

When Kyrie can just focus on his strengths—when he has the rock in transition, for example—his wizardry is breathtaking and unstoppable.


Ben Simmons’ Unbelievable Acceleration

My NBA Draft preparation consists of watching DraftExpress’ Strengths and Weaknesses videos, so it’s not exactly a rigorous process. That said, I knew Ben Simmons was supposed to be a LeBron-esque player with incredible size, strength, speed and agility packed into an impressive physical frame.

Despite being armed with this knowledge, I’ve been blown away by his speed and quickness relative to NBA competition. His acceleration, in particular, is already causing problems 22 games into his career. Simmons “plays slow” (i.e. under control and at his own speed), but he turns on the jets to devastating effect.

His first step is hazardous to defenders of all shapes and sizes regardless of whether it’s an iso situation in the half-court or a fast-break foot race. If Simmons gets his broad, Aussie shoulders past his defender, it’s over.

Defenses know he’s rarely taking a jumper, so most teams have gone under in pick-and-roll coverage when Simmons is the ball-handler. This strategy is supposed to make it difficult for the ball-handler to get to the basket, but Simmons is already a member of the “Beat You to the Spot Club”.

***Glad you asked. The Beat You to the Spot Club is an exclusive group of non-shooters who are relatively immune to defenses going under screens. When you go under against them, it just gives them more space to build up a head of steam and they still get into the paint. Some of the more famous active members: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Giannis Antetokounmpo. And now Ben Simmons.***

The most pleasant surprise of Simmons’ rookie year has been his defensive intensity. He had no interest in playing NCAA hoops, so his defense at LSU was lazy and uninspired. In the pros, however, he’s been very engaged defensively and his closing speed (combined with his IQ) has surprised opponents.

Simmons’ passing and IQ have been as good as advertised, but he’s an even better athlete than I initially thought. He can comfortably defend 2 through 4 while being a major mismatch for everyone on the other end. That kind versatility give the Sixers a ton of flexibility in building their team. GM Bryan Colangelo is armed with cap space (as I wrote about here), and Simmons’ physical tools mean the possibilities are endless.


A Dion Waiters Twist on the Iverson Cut

The NBA is copycat league. If you need proof of this, listen to Steve Kerr talk to Bill Simmons about how all coaches steal plays from each other.

Back in the early 2000s, the Philadelphia 76ers used to run Allen Iverson along the free-throw line off a screen (or two) to get him the ball in space on the wing. This action eventually became known as the ‘Iverson Cut’.

The Iverson Cut is now a staple in many an NBA playbook but I noticed an interesting twist deployed by the Miami Heat for Dion Waiters.

Waiters Twist comparison

Instead of running off both screens and catching the ball on the wing, the Heat have Waiters weave between the screens (often catching the ball in the corner/mid-post). Here’s what the Waiters variation looks like in practice:

I’m actually not a huge fan of this tweak. Weaving between the two screeners is a good way to surprise defenders and get more separation, but a mid-ranger from the corner is the best look you’re going to frequently get out of this set.

It’s incredibly difficult to get all the way to the corner, turn 180 degrees and shoot with balance, so corner 3s are unlikely. If the defender weaves through the screens in pursuit, it nullifies any driving advantages that may be available on the catch. The original Iverson cut could result in the defense taking a bad angle and leaving enough space for the player to drive baseline (see the 3rd play on the Iverson reel).

My gripe with this set mostly centers on the limited options that come from it, but it’s certainly good at generating those mid-rangers for Waiters (and that’s a shot he likes to take). It’s always cool to see how coaches modify actions/plays for their own personnel. Even if the result isn’t always appealing, the fact that they’re tinkering and innovating is a positive sign.


How to Train Your Pick-and-Roll Partner

One of my favorite things about basketball is seeing how the interactions/synergies between players amplify or diminish the effectiveness of the talent on the court. As a result, I always enjoy watching how new teammates play together.

Even when the players involved seem like perfect fits, it can take a while to learn the other’s preferences and tendencies. This was the case for two talented pick-and-roll pairings that were created this summer:

  • Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert
  • Chris Paul and Clint Capela

Paul and Rubio are two of the league’s finest conductors of the pick-and-roll symphony, while Gobert and Capela rank as two of the most athletic roll-men and lob threats in the game. On paper, these duos seemed like something you’d see in an eHarmony commercial, but the partnerships didn’t come without growing pains.

In both cases, there were miscues that resulted from the point guards keeping the ball low. Even though Gobert’s hands have improved a ton, he still struggles to catch passes that are too low or too fast. Hands aren’t an issue for Capela, but he generally can’t finish through defenders. As a result, passes to him must allow him to go up quickly (which makes lobs ideal). In both of the clips above, Paul’s passes put Capela in suboptimal positions (for him). The defense had time to recover and contest his shot.

Since both guards love bounce passes out of pick & roll, they were able to find some early chemistry with lesser roll men: Nene and Derrick Favors. Even though Nene and Favors aren’t explosive finishers, they both have good hands and know how to make themselves available for passes in traffic.

Notice in the clips above that it’s not just about the type of pass (bounce vs. lob). Pay attention to where Favors and Nene catch the passes; both players are far more dangerous catching passes in these spots (~ 8 – 12 feet from the rim) than Gobert and Capela.

Of course, these players are too good for the chemistry issues to persist. Both duos already look more in sync despite injuries.

Paul has plenty of experience throwing lobs to DeAndre Jordan and the spacing is pristine in Houston. Playing with Capela shouldn’t require any drastic adjustments and that partnership will probably develop into an excellent one.

Things might be a little trickier for Rubio and Gobert. Even with Rubio becoming more judicious with his passes, the spacing in Utah could hold them back. Coach Quin Snyder has played a lot of minutes with three non-shooters on the floor so far, and Gobert doesn’t do well in traffic. If Snyder decides to get more shooting on the floor around Gobert and Rubio, the duo has the potential to be terrific.


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