February 15, 2019

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs, Warriors, Hornets


By Adam Spinella

In looking at some of the most important actions and details NBA teams run, we often forget about the depth, breadth and importance of a defensive playbook. Teams have names for their schemes, the levels of their pressure and all the tricks they can throw at an opponent. One of those tricks is called “X-Out,” where defenders cross assignments off the ball as a way of aiding the man who gives help at the rim.

Why is it called an X-Out, you might ask. When the coverage is drawn on a whiteboard to show players their designed paths, it looks like an X. The two defenders on the weak side cross each other’s path, switching men while working in unison.

Conquering and mastering this skill is difficult. It takes communication, timing and a ton of practice repetitions to get it right. Add moving pieces (i.e. players), multiple other bodies on the court and the added dimension of trying to decipher which personnel will do the most damage and you can see how complex the mental game of the NBA really is. None of this is simple, despite attempts to boil it down to a few digestible tasks in an article such as this.

A great video from Basketball Immersion illustrates and explains the concept:

X-ing out can accompany a variety of defensive strategies and situations. Almost every team at a high level practices this. Whether it is a routine baseline drive that causes a scramble or built into help on a pick-and-roll, these styles of play happen at almost any time.

Think of basketball as being four-on-four for a moment. Two offensive players in a pick-and-roll, and two on the opposite side of the court. The more aggressive the screener’s defender is on the perimeter at hedging to trying to force the ball away from a scoring area, the more open the screener could be in the lane. In turn, that causes the weak side defenders to be on their toes, ready to help in the lane and in front of the rim before the roller gets a wide open layup.

We call that “bumping the roller.” But as the screener’s defender (usually a big man) slowly prods back to the paint to recover to his assignment, there’s a moment where one offensive player is wide open, and that’s where the X-out begins. Instead of recovering to the man he left to bump the roller, the helper gets support from his other teammate on the weak side. They will switch the assignment, hoping  the flight of the ball across the court gives all parties involved enough time to scramble to a man, settle the ball and disallow a score on the pick-and-roll.

Here’s what a good X-out looks like:

All this action follows a simple story arc: a pick-and-roll near the sideline occurs, someone bumps the roller and the ball handler rifles a pass off to the open man in the corner. But what happens when the offense stays one step ahead of the defense and anticipates that coverage, instead sending the ball to the wing?

The coverage is no longer an x-out as the players will stay on their original assignment. The lowest guy, who provides help at the rim, then scrambles out to his man in the corner while his teammate splitting the back two takes the ball.

Communication can break these actions down, where a miscommunication on a recovery leads to two defenders running at the same player.

Even the best defensive units can have a breakdown now and then. This stuff isn’t simple and it relies on offensive players being in predicted spots and behaving a certain way.

Some teams are incredibly effective at using this strategy and finding precision and crispness in their rotations. Three of them stand out among the rest at drilling, repping and executing against various types of offenses.

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Charlotte Hornets

The standard bearer for this type of coverage has consistently been Steve Clifford’s Hornets. There’s a reason they’re used in almost every example of illustrating this coverage shown above. Clifford is the best teacher of defense in the league, and all his players 1 through 5 are aware of and able to thrive within whatever scheme he dials up from his post on the sideline.

Even Cody Zeller is able to bump, rotate and close out within their framework:

Clifford’s teams are super aggressive in driving lanes, believing his Hornets best chances against elite point guards isn’t to hide Kemba from every matchup, but to blanket him with help every chance they get. One obvious way to relieve some of that pressure is to encourage opponents to hunt for mismatches elsewhere. When Zeller gets switched onto a wing, the same principle will apply, where he’ll get a ton of help on a baseline drive and the Hornets will scramble out of there.

Stop the ball now, figure the rest out later.

