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.
When looking at that series, we are reminded the Warriors are a known entity: a regular season juggernaut that likes to push the pace, get open threes in transition and can play small or big while running mostly a 4-1 offense. When you have shooters like they do and roster versatility you want to shoot as often as possible in transition and increase the number of possessions. It’s a matter of percentages. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, have Mike Conley and Courtney Lee as their only respectable outside threats, so they’re obviously not trying to get that many three point shots in transition and try to slow the pace down. Fewer possessions meant fewer opportunities for the Warriors to do their thing, forcing them to play a more physical half-court game.
So, here’s the trick: slowing the game down isn’t achieved by taking 8 seconds the cross midcourt or just draining the shot clock every single possession. Any team can slow the game down by simply improving their transition defense and half-court defense. The Grizzlies superb transition defense can be explained not only by the defensive awareness of their players but also by what they call smash-mouth basketball.
First, you reduce the amount of turnovers by focusing on more post play even if it comes at cost of less dribble penetration and perimeter players finishing at the rim in half-court offense. By doing this, you would be ensuring field goal attempts that will result in short rebounds, if said shots are missed, and improve the team’s positioning to start the transition defense (which is perhaps the most important thing in basketball from a tactical standpoint). After a successful transition defense, comes the hardest part to any basketball player: half-court defense against elite athletes. Half-court defense is easier when you have a rim protector to cover up the mistakes of the perimeter players but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it without one. If the wing players are lockdown defenders all you need from your big is solid post play defense and rebounding ability. Force the opponent into contested shots away from the rim and your defense will be effective enough.
But this is still only one side of the ball. After a superb transition defense, even better half-court defense and fighting for the loose ball, you still need to score points. Some say that you can’t score in today’s NBA with two bigs (or without the spacing provided by a stretch four as they call it). But I don’t agree with that. Here’s how you can do it while making Daryl Morey’s head explode…
Notice how the ball is fed to Gasol who can choose to shoot to the left or to the right. At that place, a skilled center is almost unstoppable if no help comes. The Warriors crash on Gasol and he gets the free throws but this simple motion is as effective as it can be. Conley is a threat, so his player can’t sag off him. Randolph is outside but he can hit the midrange shot so Bogut can’t just ignore him and prevent the entry pass to Gasol. Lee is probably the least dangerous man (most difficult pass due to the positioning of Randolph) but he’s still the best three point shooter and is on his favorite spot. Allen is on the baseline 8 feet from the basket, making his man the primary help defender. The Warriors, wisely, opt to foul Gasol. Even if they allowed a shot and it was missed, the Warriors would still have to fight for the defensive rebound with Gasol and wouldn’t be able to go on the fast break. Conley, Randolph and Lee are in great position to recover and Tony Allen can start harassing the ball handler. Could we do this with a Clarkson, Kobe, lockdown winger to be designated, Randle and Okafor?
These were three examples of a slightly less usual transition offense. Most teams tend to use the pick and roll the same way Mike D’Antoni likes it: on the strong side, from the wing to the middle with a rolling big man and with shooters in the corners and one at 45 degrees. The Grizzlies actually push the floor and Mike Conley uses the screen to go to towards the baseline. In the first clip Conley goes to the baseline and when the trap comes, he assists Koufos between the defenders. In the second one, the trap doesn’t come as hard, due to the previous play and Conley finishes on the other side. In the third clip, the trap is better but because all other Grizzlies players are above the three point line, the help comes late and Gasol finishes without opposition. What’s important here is that even if the rotation was on time, because Randolph is in the middle of the court, it should be a wing player trying to stop the center (Green’s decision to follow Gasol is a terrible one because Randolph is wide open and is the easiest passing lane). In this situation he could simply establish position in the low post and use his size and skill to get two easy points. Wouldn’t Kobe and Clarkson do this easily with Okafor or Ed Davis or any backup big?
And this is another simple play that leaves both Randolph and Gasol on the weak side with the ball. Randolph’s shot must be respected and Bogut can’t simply sag off him and deny the pass to Gasol. Gasol was immediately fouled but the result was the same. A skilled big man with an opportunity to do something from the low post because the best and most dangerous help defense is already neutralized (Bogut is above the free throw line and Gasol can see him clearly). Again, this possession would hardly result in a turnover or a long rebound, giving the attacking team time to get back on defense. Randle and Okafor could do this over and over…
You’re now saying to yourselves: Jahlil Okafor is not Marc Gasol, Julius Randle is not Zach Randolph, and Jordan Clarkson is not Mike Conley. Well, you’re right. They’re not. But you can emulate their style of play easily. Okafor is skilled in the low post, is only 19 and there’s a lot of room to improve. Just compare the stat lines of Okafor and Gasol this season:
The main difference is obviously the assist percentage but that’s one of the few things that centers actually become better at as they get older. And you should also note that rebounding is one of the few skills that translates well to the NBA. Okafor and Randle could be even more devastating than Randolph and Gasol due to the simple fact that Randle is quicker and probably has a better shooting motion than Randolph, allowing Okafor to have even more room to operate in the post. I would also like to note that Jordan Clarkson’s main problem is his ability to properly organize half-court sets. By pairing him with two skilled bigs, that responsibility will be shared allowing him to focus more on scoring. This is the first glimmer of hope for this team in more than two years and I’m genuinely excited with the idea of Kobe mentoring these three young men (if Okafor falls onto our lap). Aren’t you?