Although it’s easy to think of NBA coaches as visionary savants capable of dreaming up uniquely diagrammed plays during each huddle, this sort of deification is an inaccurate representation of their work during timeouts and on the whiteboard. It’s an impractical process that is unlikely to be an effective route to success. In most cases teams are well prepared for their after timeout plays, either with basic counters for core actions or quick-hitting sets for specific situations. Others, such as Kevin Broom, have dived in depth into the largely mythical status of timeout play calling and the associated misconceptions of NBA coaching.
Broadly though, the lack of relative offensive success in ATOs is probably attributable to a few primary factors:
- Offenses are forced to play against a set defense in the half-court.
- Given that coaches aren’t miraculously dreaming up new plays, defenses are likely reasonably well prepared for what is coming.
- Depending on the situation, defenses can substitute to optimise their lineups.
- Perhaps less obviously, ATOs are more strictly patterned and may involve a more robotic response than a reading of what the defense presents.
In no way does looking at a few select ATOs wholly determine the quality of a coach or a team. Handpicking a specific play suffers from the distinct disadvantage of significant selection bias if not viewed with some context. With that being said, that doesn’t stop us from sitting back and enjoying some of the good, bad, and ugly, in ATOs from around the league thus far.
Arranged by division (and in a similarly arbitrary fashion), here’s some quick-hitting points, a few asides, and brief tangential remarks. Oftentimes, these singular plays can be emblematic of broader trends.
This is a pet-play for Boston when in search of a quick three. Many similar sideline-out-of-bounds (SLOB) plays involve action that have the preferred shooter moving towards the inbound passer. Generally, this can be complicated by the inbounder’s defender:
Note here, that Stevens is able to access the weak-side of the floor, where there is more open space, by setting a back screen for Kelly Olynyk and throwing the ball to him on the weakside post. Avery Bradley can then work off his screen, unencumbered by the in-bounder’s defender on the other sideline.
Stevens has also been open to not calling timeout – a strategy that is appealing for a few reasons. It restricts the opponent from making substitutions to optimise their lineup and lets your offense operate in the flow of the full-court with a running start. There was criticism for his decision not to call timeout at the end of regulation and the first overtime of the Celtics’ instant classic against the Warriors, but it’s a gutsy, ego-free call that more coaches should be prepared to make.
The Warriors game stood out for another reason in an ATO sense too. Stevens utilized a zone defense to counter whatever Golden State had in its trick-bag. Just as the offense can diagram and prepare, so too can the defense:
Lionel Hollins is regularly criticized for his archaic pick-and-roll defense strategy and vanilla offensive schemes, but this quick-hitting ATO SLOB for a Joe Johnson corner-three is snappy and beautiful in its simplicity. Terrific footwork from Iso-Joe too:
Watch that play with Stevens’ zone in mind and you’ll quickly see how effective it could be in similar situations.
New York Knicks
This demonstrates a few of the issues when designing and executing an ATO SLOB play. Clearly the situation is dire and New York’s chances of victory are very slim. Regardless, the quality of screening is poor and the defense is placed in few, if any, compromising positions where their decision-making and communication would be tested. Also, note the difficulties presented by Greivis Vasquez, guarding the in-bounder, as he disrupts any potential pass to Melo.
The Knicks insistence on running almost the entire core of their offense from a Triangle foundation remains frustrating. For the most part it is a read-and-react offense where the movement of the ball dictates the subsequent movement of the players. That idea alone is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, the San Antonio Spurs, among others, flow into Triangle formations fairly regularly. Nevertheless, unlike the Knicks, it is not the foundational point of their system.
Against the Knicks, smart teams restrict the initial entry pass to the strong-side low post, which traditionally triggers some of the Triangle’s more threatening actions. Take away the pinch post and blind-pig action, force the ball to the corner, and ICE the subsequent pick-and-roll and the offense is non-threatening.
Perhaps most frustrating of all however, is how rarely the weakside corner is filled with a shooter, meaning that opposition defenders are free to make simplified, shorter rotations. Once again the Knicks are near the top of the league in mid-range field goal attempts.
