Archives For Basketball Strategy

Renato Afonso is a long time reader, commenter, and friend of FB&G.. He is based in Portugal, played semi-pro hoops, and after that coached his alma mater for two years. He now passes his time in a veteran’s league while waiting the arrival of his first born. This is his inaugural post at FB&G. Welcome, Renato!

In today’s NBA there’s a lot of talking about spacing, ball sharing, efficiency and advanced statistics. Teams like the Rockets assume that feeding a big man in the low post is nonsense and the long two is absolutely forbidden, maximizing the number of shots at the rim, three pointers and free throws.

But this new way of thinking can only be applied when you have good three point shooters, guys that are able to get to the rim and good free throw shooters. Obviously, a free throw is always uncontested but one can argue that an open midrange jump shot may be the most effective shot an offense can get at any given moment. Sometimes the defense doesn’t allow you to finish at the rim or simply denies open three point shots and all you’re left with is what the defense gives you. When such thing happens there’s an obligation to convert those midrange jumpshots. With this, the best shot isn’t necessarily a three pointer but actually the available open shot. It goes without saying that long contested twos are obviously worse than long contested threes. This is also assuming average players and not statistical outliers like our own Kobe Bryant.

In the midst of these thoughts, I found myself completely absorbed by the Grizzlies-Warriors series that proved that there are different ways to run an offense, there are different ways to play proper defense and talent can be presented in several ways.

Continue Reading…

The version of the Princeton offense the Lakers will use this season has the chance to be an evolving oasis of offensive possibility. The sheer talent and versatility of their core four players can translate to a multitude of actions — some obvious, some not so much — that can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.

When the Princeton was first talked about as a system the Lakers would employ, one of the first things that came to mind was Pau Gasol operating at the high post. Using Pau at that spot on the floor, with Howard occupying the low block, would take advantage of his elite passing while also utilizing his ability to space the floor as one of the better mid-range shooting big men.

This, of course, has become a staple of what the Lakers do run on offense. Every game we’ve been treated to at least one Gasol dime to Howard where he makes a catch at the elbow and plays high-low basketball with his frontcourt partner. As the season advances and these two develop even more chemistry, we should see even more of this action and little wrinkles added to it to force defenses into making the types of lose/lose choices that often result in made baskets.

However, one of the not so obvious ways the Lakers have started to take advantage of their talent has been the inverting of their big men. Against the Pistons, the Lakers ran several actions that put Pau at the low block and left Howard at the high post. This is the opening play of the game:

This play starts as many Lakers’ sets have lately, with the point guard (Steve Blake in this instance) bringing the ball up the left side of the floor with Kobe on the wing and Dwight in the ball side post. Blake enters to Kobe who looks to Dwight for a quick post up. Instead of entering the ball, Kobe passes the ball back to Blake who then enters a quick pass into Dwight as he slides up the lane line to the elbow. Blake then screens away for Pau who pops open at the top of the key where he gets the ball from Howard. This is where the heart of this action comes to life.

After Pau gets the ball at the top of the key he swings the ball back to Kobe and then rubs off a high pick from Dwight to dive to the low post. Kobe hits Pau with an entry pass while Howard hovers around the free throw line. It’s important here to note how closely Howard’s man is playing him and how much room Pau has to work on the post:

Pau post up

With all this room, Pau backs his man down and shoots a half hook that misses. But since he’s maneuvered his way around his man, he follows his shot, gets the offensive rebound and scores easily on a put back. It bears repeating, in this next still Howard isn’t even in the picture and Maxiell still hasn’t left the FT line area to help on the glass and is watching as Pau scores an easy two points:

Pau put back

One of the key reasons this set works is that the Lakers have put Pau in the post and spaced the floor in a way where if the double team comes Gasol can use his tremendous passing ability to hit the open man.

Furthermore, with Dwight at the elbow, the defense has a unique problem. If Dwight’s man leaves to double team he’s allowing Howard to dive from the FT line with the best passing big man in the league ready to drop him off a pass that will surely end with either a basket, a foul, or both. Not to mention that if Dwight’s man leaves him but the pass doesn’t go to him, he still has a wide open lane to crash the glass and be an offensive rebounder.