One of the things the Hornets are incredibly adept at is communicating the situations where the X-out is unnecessary and sticking to their original man. It’s more distance to travel, more timing to master and, in some situations, creates a less-than-desirable mismatch. So sometimes the individual defenders will go against the designed coverage, call off their opponents and recover to their guy in the corner. Watch as Jeremy Lamb waves off Brian Roberts as he starts his ascent for the X-out:

Lamb gets there with plenty of time, so he made the right decision. The awareness he has to know he can recover after bumping the roller, while Roberts’ ability to read the play and not over-commit to the corner, is what makes this such a special, well-coached defensive unit. Obviously, there will be some miscommunications that occur between the two weak side defenders from time to time — you can see Roberts start to run to Richardson before pumping the brakes. They look egregious when looking for them, but no more so a lack of communication and mental engagement than on-ball pick and roll mistakes are.

Clifford’s staple is to drastically flood the strong side, not just with the lowest defender but with both weak side defenders. At any point during a side ball screen against the Hornets, four defenders could be on the same side of the mid-line, truly bracketing the ball and discouraging any type of shot at the rim. With teams that love to force three-pointers and believe that’s the right defensive methodology, this overload is common.

Two things can really hurt defensive coverages though: poor help on the ball and cutting from the offensive players on the wings. The former is an issue with any defense, not unique to X-out coverage. An inability to be in the exact spots or to stop the ball breaks down any team. The latter, much like against Ice coverage of side ball screens, is becoming a common and simple way to shoot an arrow through the heart of a defense while it collapses.

Here’s an example of both poor positioning by Kemba Walker and a timely off-ball cut by Josh Richardson:

The Hornets essentially target Belinelli. As he cheats toward the corner to anticipate the baseline drift (a pass along the baseline to the corner), Richardson heads full steam ahead to the rim. Belinelli can’t defend both, and by turning his head to Richardson he’s out of position and taken by surprise. It’s a simple and common counter, and one that has great effect against even the best teams.

It remains to be seen whether the Hornets will employ this strategy now that Dwight Howard is roaming the paint. It’s no secret around the league D-12 has lost a half-step and placing him in a more conservative, drop-back coverage on pick-and-rolls is a better use of his talents anyway. But the Hornets have length on their second unit around Cody Zeller to execute this strategy crisply. Seeing a team with two centers run completely different coverages around them is nothing new, and it could be a ploy that Clifford uses to keep teams uncomfortable.

San Antonio Spurs

It should come as no surprise one of the most methodically consistent and disciplined teams in the league gets mentioned among the top in a defensive category. The Spurs are simply that damn good and develop every player within their organization to fit into their defensive strategy. If they don’t know the coverages, they don’t play.

The robotic movements of Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court are well documented. His abilities on the defensive end of the court are second-to-none, and he impacts the game with his length, strength and incredible instincts. Most of those instincts show up in anticipation plays on the ball, but he’s just as good, if not better, away from it.

Earlier, we mentioned the common counter to teams running ice defense or overloading the strong side — a cut by an offensive player on the wing to the front of the rim. It takes a special defender to be able to cover this action and know whether to stick with his man or jump into help at the ball. Leonard is one such defender:

Not only does he read the cut and maintain inside position for a rebound, but Leonard’s quick bluff at Jokic forces exactly the kind of shot the Spurs want: a mid-range jumper.

Leonard isn’t the only Spur adept at bluffing at the ball. Speedy little Patty Mills flies around and rarely stops to set his feet, and his activity can be blurring for a ball handler trying to scan his counterparts. Watch the play below and see Mills’ subtle jab at the ball:

It completely messes with Nene on the roll, causing him to chuck the ball to nowhere. Big men catch the ball as a roller and have an incredibly difficult job. They’re asked to turn their head, scan the defense and make the right read (score or pass to the open man) all while making sure they don’t travel or slow enough to let the defense recover. It’s an unenviable task when guys like Mills screw with your head.

Mills doesn’t have an easy job either, guarding two players on the weak side, one of which makes the famed cut to the front of the rim. Defenders can take back the advantage by playing this mental game with the ball handler that we call bluffing, faking one way and going another.