Philly has struggled with turnovers and a lack of perimeter shooting that has submarined their hopes of a functional Moreyball style offense. Jahlil Okafor is among the league leaders in post-up shots, per Synergy. Following a timeout, Brett Brown often turns to sets that have Okafor receive a post-up opportunity after some prior motion:
Although not something to be overly concerned about, given his age and the quality of his teammates, Okafor hasn’t been terribly efficient on post-ups this season. Few players are efficient post-up options, let alone 20-year-old rookies on historically bad teams. The above play helps to demonstrate some of the reasons why.
Although a poor entry pass impedes the quality of his catch, oftentimes the strength of Okafor’s desire to gain deep position on the low block is questionable. He compounds the problem by showing a preference to facing-up and driving baseline, restricting his passing options to shooters dotted around the perimeter.
That being said, the lack of a threat presented by other 76ers doesn’t help create the sort of space required for the maintenance of healthy post-up hub. In the play above, Kyle Lowry makes his life particularly difficult en-route to the post by disregarding Nik Stauskas and obstructing Okafor’s path. Damn near five defenders are in the paint when Okafor releases his jump-hook, and there are no particularly obvious snipers spotted up around the perimeter.
Check out this ATO from Dwane Casey – notice anything strange?
That’s right! Casey had only four players stationed in the frontcourt for a go-ahead possession.
Most coaches will resort to this strategy to clear space in the backcourt when leading, simply to help get the ball in-bounds. Here Casey has shifted a spare player into the backcourt to give Demar Derozen more room to operate off his curl action. Importantly, this extends the range of help for the sole weak-side defender, eventually revealing a wide-open corner three for Corey Joseph. The lack of a fifth defender makes any subsequent help-rotate-recover response near impossible. Essentially a hammer play without the flare screen. Very innovative stuff.
Here’s a late-game SLOB ATO that gets LeBron the easiest of dunks:
The porous Milwaukee defense is a shadow of the whirring coordination of arms and legs from last season. It’s unclear whether Giannis and Khris Middleton were on the same page defensively, as their choice to switch is not fluid or in-sync. This puts Middleton well behind the eight ball, as he briefly continues to chase Richard Jefferson, conceding the middle of the floor to LeBron.
The power of a well-spaced floor and a quality shooting big is also obvious. Greg Monroe is hesitant to stray too far from Kevin Love and, well, it’s all downhill from there.
Switching has been popularized (mostly by the success of the Warriors) and subsequently presented as the panacea to a wide variety defensive issues. Unfortunately it isn’t quite that simple. It takes time and practice to coordinate switches so as they are seamless and smooth. Clearly not all teams do this to the same degree.
While its reasonably plain sailing in Cleveland, the same cannot be said for Chicago. Fred Hoiberg has found his inaugural season as an NBA coach a little tricky, and his purported desire to implement a more wide-open offense has been about as smooth as a wheelchair falling down stairs.
That being said, the occasional play from the Bulls will pop, like this nice ATO against the Spurs. A nice change-up from the vanilla 1-3 pick-and-roll, attack-the-switch series that teams with quality wing and point guard talent often revert to:
Generally in the Spurs defensive system it’s Kawhi Leonard’s responsibility to hedge out against this type of action and quickly recover to his direct assignment. This keeps him on the opponent’s most dangerous perimeter player whilst giving Tony Parker a beat to recover to his man. The Spurs hope that their rim-protectors can absorb the screener for the brief second Kawhi is detached.
Hoiberg knows all of this and leverages it against the Spurs (in a similar fashion to the way the Spurs dismantled the Heat’s trapping defense in the 2014 finals). Derrick Rose comes off the Jimmy Butler screen for only one dribble before throwing the ball ahead of the trap to Pau Gasol. Butler slips the screen to get a jump on Leonard, rolling into the open space left by the preoccupation of the Spurs weak-side defenders with a Doug McDermott decoy pin-down. Tim Duncan sniffs the play out but it’s just too late.
The Pistons offense depends heavily on Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls.