What the Lakers have figured out — and based off how many times they ran a variation of this set, they have figured something out — is that the defense must respect Dwight if he’s anywhere near the paint. His ability to cut to the ball and score off passes or simply get to the front of the rim for rebounding chances means that his man has to keep within arm’s distance of him at nearly all times or risk being exposed.

This doesn’t have to be a full time set for the Lakers. Dwight is still best served operating from the low post and trying to score on his man via touches in the paint. Many of those touches will come from the splendid passing ability of Pau. But there will be times where the Lakers can invert their bigs and use Pau’s strength as a post scorer to their advantage and not hesitate. Even though Dwight doesn’t have range on his jumper and isn’t known as a great high-low passer, it doesn’t matter. He’s too dangerous to leave.

Offensive spacing can come from many places. In this case it comes from Dwight Howard standing at the foul line. Not sure many people saw that coming.

Welcome to the Strategy Session. In this space we’ll explore different aspects of the game from a strategy standpoint. It may mean looking at a coaching decision — like determining a rotation. Or a specific offensive play that we think will work. Or it could be an examination of a defensive scheme. Sometimes we’ll use video others we’ll just blab away for a while on the topic of the day. Hope you enjoy it.

With a lot of negatives to focus on after the Lakers’ first two games, I thought I’d instead look at something that has worked in the past and should be able to work again in the future.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the Lakers’ offense really isn’t the chief problem with this team right now. Of course there are issues — most notably Steve Nash still finding his balance between on/off ball effectiveness and a feel of clunkiness that persists to sets the team is still picking up on — but the team is shooting the ball pretty well and has shown glimpses of what they can be once they settle in and find their stride.

One such action that can aid them in moving forward in a positive direction (it proved to work in the preseason) and should continue to be a useful play for the Lakers is a strong side hand-off sequence. This action utilizes Nash, Kobe, and Dwight on the same side of the floor and puts the defense in a position to make tough choices. All three players are threats on the play and when run crisply it creates good looks.

This first example leads to the type of shot the Lakers want Kobe taking:

The play starts with Nash bringing the ball up the right sideline while Dwight waits at the elbow and Kobe sits on the wing. Nash enters the Howard and proceeds to set a screen for Kobe who curls off the pick towards Dwight. Kobe continues his cut, takes the hand-off from Dwight and then elevates for his jumper over DeMarcus Cousins who helped a split second too late. Kobe knocks down the 16 footer, a high percentage shot for him.

This play worked so well, the Lakers decided they were going to run the exact same action on their next possession. The only difference is that they run it on the other side of the floor:

Here, again, you see Nash bringing the ball up the floor (this time on the left side) with Kobe (on the wing) and Dwight (at the elbow) in the exact same positions. Nash makes his entry to Dwight, proceeds to set his screen for Kobe who then curls to take the hand off from Howard. Here’s where you see the difference, however. When Kobe gets the ball he again looks to elevate for his shot but he’s drawing more defensive attention with a quicker reaction as well. Kobe recognizes the defense is out of position and when Howard rolls to the hoop he leads him to the rim with a lob pass that is dunked home.

One play, two actions, same result.

There are even more actions that can be run off this single look. In both of the above plays, Steve Nash’s man sinks to the lane line to try and help on Howard’s dive to the rim. If Kobe is looking that way, he can hit him for an open jumper. On the play where Kobe threw the lob, you’ll notice that Ron’s man came over to help and left him open on the wing for a wide open jumper. Other options include Nash, instead of flaring to the wing, cutting back door after setting the screen or Kobe, rather than accepting Nash’s screen, cutting back door when Nash comes over to try and free him.

One of the key principles to the Princeton offense is setting up plays to look the same but then countering what the defense does through reading how they react to the action in front of them. The Lakers are trying to get to the point where all of these options are utilized; where the players working together can recognize what the defense is doing and then respond accordingly.

In some cases — like the plays above — they’ve made headway. In many others they’re not yet close. The result is flashes of brilliance mixed with bouts of frustration. The hope is that we see more progress soon. But the good thing is, that hope can be rooted in knowing that this stuff actually does work.

Matt Scribbins provides insight and analysis throughout ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, including at HoopData and Magic Basketball. He graduated with distinction from Iowa State University last spring, where he was also a member of the Cyclone football team. In the fall, Matt is part of Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project. You can also find him on twitter: @mattscribbins

Last week, I broke down the Lakers’ tendency since the All-Star break to entice opponents into low percentage shots. With the playoffs magnificently close, here is a look at how the Lakers’ main intra-conference foes shoot from various locations. 

