By Nicholas Sciria
In my column called “What I’m Seein,’” I’m going to use film and numbers to dissect exactly what I’m seeing around the league. Today’s article will feature my analysis on the Eastern Conference’s Central Division.
Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen, scorching off of screens
Lauri Markanennen’s shooting ability has never been in question, and neither has Robin Lopez’s screening ability. Combine those two forces, and the Chicago Bulls have one of my favorite screening duos in the league.
When Markanenen goes to set a ball screen on this play, Steven Adams moves to the perimeter to contain the ball handler until Russell Westbrook can recover. As Westbrook is getting back, Lopez simply screens Markanennen’s man (Carmelo Anthony here) and Adams isn’t in a position to help on the down screen. This action has been a life saver for a team searching for ways to create 2-on-1 advantages and higher quality shots in general.
Despite playing for an offensively inept team with limited shotmaking ability all around, Lopez is averaging 4.5 screen assists per 36 minutes (one of the best marks in the league). And Lopez’s screening doesn’t just open up Markanenen for chances to catch and shoot, it also gives him the opportunity to put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts.
But Lopez isn’t the only one setting off-ball screens for Markanennen. Here, Chicago runs a forced curl for Markanennen with Denzel Valentine as the screener. Valentine curls the screen with the sole purpose of getting in the way of Markaenan’s defender. Then, Markaenan pops out to the 3-point line for an open shot.
Nearly 15 percent of Markaenan’s offense has come as a shooter in off-ball screening situations (the highest mark for any big man), and his efficiency in these situations (1.26 points per possession) is up there with the best in the league.
We haven’t seen nearly as much of Markanennen’s shooting ability as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, but the possibilities are endless here as well. Markanennen’s ability to shoot off the dribble allows for Chicago’s offense to maintain continuity rather easily. When Justin Holiday forgoes Markanennen’s down screen (and a Lopez dribble handoff) to go backdoor against the overplay, Markanennen pops out to the ball and the Bulls flow into a dribble handoff with him instead.
Like I said, the possibilities are truly endless.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyle Korver, screening, cutting, scoring
The sign of a great offensive player is that no matter what scheme or strategy the defense is running, they first understand the best counter for the situation and then can execute that counter instantly despite the chaos of the game. At this point in his NBA career, Kyle Korver has learned all of these little tricks. In a game a few weeks ago against the Brooklyn Nets, Korver demonstrated how to always be in control—no matter what the defense tried to do.
When great shooters are also willing screen setters, an even more unfair dimension of offensive production and value can be attained.
On this play, Korver back screens for LeBron James—a play that can be so difficult to guard it almost seems illegal. If the defense outright switches the screen, James has the smaller Allen Crabbe sealed in the post under the basket. If the defense doesn’t switch (like the Nets attempt to do here), Crabbe can only stunt at James for so long before he needs to defend the popping Korver. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson doesn’t get through the screen quickly enough (check out how much contact Korver makes on the screen!) and James has himself an open dunk.
And if the defense overreacts to the cutter off of the screen, then Korver just pops back out to the ball–almost guaranteeing him enough time to get off his lightning quick release.
In a more creative example of Korver’s screening, the Cavaliers like to run this play where Korver first runs off a baseline screen (and an assumed down screen on the other side of the court). But if the defense falls asleep, Korver will immediately turn around and set a back screen for the first screener. This puts the defense in a bind if they are merely going through the motions, and Kevin Love is the beneficiary on this set.
And with LeBron James commanding the defense’s attention in the post, check out how Cleveland runs simultaneous split action on both the strong and weak sides. When Trevor Booker turns his head, Korver pins Booker on the inside of him and Jeff Green is wide open to fire.
Korver’s immense off-ball value isn’t just limited to his screening however—his cutting is effective as well.
By first setting a down screen here, Joe Harris loses contact with Korver for a split second. Then, Korver uses this gap to his advantage on his next cut, running Harris into his teammate on the baseline.
Oh, and good luck guarding the screening combination of Channing Frye and Korver. When Crabbe gets caught on the ball side here, Korver simply cuts behind him for the layup.
And then there’s this, where Korver goes to set a screen for James but notices that Quincy Acy is slowly gravitating to his high side. Korver improvises by pivoting in order to seal Acy on his back, and then it’s another easy two points.
This is just textbook stuff from a textbook player.
Detroit Pistons: Tobias Harris, hotter than a blow torch
The Detroit Pistons are one of this year’s early surprises, and Tobias Harris’ production has been hard to ignore. He’s scoring in bunches right now, and although his 3-point percentage (currently 50.6 percent) is certain to regress, his value is undeniable.
