We have a tendency to think of the NBA as being a "ball screen" league, and that all of basketball has trended towards pick-and-roll centric play. Degrees of truth may exist within that sentiment, but basketball as a whole is one of the few sports that is able to rapidly evolve stylistically and continues to innovate.
In comes the dribble handoff, an action as a whole that accomplishes the same effect as a ball screen. The objective of a ball screen is simple: put two offensive and two defensive players in one tight space, and try to take advantage of the various ways a defense may try to stop the ball that create scoring openings. And like the pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs are not a new part of the game. We've seen dribble handoffs for decades, yet we see them in a different way now.
Here are a few ways the dribble handoff has become more prevalent over the last couple of seasons, and why its utility may cause it to supplement ball screens as the staple of an offense.
By and large, this is my favorite thing about dribble handoffs as opposed to screens. Ball screens allow for a defense to take the advantage back and throw an unexpected coverage at an offense. While the offensive group thinks they have the advantage and are going to get what they want, there is really no certainty that a defense will do what they expect every time. Dribble handoffs offer defenses fewer tools to combat... trapping, downing, denying handoffs are all undeveloped styles of play and have clear holes to implementation. Using a dribble handoff is a safe and predictable alternative to an often turnover-prone ball screen action.
The biggest complaint I have with ball screens is the pace at which they often occur. Picks are set in the half-court very deliberately (some can be sped into but when one player holds the ball and another sprints towards them, there isn't much secrecy about what comes next). Dribble handoffs occur faster and can be disguised for a second or two longer.
To be fair, some dribble handoffs are slow and deliberate as well. Big men away from the basket in space take their sweet time and survey the defense for which side to take two bounces towards and pitch the ball to a teammate. But when both types of plays are put side-by-side at their fastest, the lack of need for one offensive guy to completely stop his momentum for a screen to be legal keeps things faster for the DHO.
Speed is vital because it doesn't allow defenders, even at the highest level of play, the appropriate amount of time to communicate and get on the same page for how to thwart the action. While ball screens may seek to create a mismatch and miscommunication, handoffs done quickly aim to prevent defenders from even getting to a stage of communication. Just check out the way the Hawks get into this dribble handoff:
Keepers and Fakes:
Keepers would be the equivalent of a ball handler refusing a screen, a.k.a. breaking away from the designed action and keeping the ball to attack the rim whenever he suspects the defenders are anticipating the action. I define a "keeper" as a dribble handoff where Player A dribbles towards Player B, but instead of giving him the ball he maintains his dribble and keeps it to attack the rim. These scenarios frequently occur closer to the sidelines, where Player A can quickly attack the rim without veering east-west on the court. Much like the section above, dribble handoff keepers can occur at a higher speed and are dangerous in that regard.
In addition, they work no matter what the defensive scheme planned to combat handoffs is. Ball screen defense, depending on the coverage, will funnel the ball handler towards the screen. Trapping or blitzing a screen sees the man on the ball force his man to use the screen since that is where the help is; refusing the screen isn't an option as a result. Same goes for teams that ice or down ball screens, keeping the action on one side of the floor and not allowing the player to use the screen (meaning he has a lack of options for how to divert from what the defense wants him to do).
Keepers in a dribble handoff might work best against teams that do not try to switch the action, but an offensive player with a head of steam and the understanding he's going to keep the ball instead of hand it off can still turn the corner and get to where he wants to on the floor.
Fake handoffs are a version of keepers. When I say the phrase "keeper", I refer to Player A dribbling towards Player B to engage in the handoff, and then not giving him the ball while keeping his dribble alive. The distinction between that and a fake handoff is that Player A is not dribbling but is stationary. The effect can be the same... a defender jumps to anticipate the handoff and there's room for Player A to start his move.
The Guard-to-Guard DHO
Ball screens are starting to be popularized and more common between two players of similar position... mismatches are no longer defined solely by size. As the game has evolved to be more face-up and perimeter oriented, the ball gets fewer touches for true post players, and multiple-guard lineups with several ball handlers are en vogue.
Guard-to-Guard dribble handoffs grow from there, and are dangerous tools. As mentioned earlier, these actions are best run near the sidelines, where a keeper is possible. Defenses now have to respect two potential ball handlers getting the ball with speed and momentum that takes them into a scoring zone, and guard-to-guard actions are difficult to stop.
We've seen a growth in "switching likes" as a result -- the practice of two similar defenders just swapping their matchup because neutralizing the current action is more important than keeping their regular assignment. Teams that cannot engage in this type of coverage struggle with handoffs.
Transition Pitches and Misdirection
What an offense does before their opponent can get set steals easy baskets game after game. Stats back up the notion that a team scores more frequently and gets higher-percentage shots when a defense cannot establish itself and forces their opponent to walk the ball up the court. But what about after a made basket, when there's less urgency to spring back but there is still movement and unpredictability?
We coaches call these "semi-transition" or "early offense" opportunities, where the ball can make its way down the court and look for a quick strike while the two teams are still switching ends of the court. I've long maintained that the most dangerous man in these situations is the man who inbounds the ball, often known as the trailer, because he trails the play while his defender gets sucked into the vortex of wanting to protect the lane from penetration and thinking there's time to help his teammates before his man gets involved.
Often times coaches will run what's called a "pitch series", which puts the ball into the hands of the trailer right away and allows them to get a touch early to combat the habits of the trailer's defender. It's a great opportunity for misdirections as well. Check out Fred Hoiberg's package below, one of my favorite pitch series I've seen.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).