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):
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):Note: 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.
Ah, 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.