Harris is taking more shots per 100 possessions (23.8) than ever, and his confidence is higher than ever as well. He’s never played this much at power forward (88 percent of his minutes this season are at the four), unlocking the finer parts of his offensive game. Even in this era, his ultra-quick release from behind the arc combined with an array of pull-up moves and feathery finishes at the rim is unique for a power forward—and his skillset has made for the perfect glue guy in Detroit.
His shot composition from the perimeter is becoming more and more appealing, as his 3-point attempt rate is up over 10 percent from last year and his long 2-point attempts have continued to decrease.
And helping off of him from one-pass away is a death sentence right now. In catch-and-shoot situations, Harris is shooting a scalding 50.8 percent from behind the arc.
Harris can also attack the closeouts from lesser agile opponents, as he leans on one of the smoothest drive and pull up games in the league.
His soft touch is evident closer to the rim too. He isn’t routinely utilizes a two-foot jump stop and a high-arcing floater in order to finish over the trees.
Although Harris’ game is quite serene, there are moments where he asserts his dominance more forcefully. He isn’t afraid to go right at help defenders if they fail to fully commit to his drive.
But for Harris, the key lies in the fact that he understands his role and the limitations of his ability. The two-foot jump stop may not be the flashiest move in the world, but it is supremely effective for someone in his role. By utilizing that two-foot jump stop, Harris always maximizes his options when he picks up his dribble (allowing him to stay on balance and enabling him to pass, shoot or pivot in these situations). He understands when it’s advantageous to quickly move the ball and when he has the opportunity to take advantage of a subtle hole in the defense. Harris is always in control offensively—and it’s the reason he is averaging a minuscule 1.3 turnovers per 100 possessions.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis, finding the crevasses
Domantas Sabonis is doing everything in his power to show that the Paul George wasn’t as bad for the Indiana Pacers as everyone thought. Sabonis has demonstrated impeccable timing, feel and awareness in ball screen situations—a unique precision for a second-year player.
Sabonis is a pick-and-roll ball handler’s best friend. He seeks out just enough contact on his ball screens to assist the ball handler in getting downhill, while also understanding that his work doesn’t end there. He has a guard-like ability in opening up his hips, allowing him to instantly survey the court for a hole in the defense just milliseconds after setting the screen.
He’s a calming influence in the pick-and-roll, always maintaining a passing angle in case the ball handler needs an outlet. When the guard gets deep enough and the defending big man is forced to commit, it’s an easy bounce pass to the patiently waiting Sabonis.
One of Sabonis’ most glaring improvements this season has been his ability to knock down shots in the in-between range. From 10 to 16 feet, he is shooting a whopping 63.6 percent (a number that was at just 21.9 percent last season). Even when that number regresses, that shot makes him even more intriguing in short roll situations.
And if the rotating big is a second late, Sabonis has displayed a more ferocious side—willing to slam it on people’s heads.
It’s not a surprise that Sabonis leads the league in pick and roll frequency as the screener. 43.9 percent of his offense has come as a roller, and his 1.25 points per possession in these situations has helped facilitate Indiana’s unlikely jump to the tenth-best offense in the league.
Sabonis is beginning to find his place in the modern NBA, an intriguing development for a team that could certainly use it.
Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon, using his body to finish
I feel unclean not writing about Giannis Antetokounmpo, but I want to give one of his teammates some love. Besides, I wrote about Antetokounmpo’s development a few months ago.
Malcolm Brogdon’s ability to get off shots at the rim without being able to consistently get much separation on drives is something that amuses me. Brogdon isn’t especially shifty or slithery. He lumbers and plods his way around the court as he dribbles, seemingly on cruise control as he somehow finds himself near the restricted area.
So how does he do it? It takes a thorough understanding of angles and a keen awareness of how to maintain even the smallest advantage. He’s been forced to master nifty tricks around the basket, including off-footed layups with either hand, polished footwork in traffic and sky high floaters over the help defense.
Brogdon uses his frame to his advantage, not allowing the defender to recover once he has him beat. Here’s an example:
Initially, Abdel Nader is in position on this drive.
But when Brogdon gives him a convincing pump fake, Nader goes for it. Brogdon then steps through the gap he just created with his right foot. This move helps position his back in between the ball and the defender, acting as a shield so the defender can’t reach over to get the ball.
Now, watch how he goes up with two hands on his shot to guarantee him security and protection of the ball.
At the last second, he finishes with one hand (the hand that is furthest away from the defender) so that it can’t be blocked.
Brogdon doesn’t play like most point guards in today’s game, as he’s content slamming his body into the defender. Watch how Rose bounces back when he makes contact with the human life bowling ball on this drive down the lane, and then check out his off-footed finish.
Although Brogdon doesn’t have elite dribbling moves, he is almost always lower than his defender. And the lower guy—he usually wins.
Sources: Basketball-Reference, NBA.com/Stats (stats as of 11/15/17)