We’re back, baby. Last week brought us some great subtleties that I will not be taking for granted, and neither should you. From Zion leveraging one skill to help another one of his own skills, to Steph Curry selling shot fakes, to the Hornets unleashing Miles Bridges, there’s a lot to break down. Shall we get started?
The Looming Threat Of A Zion Williamson Skip Pass
Zion’s early existence in the NBA has largely been predicated on getting him the ball and getting the hell out of the way. He’s been that dominant of a scorer. Zion has played 80 games over two NBA seasons. So, that translates to just about one full NBA season. Whichever way you want to look at it, Williamson is averaging 25.6 points per game on just below 61 percent from the field and nearly 63 percent on his two-point attempts. If that isn’t damn-near-impossible efficiency, I don’t know what is.
As capable a passer as Zion is, his playmaking has lagged a bit in the NBA. To be fair, he had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio at Duke. So, the data suggested his playmaking wasn’t great despite the eye test showing some incredible passing.
Nonetheless, teams are fearful of Zion’s court vision, and that fear helps Zion keep help defenders at bay. That effectively makes it easier for him to score.
You can attribute this play to the Magic just being a poor defensive team, and you wouldn’t be wrong. They are ranked 25th in defense and are getting outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions. That isn’t just bad. It’s god awful. You can also attribute this play to a rookie guard (Cole Anthony) not quite knowing what to do in help. But, once Williamson clears the Adams screen and starts to push downhill, he’s basically on an island against Mo Bamba. Good luck with that.
But, why? What’s so bad about that defense? Well, Eric Bledsoe is connecting on just 35.1 percent of his three-point looks. That isn’t anything to write home about. It certainly isn’t something you’re worried about when you have a locomotive pushing the rim. It’s also very important to understand that help defense is supposed to come from the weak side in the NBA. So, no matter what you want to call it, Cole Anthony made the decision to protect against a skip to a below-average three-point shooter instead of helping one of the game’s most dominant and efficient scorers at the rim.
So, I’ve addressed the fact that the Magic aren’t casting any spells on defense. So, what does this play really say about Zion? Well, Anthony’s rationale behind not committing to helping his teammate is that Williamson has the playmaking ability and vision to punish off-ball defenders who over-help. If it were a good three-point shooter, Anthony would’ve been correct in not committing to fully doubling Zion on the drive. That fear, that looming threat of a cross-court pass to an open shooter, is a psychological advantage for Zion. Over-help, and he kicks to his teammate in the corner. Under-help, and he isolates his own defender and bulldozes his way to the rim, just like he does here. The scary part is what Williamson could do with a credible threat in the corner. With a reputed shooter spotting, that helper is going to be stretched farther away from the basket. Zion’s island then grows.
Too big, too strong, too fast, and too polished at the rim. Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.
Bucks Horns Flow Option
Believe me, if I could think of a way to incorporate ‘Horns’ into the name of this column, I would’ve by now. We see it all the time. I like this wrinkle because it takes the focus away from screening for the ball-handler at the top and towards the recipient of the off-ball screen. The same foundation that we all know and love, but a little spice in the architecture.
Instead of screening for Donte DiVincenzo, the play unfolds as a cross-screen for Khris Middleton to catch the ball into a triple threat on the left wing. From there, it slowly flows into a middle pick-and-roll, with Giannis as the diver. From there, Philly gets away from its defensive philosophy of protecting against the corner triple. All of the attention shifts towards Giannis as he dives to the basket, and that leaves Brook Lopez open in the corner.
Of course, it was just one of approximately two hundred triples Milwaukee hit against Philly on Thursday.
Steph Curry Leveraging Up-Fake Gravity
As dominant as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been this season, and they’ve been dominant in their own ways, Steph Curry might be doing enough to win the MVP. If I had a vote, I would be ready to set that precedent of awarding a player on a team that is fighting to finish above .500 on the season. The difference in the Warriors’ play with him on the court, compared to with him off the court, is about as pronounced as it could possibly be. Golden State is plus-3.8 per 100 possessions with him on the court, and minus-10 with him off the court. That differential of plus-13.8 ranks in the 98th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. That differential is plus-13.7 for Joel Embiid and only plus-5.4 for Nikola Jokic, the two leading candidates in the MVP race this season. The argument can be made that Curry has been more valuable to his team than the two favorites for MVP, so doesn’t that make Curry the MVP? You can certainly make your own argument, but this is mine.