Few defenders are as good as Mills is at splitting both men. Patty understands the mental chess match he’s engaged in when defenders try to read him, but he’s also quick enough to dart across the court, break off his coverage and steal a lazy pass on a pick-and-pop.

There are so many burdens on Mills as the top guy in this coverage. He may have to dart to the corner to switch men if there’s help needed at the rim, or he may have to provide a bluff at the top of the key on a pick-and-pop. It’s a lot of ground to cover.

Rotations are difficult on defense when players are moving and exchanging spots, so sometimes deciding who should help can get whacky. As Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge exchange on the weak side, LaMarcus notices the need for someone to bump the roller.

Aldridge throws himself into the lane here, and Parker alertly closes out to the first pass. But LMA needs to see this from the weak side, and he runs back towards his man instead of X-ing out and covering Ish Smith in the corner. No team is perfect with it, but the goal is to make sure they don’t give up an uncontested shot. By rotating, Parker at least guarantees that there will be a hand up if the shot comes from the wing. Although Aldridge doesn’t rotate perfectly, this scenario is better than giving up an open three from Marcus Morris.

Golden State Warriors

Golden State’s defense should be talked about as much as their offense, if not more. It’s incredible what Steve Kerr has been able to do with his group of players and it’s reflected in the stats. Kerr and the Warriors have innovated just how defense is played in today’s era. Switching is en vogue, pressure on the perimeter is valued, and teams without big men but with length everywhere are coveted.

A common counter to that, which the Warriors face frequently, is teams that want to bully Golden State down low. Switching closes off driving lanes, so instead of getting easy shots by driving against the Warriors, teams try to throw the ball inside and create from there.

Thus far, all the examples we’ve looked at include X-outs and weak side help where the offensive players are spaced to the wing and the corner. In other words, there’s no player occupying the post. So how do things look when someone is inside?

The burden on the top defender that splits two changes slightly. He’s still guarding both players at once, but is forced to commit heavier towards the post, instructed to make contact with the high-side hip of the offensive player in question. There he can drive him out of bounds or deflect any pass with a reach-around, while staying on the high side to scramble to a close out on the perimeter if need be.

Here’s what it generally looks like when defended well:

The theory is fairly simple: an offensive player on the block while a ball is driven from the opposite side closes the passing window to the corner or the low wing. Kevin Durant doesn’t ignore his man, but he’s able to turn his head and get into position. For this reason, X-outs and guarding two shooters on the weak side is much more difficult than simply chipping down in the post. And you see that here, as Moe Harkless is forced to back dribble and reset the offense.

You can see (and hear) the communication and  switching by the Warriors, where Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green end up swapping assignments during the team’s help cluster. Green steps up onto Harkless near the front of the rim, and with a few quick words, Pachulia knows to remain under the rim and mark Meyers Leonard.

The Warriors fly all over the court in their normal coverages, switching and blazing around looking to create chaos on the court. But the first principle of defense is to protect the rim, and by chipping down like this, they can effectively do so without compromising their biggest asset: speed.

Perhaps their ability to switch is what allows the Warriors to most easily thwart teams looking to slice the back side with a cut to the rim. Kerr has instructed his players to meet them with contact, and whoever does stays on that man. The rest of the team will fly around and use that speed until someone picks up the open man.

Astounding defensive activity by all involved in this play (except McCaw, for whom the rest of the team covers up). A simple X-out has evolved into a complicated switching pattern away from the ball. Golden State is so good at covering this up and forcing the rock away from where the offense wants it, most who watch this play don’t even see the brilliance of what the Warriors do.

Untrained eyes don’t see the importance of weak side rotations whenever the ball gets driven towards the baseline, and just how much every single player bears on stopping the offense from scoring. Whether it’s the two on the ball screen who must stop the ball, the lowest help defender who provides help to them, or the top guy in a “help-the-helper” role, everyone’s job is vital.


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Adam Spinella

Adam is a college basketball coach at the Division III level. He is a contributor for other NBA and coaching sites such as NBA Math, FastModel Sports and Basketball Intelligence.

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