Your Attention Please

Some offenses intentionally shoot long jumpers to help their transition defense.

Some defenses intentionally leave players open from long range (e.g., Rajon Rondo). On the other hand, Kevin Durant may have a hand in his face at all times, and research has shown shooting percentage decreases with tight defense.

Red cells in the charts indicate a player shoots below league average in the specified zone. Players who only attempt shots near the rim are not included in this piece. Also, please remember some players may attempt six shots per game in a specific zone while another player may attempt only three from the same distance.

The number after each team name indicates NBA shooting rank using effective field goal percentage as the barometer. The number below each zone indicates the team’s rank in the specified zone, according to shooting percentage. Effective field goal percentage is used for three point shots.

The following designations will be used: Zone 1 (within two feet of rim), Zone 2 (3-9 feet), Zone 3 (10-15 feet), Zone 4 (16-23 feet), Zone 5 (three point shots).

All statistics were updated the final week of March and are courtesy of

San Antonio Spurs #3


A playoff matchup between the Spurs and Lakers would pit strength against strength and break the record for “live by three, die by three” remarks. The Lakers defend three-point shots better than anyone in the West, and the Spurs’ shooting percentage in Zone 5 is the best in the NBA.

As noted last week, the Lakers have coaxed opponents into more long jumpers since the All-Star break. San Antonio is great all over the court but struggles mightily in Zone 4. It should be noted only the Magic and Clippers attempt fewer shots in Zone 4 than the Spurs.

The Spurs’ offense is led by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Lakers can make the Spurs’ offense feckless if they force these guards to pull up in Zone 4. The duo can wreak havoc with penetration, but Rajon Rondo actually shoots better on long jumpers than Ginobili or Parker.

The Lakers second half defensive surge has been led by great defense in Zone 2 and San Antonio is the second best shooting team in the NBA in Zone 2. The defensive dominance from Lakers in Zones 2 and 5, combined with the Spurs offensive success in these zones, sets the stage for a classic series.

Dallas Mavericks #1


This isn’t breaking any news, but Los Angeles will end a series versus Dallas post-haste if they pry the ball from Dirk Nowitzki’s hands. Dirk’s 2011 shootings percentages have skyrocketed from his 2010 marks everywhere besides on three-point shots.

Most notably, his current shooting percentage on long jumpers is the best on his Hoop Data profile, which dates back to his MVP season. In 2010, Dirk made 46% of his shots in Zone 4. This season, he has improved his mark by over 17%. Furthermore, Dirk’s shooting performance in nearly every zone is his best over the last five seasons. His only declines are in Zone 2 (46% in 2008), and Zone 5 (63.2% in 2010), hardly a setback in either category.

Jason Terry is also an elite shooter. Zone 2 is the only spot Terry shoots below average. Over 60% of Terry’s attempts come beyond 16 feet from the hoop.

Jason Kidd is a below average shooter everywhere, but he basically only attempts three-pointers.

The second-tier players for Dallas are decent near the rim, and shaky beyond the arc. If the Lakers can force Barea and Beaubois to hoist it from deep, the footage may make Mark Cuban wish there was no such thing as HDTV.

The most notable difference between the teams sandwiching the Lakers in the standings are their offensive ranks in Zone 4. Dallas is the best shooting team in the NBA between 16 and 23 feet, and the Spurs rank 24th.

Oklahoma City Thunder #14


A playoff matchup between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City may turn into the cutest series ever. The Thunder is the epitome of a team the Lakers revamped defense is designed to stop.  Oklahoma City is a young team who can shoot all over, but shooting is different than making. The Thunder is a below average shooting team from every area on the floor excluding shots in Zone 1. They are elite within two feet of the rim, but the NBA’s worst shooting team in Zone 2.

Kevin Durant is the league’s leading scorer, and his shooting ability receives great accolades. Maybe, though, his shooting isn’t as great as advertised. Durantula actually shoots below average from 16 feet and beyond. Two small forwards on contending teams in the East (Paul Pierce and Hedo Turkoglu) shoot significantly better in Zones 4 and 5. Even The King Without a Ring has a better percentage than Durant in Zone 4. 