Screen-the-screener trickery represents a useful changeup, and a reasonable way of springing free a player with an otherwise limited offensive arsenal:
Detroit Pistons ATO “SLOB Stagger Fade” pic.twitter.com/9kmZ1uNxDW
— Greg Youncofski (@CoachGregUC) November 10, 2015
Although coaches can go to plays they seldom use, they can also call for a core action to be run in a more purposeful manner or with a slight counter. After a sluggish start against the Raptors, Frank Vogel goes to a core stagger action here and earns a dunk for Ian Mahinmi:
There’s some terrific timing and spacing, with the use of C.J. Miles as the nominal power-forward paying dividends, as Luis Scola is dragged one-step further from the paint, opening a bigger passing lane for Paul George to punch the ball to Mahinmi.
Bucks interim head coach, Joe Prunty, was on the whiteboard for this SLOB ATO, but it’s probably something Milwaukee had rehearsed previously. Regardless, a lovely bit of re-screen misdirection opens up the negative space for O.J. Mayo to come into and release a clutch triple after a mean screen from Greg Monroe:
Note also the similarity with Stevens’ use of the mid-post as a passing point from which to throw out to the three-point line.
South East Division
Under Mike Budenholzer the Atlanta Hawks have become synonymous with offensive attention to detail and execution. It helps that they’ve got some very gifted offensive players whose skill sets mesh well. Kyle Korver has long been a diligent screener and that helps earn him a great look on this fairly basic SLOB ‘flex’ ATO:
Paul Millsap is a dexterous power-forward and Budenholzer uses that skill level in combination with Korver’s gravity and Al Horford’s extended range on this hammer-type composition:
Yet another SLOB with a flex type action leading to an easy bucket. The lack of help given by Mo Williams on this back-pick, despite his obviously audible communication, is laughable. Great screen from Jeremy Lin too, who has been a pleasant bargain pick-up for the surprisingly efficient Charlotte Hornets.
Miami plays at a glacial pace and are one of the league’s offensive bores. With that in mind, let’s go all the way back to the Orlando Summer League and check out Tyler Johnson’s game-winning alley-oop SLOB. An artful manipulation of space from the Heat staff:
The Scott Skiles bump is in full effect in Orlando, as the Magic continue to outperform most preseason expectations. Evan Fournier has played a big part in the Magic’s success and Skiles is able to free him here against a short-clock:
The brief hesitation from Favors and Hayward helps, but this is evidence of a well-prepared team. It would’ve been nice for Fournier to make it outside the arc for a corner-three, but earning any points in situations like these matters a lot over the course of a game.
Maybe Utah could’ve employed a zone given the state of the shot clock, or more fluidly communicated that they were switching against all screens? Teams could reasonably stand to be more brazen in their use of switching and zoning in short-clock situations like this.
Given the available data, like almost any coach, Randy Wittman’s reputation as an ATO wizard is probably overblown, however he retains a penchant for designing aesthetically pleasing plays:
Another variation of the hammer from Washington’s season opener gets Otto Porter a wide-open three-point look. Unfortunately, he’s slow with his feet and takes an age to get his shot off, resulting in an air-ball. You might point to the utilization of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter as incorrect too. Swapping their roles in this set would make sense, Beal is a demonstrably better shooter than Porter, and placing Porter in the strong-side corner is unlikely to irreparably damage the substance of the set. Perhaps that’s nit-picking but that sort of specificity could seemingly make a considerable difference.
That’s an ATO from the same game above, featuring a step-up pick-and-roll and a distracting backside flare screen, preceded by some screen-the-screener trickery. That’s all good, but would it hurt to see more of this sort of action at the end of quarters, rather than the clear-outs and iso-ball that still permeate some corners of the league? Isolation sets have the advantage of being low-turnover plays that all but guarantee the last shot as the clock dwindles, but the upside of a more fluid play is probably greater.
After a horrific knee injury and subsequent recovery period, it’s just good to see Danilo Gallinari back on the floor regularly for Denver. The pieces don’t quite fit together cleanly for the Nuggets and spacing is at a premium, so any time Gallo can exchange one of his hard earned pull-ups for an open look is appreciated:
A ball screen. A hand-off. A flare screen. Gallo at the 4. Plenty going on in this one.
This is a reprehensible late game ATO from the Wolves. Not only is the play unimaginative, but the personnel choice is questionable too:
There doesn’t really seem to be any good reason for Tayshaun Prince to be on the floor for a possession like this. Minnesota is building a nice young core that would blend well if they were exposed to some more contemporary offensive strategies.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Plenty has been said of Billy Donavan’s transition to the NBA game and the effect he has had on OKC’s style of play. Analysis beyond the scope of this piece is required to appropriately enter that space for debate. Nevertheless, this remains a simple but effective play:
— Blhite (@blhite) October 31, 2015
Another set that Stevens’ zone might’ve choked?
