By Eli Horowitz
Every NBA team is looking for more shooters to space the floor. That’s nothing new and will be even more emphasized as teams try to emulate the Golden State Warriors, who just went 16-1 in the playoffs and completed the best three-year regular season run in NBA history.
They did it with three of the best shooters ever in Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. At times, they played Draymond Green and Durant at center to get five players on the perimeter at a time and open the floor.
But it’s not the shooting alone that makes the Warriors historically good. The San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers shot a higher percentage from deep in the regular season and the Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, and Cavaliers made the same or more 3-pointers per game.
While these teams don’t have the overall firepower of Golden State, teams like the Cavaliers have some pretty good shooters themselves in Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. What differentiates the Warriors, and the Spurs until they lost Kawhi Leonard to injury, is these teams run motion offense with read and react principles which result in constant player and ball movement. Rarely are guys standing still.
These terms sound like coaching cliches but they’re not. Having shooters plant in the corner is one way to “space” the floor, but having constant cutters and off-ball action is an even more effective way with a higher ceiling. The Warriors do the latter with elite shooting, and other teams, even those without a ton of shooters, should do the same.
When you have multiple 3-point threats you can simply run a high pick and roll with your primary ball-handler and have everyone else stay stationary. Think of a James Harden pick and roll with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams waiting in the corners and on the wing. That play is difficult to guard as Harden and a screening Clint Capela require more than two defenders to contain their pressure on the rim. This means Anderson, Gordon, Williams, Ariza and Beverley don’t have to move as they will become open when their defender is dragged into the Harden pick and roll. If you need a reminder on how the Rockets space without movement:
In an 82-game regular season, this works. Teams are not prepared and Harden is possibly the best ever passing out of the pick and roll. But against the Spurs, in a series where Gregg Popovich had multiple games to adjust his approach, the Spurs eventually bottled up this attack and the Rockets were left flat-footed.
The Spurs figured out the right balance of protecting the rim, running shooters off the line and forcing Harden into contested 3-pointers. The Spurs didn’t always make the right gamble, but when three guys are standing still, the defense has more time to set themselves and employ different schemes such as doubling, hedging, showing, going over and zoning up.
This isn’t to say the Rockets can’t win a championship with this type of offense. If they improve their defense and add layers to their attack, they’re certainly in the mix. But when all five offensive players are cutting and screening, it’s a lot more difficult to gameplan defensively:
Without trying to dissect every play, just watch the four off-ball Warriors moving. This forces each defender to stick with their man, or risk leaving a cutter open for a layup. We saw this multiple times in this year’s Finals where a Cavs double team led to a wide open Warriors layup. The Warriors defenders are constantly chasing their man and often times lose track of the ball. This is ultimately much harder to defend than stationary spacing, and there’s no reason teams with less talent can’t implement similar systems.
Obviously, the Warriors have both movement and elite talent, which is why they’re the prohibitive favorites for the next few years. But what if you’re the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team with a star next to a mixed bag of talent? The Thunder have Russell Westbrook and guys like Andre Roberson and Taj Gibson, who get labeled as liabilities because of their lack of shooting. They’re not going to challenge the Warriors from a talent perspective, but they could be a lot better with schematic changes.
Although Roberson is not a good outside shooter, having him stand and watch as Westbrook barrels into the rim isn’t going to work in the playoffs. But what if instead he did more of this:
Here, Vince Carter forgets about Roberson as he’s not a threat from the corner, and Westbrook hits Roberson on the backdoor cut. This, along with weakside screening, could be a steady diet of the Thunder offense rather than a cut made once or twice a game. Sure, Carter would eventually pick up on the action, but then Westbrook has a layup. Or, Roberson could keep going and backscreen Oladipo in the opposite corner.
The idea that you can only get open or space the floor with shooters in the corner is reductive. Yes, every team would love to have the Warriors’ talent and find two to three 3-and-D players. But in the interim, running offenses that demand constant movement will both differentiate them from the pack and create a culture ready to thrive once additional shooting and talent is acquired.
Stationary spacing has limitations. We saw the Spurs ultimately figure out the Rockets, and we saw the Warriors ready for cross-court skip passes from LeBron throughout the finals. As teams head into the draft and free agency, evaluating players individuals skills and how they add to spacing will be the focus. But coaching five guys to move without the basketball can make up for a lot of deficiencies. And when you have talent like the Warriors, player and ball movement can make you unbeatable.