Unfortunately for Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook’s shooting percentages resemble Jason Kidd’s. Even worse, Westbrook shoots a dozen more shots per game than Kidd does. He attempts 6.9 shots per game in Zone 1, only trailing Carmelo Anthony and dunk heroes Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin.  On the plus side, Oklahoma City’s point guard can slice defenses, and his turnover rate is better than other great players at his position.

James Harden is the team’s sniper, but he doesn’t make Ray Allen blush. He merely hits league average beyond the arc, and his skills don’t travel inside Zone 4.

Percentages point to a simple strategy against the Thunder’s offense: make Durant shoot outside, make Harden shoot inside, and convince Westbrook to shoot everywhere.

Portland Trailblazers #22


Only masochistic Portland fans should watch this team shoot. Below average percentages in every zone cannot excited the Rose Garden faithful.

One would surmise the Blazers must lock it down on defense, but they actually allow the eighth highest effective field goal percentage in the NBA. Portland makes their money by owning the best turnover rate differential in in the Association.

All-Star snub LaMarcus Aldridge is a monster inside, and he deserves credit for shooting better in Zone 4 than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Manu Ginoboli, and Tony Parker. Making the feat even more impressive is the fact Aldridge attempts more than four long jumpers per game.

Gerald Wallace’s numbers are from his 2011 campaign in Charlotte. He appeared in more games for the Bobcats, and his numbers from Charlotte are more consistent with his career averages.

Memphis Grizzlies #21


This is quick – Memphis is decent inside, and a disaster outside. If it is any consolation, fans in Memphis can smile knowing Marc Gasol shoots better inside nine feet than his All-Star brother does.

The Grizzles lost a great shooter when Rudy Gay went out for the season. Mike Conley is currently the best outside threat in Memphis, and he attempts over five shots per game in Zones 4 and 5.

Final Horn

The Lakers are rolling and it may not matter who they take on in the playoffs. Nonetheless, they could face the best shooting team in the NBA and also the third best shooting team during their Western Conference run. If Denver pulls off two upsets, the Lakers could also face the second best shooting team in the NBA.

All of the listed teams are at least close to average near the rim and below average in Zone 4, with Dallas being the only exception. The Lakers will be in great shape if they continue to limit attempts near the hoop and coax their opponents to launch long jumpers.

-Matt Scribbins

During the Lakers opening night game, Darius and I noticed the Houston Rockets using the Lakers’ perimeter aggressiveness to their advantage. Guys like Ron Artest, Matt Barnes and Kobe Bryant, who are very aggressive defenders, become susceptible to back door cuts. There were a few occasions where one of the Lakers’ wing defenders were over playing on the perimeter and the offensive player was able to cut backdoor for an easy bucket. Giving up easy buckets isn’t ever good, but the Artest-Barnes-Bryant trio playing aggressively on the perimeter is going to pay dividends for this team as the season progresses. In this post, we’re interested in how the Lakers were able to make slight adjustments to their defensive philosophy to stop Houston’s Princeton offense — something that I think this team is going to be able to do throughout the season against all teams. Phil Jackson has the right personnel to make in game adjustments and see those adjustments applied on the floor. Before I get into how the Lakers were able to adjust, I’ll let Darius break down how Houston ran their offense:

In the diagrams below, you can see exactly what Houston is trying to do in order to set up their standard screen/cut sequence that is a staple of their Princeton sets.  What the Rockets want to accomplish is to get the Lakers’ defense moving from side to side in order to loosen up the defense to make their (eventual) entry pass into the high post easier.  They accomplish this by running a dribble hand off sequence.  Brooks starts out going to his right off a Scola screen and then handing off to Battier.  Battier then circles towards the top of the key again using a Scola pick.  After coming off that pick, Battier initiates the set by passing the ball to Brad Miller at the FT line extended.  Miller then holds then waits for Kevin Martin to make his read where Martin either comes to the wing to receive a pass or cut back door if the Laker defender overplays the cut to the top.  In this instance, Kobe gets caught cheating to the topside and gets beat on Martin’s back cut.

fast draw

Here is the sequence in real time:

In this next play, the Rockets again look to initiate their offense through Miller at the high post.  After Brooks brings the ball across half court, he passes to Miller and then proceeds to set a down screen for Chase Budinger who waits on the wing.  In this sequence there are a couple of different options, but much like the Triangle offense, the Princeton offense requires the players to make reads in the moment and play off what the defenders are doing.  In this case, rather than come off Brooks’ screen to receive the pass from Miller, Budinger notices that Barnes starts to cheat topside to fight over the screen and quickly cuts back door.  Miller then executes a beautiful drop pass to Chase and the 2nd year wing flushes the ball on a late challenging Barnes.  Again, the Lakers over aggressiveness is beat with a back cut.

fast draw 2

Here is the play in real time:

One of the reasons both of those plays looked so good was because of their ability to execute. They were able to accomplish exactly what was diagramed. When teams execute that well, one of two things are happening: 1) The offense is completely dominating the defense, no matter what the defense throws at them or 2) The defense isn’t doing anything to disrupt execution. If you go back and watch those clips, there isn’t anything disrupting the Rockets’ offense. Both of the above clips began with getting the ball to Brad Miller at the pinch post; there was no disruption in getting him the ball, and when he had the ball, there was no ball pressure on his passes to the cutting man. Now look at the way the Lakers defended these same sets in these next two clips.

When watching this first clip, there are a few things you should pay attention to. One of them is the fact that the Lakers were switching on screens. Instead of allowing either Aaron Brooks or Kevin Martin to penetrate, the Lakers either switched, or “showed” very well on all screens. This keeps the whole defense between the ball and the basket, as more defenders between ball and basket allows for more help if an offensive player cuts backdoor.


This second picture shows, again, the Lakers switching on screens. If LO doesn’t slide over and help Kobe, Brooks turns the corner and gets an easy bucket. The Lakers don’t get enough credit for their ability to work as a unified group. When they’re committed to stopping a team, they communicate well and move well together. This stopped penetration and Brooks was eventually forced to pick up his dribble.


In this last picture, it shows that the Lakers are starting to pick up on what the Rockets are trying to accomplish. Look at Brad Miller at the top of the key. He’s being watched by two Lakers as Brooks looks to get it to him. Chase Budinger was in the corner waiting for Miller to receive the ball to cut back door. Because Shannon Brown and Theo Ratliff had the presence of mind to step in front of Miller, the possession ended with Budinger forcing up a three pointer with the shot clock running down.


This final clip is a great example of disrupting execution. When a team is getting what they want against your defense, your defense has to become annoying to a degree. On this play, Lakers’ defenders entered the Rockets personal space. Again, it’s about changing angles on passing lanes and disrupting the offense to a point where execution becomes difficult. We’re talking about simple ideologies, but it’s the simple and little things that make good teams great. Here, the Lakers do the little things and end up forcing a turnover.

This first picture shows Derek Fisher with his hand up, trying to disrupt the entry pass to Brad Miller. Not only was he trying to make the entry pass harder, but it was a text book closeout. In some of the earliest levels of basketball, they teach you to close out with your left hand up on right hand shooters. Brooks isn’t shooting the ball, but since he’s right handed, Fisher’s left hand is the closest to where the ball is being released from. Granted, Fish is a lefty, so that may have something to do with it, but it’s as fundamental as you can get in getting in the way of an entry pass. What is harder to see here is Pau Gasol defending Miller. Instead of simply allowing the pass to come in, Gasol was draped over Miller, trying to get around or go through him to get to the pass. Miller gets the ball, but it wasn’t an easy entry pass by any means, and definitely much harder than either of the two from the first two clips.


In this final picture, we see Shane Battier cutting and appears to be open. However, Gasol still hasn’t given up on the play, getting his hand in the passing lane, making Miller’s pass as tough as possible. Instead of getting the pass to Battier when he wants to, Gasol is able to delay him long enough to give Kobe time to recover and time for Lamar Odom to slide over to the help side. The Lakers force the turnover which leads to a Kobe jumper on the other end.


In the Preview and Chat for the Warriors game, commenter Andres expressed some concern about the Lakers defense. As I said during those comments, the Lakers are going to be just fine. This is a veteran group of guys being led by the greatest coach in NBA history. This Lakers team is an intelligent bunch who can make adjustments as needed. We may not always like how long it takes them to figure out the offense or their effort, but this is a team that can stop anyone when they’re doing the little things that make them so good.