Portland Trail Blazers
The ‘flow’ offense employed by Terry Stotts involves a mixture of pistol, pin-down, flare screen and ball screen actions. They’ve also used Mason Plumlee’s passing ability from the high post to facilitate some offense via split screens and back-cuts. Teams are keen to deny Damian Lillard the ball in the half-court and the Blazers use that against the Cavaliers here, as Lillard back-cuts after an ‘Iverson’ type cut across the foul line:
Portland ATO Backdoor set needing a bucket vs the Cavs tonight: pic.twitter.com/BBD4tCsft1
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) December 9, 2015
See the same action here against the Knicks. The play is aided by Lillard’s shooting ability. Attempt to cheat that screen by ducking under and Lillard flares into a straightforward three. Like many sets that earn easy buckets, the weakside defenders are subtly manipulated to open the lane too.
Another guard-to-guard ball-screen that results in a confused response from the Raptors. Check out Derrick Favors screening his own man to prevent the close-out on Trey Burke. It’s pretty clear that Kyle Lowry finds himself in very unfamiliar territory, an issue that is exacerbated by Burke’s quick slip. Moving Rodney Hood from the inbound position to the opposite corner also removes the threat of further help defenders.
Golden State Warriors
A favorite ATO of the Warriors used throughout Steve Kerr’s tenure, leverages Steph Curry’s terror-inspiring shooting ability by making him a back-screener for Draymond Green off the high post. Curry presents the lethal combination of a conscientious screener and all-time great shooter:
This ATO works so effectively that the subsequent action of Festus Ezeli screening for Curry is almost never required.
A couple of asides:
That’s a sneaky SLOB ‘elevator-doors’ set that the Warriors disguise as a series of stagger screens. Also worth pointing out the disciplined collective first step of the Warriors in defensive transition. Probably helps that at this point, every time Curry shoots they think it’s going in.
And the Warriors go-to end of quarter (EOQ) that more teams should be open to emulating. It’s controlled enough to ensure at least a late shot (perhaps even a little bit early for their liking in this specific instance), but complicated enough to have defenders make decisions:
The fake ball-screen from Festus Ezeli earns a free pin-down for Klay Thompson Alternatively, against teams who opt to trap Curry, Ezeli may choose to set the ball-screen and flow into a pin-down subsequently as Curry strings out the hedging big. Defenses would do well to think about switching every action here. Again, note the Warriors pressing full-court against the subsequent in-bound to prevent the Raptors from rolling the ball in bounds and stalling the clock.
Los Angeles Clippers
In similar fashion to the Warriors fake on-ball shown above, Doc Rivers likes to run similar sets using DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick in ATO scenarios.
Another Rivers favorite is to have Redick set up directly behind a Jordan-Chris Paul pick-and-roll, generally in an effort to screen Jordan’s man as he rolls to the rim. Redick fails to do so here, but there’s enough confusion on the part of the Grizzlies to reveal a wide-open three regardless:
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s all too easy to pile in on the Lakers and be critical of the mess that has unfolded in L.A. this season – the result of this play sums a lot of it up:
A results orientated analysis is misleading though. Had Kobe made the shot it would remain a poorly conceived set. The quality of screening is meagre, and the play design sees Kobe catch the ball with his back to the three-point line against one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders. Compare that to the look OKC finds for Durant shown above and the contrast is stark.
For better or worse, another team running heaps of pure Triangle.
Lots of upheaval and uncertainty surrounds the Suns who produced this beautiful baseline ATO earlier in the season:
Significant defensive discombobulation on behalf of the Nuggets too – little surprise that J.J. Hickson appears to be at the centre of it. Thankfully, the Nuggets have some young Euro-bigs with promise.
Oftentimes the very best, most creative ATOs are saved for crunch time and the fourth quarter. Regardless of the merit of such secrecy, coaches regularly go to a play simply to get their best player the ball in a spot where they think he can be successful. Although there has been a perceived shift away from this approach, so much of NBA offense really is that simple – particularly in ATOs.
