January 16, 2019

No one really knows where the NBA is moving. Small-ball? Skill-ball? Length-ball? Some combination of all of those things? Probably. At its core though, asking for a single answer to the question of the stylistic future of the league is vastly inadequate.

Regardless, the 2016 Western Conference finals is illustrating that having a bendy, malleable defensive roster capable of coherent switching will form a large part of the direction the league moves, on both ends of the floor. Switching is increasingly popular league-wide, but this feels like a crystallization point.

The league moves and shifts as a series of responses to trends on both ends of the floor that take hold and drive continual, organic development.

Mike D’Antoni popularised the now commonplace offensive ideals of spread pick-and-roll and pace-and space. Thibodeauian ‘ICE’ schemes and efforts to restrict side-to-side ball movement presented a counter.

Off-the-dribble wiz-kids like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard are part of the league’s new movement. Drop your big guy back in conservative pick-and-roll coverage against them and you’re likely to have a barrage of threes rained on your head. Kevin Durant presents a similar conundrum for that matter. Combine that with a well-spaced floor and it makes for a real defensive head-scratcher.

For a large chunk of this season, finding the ‘best solution’ to guarding the Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll (pick-and-short-roll) formed the crux of a lot of NBA discourse and debate. Trapping Curry left your defense immediately compromised and allowed Green to play downhill, 4-on-3 with shooters dotted around.

Switching didn’t ostensibly offer a great deal of comfort either. Most lumbering big guys couldn’t keep up with Curry in an isolation situation and those same big guys couldn’t chase Curry through the labyrinth of screens that follows the Warriors initial ball-screen motion. Keeping the ball moving rather than seeking a ‘mismatch’ for a plain isolation or post-up made things a lot trickier for a switching defense.

Enter Oklahoma City and their absurd length and surprising (given their regular season defensive malaise) relentlessness, attention to detail and discipline.

Much has been written and spoken about the reasons for their success – the Thunder have executed a coherence of switching, on and off the ball, that would make the Warriors, themselves masters of seamless exchanges, blush. That ground has been well traversed.

The more fertile soil probably remains in attempting to derive solutions to the league’s newest in vogue problem. What to do about the switching on offense?

The Warriors have seen switches before. The Spurs tried it in the regular season with mixed results and others followed suit to differing degrees. Some combination of slipping screens, attacking in isolation and a commitment to move beyond the initial switch, ignore the ‘mismatch’ and test the integrity of a defense over an extended period of time in search of the best possible look, represent the core solutions.

That last option is what you could refer to as the ‘keep playing’ principle. Uncover a good look, move it for a better one, until you get the best. Perhaps too, crashing the offensive glass to punish overpowered defenders could also present some relief, although this is untenable against a rebounding and transition powerhouse like Oklahoma City.  

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Curry had some encouraging success in Game 5 attacking Kevin Durant one-on-one (regularly guarding Green) after the switch and getting to the rim. That being said, the Thunder will probably live with running Curry off the three-point line and forcing him to make impossibly difficult finishes over a near 7-foot arachnid.  All the switchees have done a marvellous job keeping their hands high and forcing Curry to traverse the three-point line, shifting him away from his patented dance and pull-up routine. As a result, the Warriors lauded ball-screen has been nixed.

That being said, it wouldn’t hurt to use Andrew Bogut, generally guarded by the less nimble Serge Ibaka or Steven Adams, as the screener more frequently. If the Thunder choose to trap Curry in those scenarios, Bogut is an adequate 4-3 playmaker. Failing that, the defense will at the very least be sparked into an obligatory rotation. Additionally, playing against traps unlocks the potential for ‘shorting’ the ball-screen too, a concept Kerr would be particularly familiar with from his days as Phoenix Suns GM.  

Should the Thunder continue to switch those Curry-centric ball-screens, Ibaka and Adams are both more vulnerable to an attack after the switch as well. They are also far less adept at negotiating off-ball screens than a full-time perimeter play like Durant, should the Warriors choose to ‘keep playing’.  

Rather than posting-up as a way of attacking what would be traditionally conceived of as ‘mismatches’, the Warriors, as they have done throughout the Steve Kerr era, have thrown the ball inside and attacked using triangle-ish split-cut actions to unveil their shooters. Against the Thunder’s switching, Golden State has slipped those actions for layups with relative frequency. Nevertheless, the passing lanes are crowded and rim well protected, resulting in some turnovers and missed bunnies.

In a related aside, Oklahoma City has been devastating in transition, particularly after missed layups and turnovers. Beyond Russell Westbrook’s absurd ‘grab-and-go’ athleticism, the Thunder’s constant switching creates unique cross-matches every time down the floor. This makes it difficult for the Warriors to track their assigned matchup in defensive transition – perhaps representing a less obvious, surplus advantage of the Thunder’s switching.  

The Warriors played with distinctly more patience in Game 5, reaching deeper into the shot clock in an effort to induce just the tiniest lapse in concentration from the Thunder in negotiating their whirl of off-ball movement. That may have aided their transition defense, but such a style is burdensome and Klay Thompson bailed the Warriors out with tough, late-clock looks.

A less obvious solution to the switching is also available for the Warriors to unlock some of their more devastating offensive arsenal too. At its most basal level, the offense retains a first-mover advantage over the defense. Defensive schemes are almost always reactionary. Offenses in an extended playoff series have to continue adjusting and anticipating the defensive scheme ahead of time so as to force the defense to react to them. Not vice-versa.  

Anticipatory action like this is nigh-on impossible to defend:

 Here, Andre Iguodala recognises in advance that his man, Dion Waiters has responsibility for Curry after he moves to set the on-ball screen. By screening Waiters, rather than Adams, he earns Curry a wide-open three.

 Given the ineffectiveness of the Warriors ball-screens and the Thunder’s diligence in running them off the three-point line, this pre-emptive action could be capable of re-arming some of Golden State’s three-point weaponry. Expect the Warriors to use more of that sort of motion in the crucial Game 6. They’ve flashed it. It’s probably time to use it more regularly.

The to-and-fro between offense and defense drives the league’s schematic trends. Watching the consequences of a shift towards more flexible defensive schemes has been fascinating. There are lessons to be learned league-wide. Let’s keep watching. Let’s keep learning.

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Andrew Cutler

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