The Warriors are plus-15.5 points per 100 possessions with Steph Curry on the floor this season–best amongst all players to have logged at least 1,500 minutes this season. I think this is a pretty good summation of Curry’s value on the offensive end of the court:
Defense is supposed to matter, and Curry’s impact is pedestrian on that end of the floor. However, Jokic is the favorite to win MVP, and the Nuggets’ defense is worse with him on the court than is the Warriors’ with Curry on the court, according to Cleaning The Glass.
It certainly isn’t easy for Curry to dominate games on the offensive end of the floor when all of the attention is on him. So, he’s had to reply upon his motor, off-ball movement, and creativity to get himself just enough elbow space to launch. One of the easier things he’s nailed down is leveraging his shooting gravity to create pockets of space, like he does here.
Curry sprints into the DHO with Kevon Looney and immediately hits Jokic with an up-fake to get him off balance. Before the Shaquille Harrison/Jokic trap can converge, Curry uses Jokic’s temporary lack of control to slither away and attack the pocket of space in the middle of the floor. With the Nuggets frozen, Curry gets where he wants and throws up an exaggerated high-arching floater.
This move is something Curry has gone to more as he’s had to assume more duties with Kevin Durant gone. Defenses have evolved and adjusted to him, forcing the two-time MVP to dig deeper into his toolbox to find space. Selling that up-fake is a temporarily means of stunning the big when they step up to trap out of the ball screen, and Curry is leveraging it to sneak into little pockets of space to create offense for himself if the help doesn’t come or his teammates if the help does come.
Dort Takes a Page Out of The Steph Curry Book of Off-Ball Movement
Speaking of Steph Curry, you’re starting to see his impact on the younger generation throughout the league. Sometimes it’s for the worse–guys are pulling up for triples off the dribble that they have no business taking, and they’re creating nominations for Shaqtin’ A Fool. In this case, it’s for the better.
One of the little things that has helped make Curry great is his consistency in making a pass and then immediately following the pass into an open look in the strong-side corner. Sometimes it’s a Duke Cut–Curry passes to the strong side and sprints directly to that corner. Maybe there’s a screen along the way to get Curry open, maybe there’s not. It doesn’t always materialize into a shot.
There’s also this. Sometimes Curry will get downhill and pass out of the lane. His defender thinks he can relax a little bit as Curry slows up. At that moment, Curry follows his pass to fill in a vacancy in the strong corner. It’s simple, it’s not too difficult, it’s just awareness and constant movement. Allow Lu Dort to demonstrate.
Dort gets downhill but doesn’t like what the defense is showing, so he kicks to Theo Maledon on the strong side. Westbrook leaves Dort to rotate onto Maledon, and Alex Len goes to the rim to dance with Moses Brown. Raul Neto gets lost as Dort migrates to the strong corner. Neto gets back into the picture and puts forth a fine close-out, but he’s far too late. It was as simple as passing and filling in the same direction.
We wrap up this week’s column with a fun one. You’ve heard of the Hornets, you’ve damn sure heard of Horns. But, have you heard of Hornets Horns?
Well, you will have.
Here, Cody Martin elects to go with PJ Washington as the screener in Horns to get Jaylen Brown switched onto him. Washington then dives down towards the middle of the lane to get Tristan Thompson away from Miles Bridges. From there, Bridges lifts up just a smidge to receive the pass from Martin. This wrinkle then flows into a righty pick-and-roll courtesy of an inside ball screen from Washington. Bridges then tops it off with a pretty up-and-under finish on the left side of the basket.
It’s fun times in Buzz City.
Featured Image: Daniel Dunn–USA Today Sports