Worth noting also, another lob pass from Rajon Rondo over the fronted post.
Dirk Nowitzki just moved into sixth place all-time in NBA scoring. Here’s a fairly simple Dallas ATO that generates a post-up for Dirk to go to his patented one leg fall-away jumper:
Not that dissimilar to the Kings set for Boogie.
Cited as an early season contender by many NBA pundits, the Houston Rockets have spluttered and stuttered through the first portion of the season. Stagnant offense and a porous defense have been hallmarks of a team that had great promise following the addition of Ty Lawson. For whatever reason, the pairing of Lawson and James Harden has largely failed and the creation burden remains squarely on Harden’s shoulders.
Here’s an ATO Houston has scripted that sees Harden off the ball and involves some symbiotic motion that the Rockets have often been bereft of:
This type of action is probably something Houston envisioned more of when thinking through the Lawson acquisition. There’s enough time in the season for more of it to develop.
With either Harden or Lawson running a spread pick-and-roll Houston’s collection of long and active wings and stretchy-fours, few of whom are knock-down shooters, should still be able to occupy their defenders by remaining active away from the ball.
The Grizzlies are a team in-flux, trying to shift their identity on the fly with an ageing roster that has long done things in a charmingly stubborn fashion. There have been rumours of Dave Joerger wanting to implement a more open, contemporary offensive style, and Jeff Green has been a beneficiary of this movement, seeing an elevation to the starting lineup and an increased minutes load.
Watch here as Green slams home the emphatic ATO SLOB alley-oop game winner against Phoenix:
This is an excellent design that opens up the backside for the lob at exactly the right moment. Joerger has form in crafting similar actions in the past too.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pels already oddly constructed roster has been made even more confusing with a number of injuries suffered in the early going. Newly installed coach Alvin Gentry has found it difficult to mix and match the combinations to find the right lineups. One player that tends to unlock plenty offensively for New Orleans is Ryan Anderson.
A screen-the-screener set from a horns formation frees Anderson here:
The Pistons use Ilyasova in similar, albeit not identical, ways, as was outlined above. As do the Nuggets with Gallo. Using stretch-fours in these screen-the-screener actions that go beyond spotting-up around a middle pick-and-roll is an increasingly popular and effective way of earning an open look for a quality shooter who is not able to jet around screens or create their own looks.
Didn’t think I’d ever see the day where Ish Smith, Jrue Holiday, Luke Babbitt, Ryan Anderson and Dante Cunningham all share the floor at once. In fairness, injuries have taken their toll but there are still some head scratchers rolled out for the Pels even as their full compliment of players begins to return.
San Antonio Spurs
Fitting that we finish with the NBA’s model franchise in so many ways. The team responsible for the popularization of the now commonplace ‘hammer’ action, the Spurs have introduced this beauty at various points this season:
There’s so much misdirection that it takes a moment to recognise and appreciate what just happened. That being said, the first alarm bell should really be that Danny Green is the initiating ball-handler and Manu Ginobili is headed to the left-hand side of the court where he can more readily access the baseline passing lane.
And for good measure, another Spurs hammer ATO, this time out of their loop series. Rather than throwing the ball to Patty Mills coming off a series of baseline screens, the Spurs go away from him, entering the ball in the post and drawing attention away from the weakside flare screen that is about to occur:
The NBA is a copycat league – few clichés are more accurate. Watch enough ATOs and you’ll start to see the same actions repeated or tailored slightly to the specifications of a given team.
There’s hammer plays and flex actions and screen-the-screener, but their success is held together by broader, more general ideas. Screening remains of utmost importance, as does an awareness of the defensive scheme that is being implemented by the opponent. Being able to pick and choose an appropriate counter can help leverage the first-move advantage of the offense. Player selection and lineup choice is also critical, as is the plainly obvious need to clear space and occupy weakside defenders. An ability to effectively disguise the desired outcome is also a deciding, separating factor. The best plays are chameleons that change and morph as they unfold.
Which brings us to one of the most glaring conclusions. While many teams are running, broadly, much of the same on offense, perhaps the most obvious place for innovation in ATO situations is on the defensive end. And so the to and fro continues between offense and defense.
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