By Mike O’Connor
When thinking about the offensive revolution in the NBA, the dribble hand-off is rarely brought up. The explosion of the pick and roll, the increase in high and low post splits, and the mazes of off-ball screens generally dominate the discussion.
But embedded within all those actions is a staple that holds them all together. It’s a transitory action, a decoy, a backup plan and much more.
The most interesting dynamic of the dribble hand-off is it leaves so much up to the skill sets of the players involved. Its impromptu nature leaves defenders having to react in an instinctual way given how they perceive the players’ skills. Let’s dive and and see how it works.
The Gravity and Anti-Gravity Dynamics
Even with no decoys or setup actions, the bare-bones form of the dribble hand-off places extreme stress on the defense. Unlike in the high pick and roll, the screener’s defender does not have the option to consider hedging, sagging, showing. His choice of defensive tactic is completely reactive. Notice here how Joel Embiid’s shooting ability keeps his defender tugged onto him, and creates a driving lane for Nik Stauskas.
The tight confines of the dribble hand-off rob the defense of the ability to try and tread water between both players. In normal pick and rolls, where a big man has space and time to prepare, it’s a different game.
There’s an incredibly interesting dynamic with the opposite skill set of Embiid. If Embiid provides gravity, players who are lesser threats to shoot provide anti-gravity. Notice here how Blake Griffin’s defender sagging creates space for J.J. Redick to shoot around the hand-off.
This effect creates a perfect opportunity for DeAndre Jordan. For some reason, the Clippers didn’t seem to use Jordan and Redick in the dribble hand-off. But they do utilize him as an off-ball screener to enjoy the same benefit.
The Clippers' "one pop veer" is fascinating to me. It works *because* DJ can't shoot. His defender sags to the paint. pic.twitter.com/zMhE7Rpssi
— Mike O'Connor (@MOConnor_NBA) July 31, 2017
With Embiid, the Sixers weaponized a big man’s ability to shoot to allow slashing guards a path to the basket. With Jordan, the Clippers have successfully weaponized his inability to shoot to create perimeter space for shooters. Because the screener’s man is placed in such a reactive circumstance, the dribble hand-off nearly guarantees the creation of exactly the area of space needed for the guard to execute.
The Glue Action
The other factor that makes the dribble hand-off so useful is its ability to be the glue that holds a play together, or a backup option.
If a set play doesn’t result in a shot, the dribble hand-off is the perfect secondary action to punish a mildly scrambled defense. The Cavaliers used the DHO as their backup plan in “Horns Rub” to absolutely torture the Raptors in the playoffs in 2016.
Cory Joseph stood no chance at recovery when the first DHO disperses. In this play, the gravity dynamic is even more important. James’ defender must stunt to dissuade Dellavedova from shooting or driving, which creates a wide open path for the lob.
There is simply no better action than a close-quarters, fast-developing dribble hand-off to break down a defense on the fritz.
The dribble hand-off is a swiss army knife in terms of utility. In addition to creating fascinating gravity dynamics, it serves as a backup plan, focal point and decoy. Many teams love to use “Chicago” action where the ball handler receives a screen before the dribble hand-off.
The Cavs, masters of deception to create efficient isolations, use this play archetype as a means of providing weak side distraction for a LeBron isolation.
Perhaps when discussing the NBA offensive revolution, we should shed more light on the swiss army knife that is the dribble hand-off. It’s the glue that enables the offensive cohesion needed to be an efficient team in today’s NBA.