This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Innovation is never easy. It requires an understanding of what has already been done, a willingness to possibly fail and a vision for something new. The game of basketball is not rocket science, nor do the X's and O's innovations that take place have massively important consequences.
But understanding the changes and new concepts in a game can help coaches stay ahead of the curve and run some pretty sweet sets.
Today, we look at three such tweaks to how an offense is run for players with elite skill sets. Such innovations are propelling teams to consistent success, while others provide an "ace in the hole" for whenever a quick bucket is needed. Basketball junkies will fall in love with some of these the same way I have.
Inverted Elbow Ball Screen
AAU culture lets more elite players have the ball in their hands, regardless of size. Big men have now learned to handle the ball, and some even become adept outside shooters that fall in love with the three-point line. Because of these insane skills that break traditional positional stereotypes, coaches at the highest levels now must become creative with utilizing such diverse talents.
We've seen bigs that can certainly handle the rock and score on all three levels. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis are chief among them, but the likes of Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Al Horford have evolved their games to keep up with those trendy youngsters. There are plenty of All-Stars that stand over 6'10", guard opposing posts and create their own shot on any level.
To best utilize those practices, some teams have included a playbook wrinkle this season that inverts traditional ball screens. Instead of a guard as the ball handler and a big as the screener, they put the ball in the hands of a dynamic big man and have a shooter set a screen near the elbow. It's mighty hard to stop:
The reason this has become so unstoppable is due to the shooting prowess of the screeners.
All the teams that run variations of an inverted pick-and-roll have an elite 3-point sniper that garners extra attention. The Philadelphia 76ers have JJ Redick, the Utah Jazz use Kyle Korver, and the Detroit Pistons have added Wayne Ellington to their roster.
A legitimate threat is necessary due to the attention they receive before even setting a screen.
These shooters get hugged or face-guarded once the big catches at the elbow. Defenses are so used to seeing dribble-handoffs between bigs and shooters that they cheat the action, bear-hugging the shooter and preventing him from getting a catch. The shooter's job is elementary at that point: barrel into the opposing big man, and there will be no help on the other side.
JJ Redick may be the league's most feared catch-and-shoot threat. When he feels that he's being hugged, the Sixers call this play, and the result has been a Joel Embiid dunk more times than not. Embiid is in the top-twenty percent leaguewide pick-and-roll ball handler efficiency, according to Synergy Sports.
The Sixers only break out this play call once a game at most and have multiple ways of getting to the action, but it certainly does its job in freezing the defense and producing a quality look. It also keeps the defense honest for the rest of the game.
Watch Redick on these plays and notice how little help his defender can give. That's why Embiid gets so open:
The obvious counter to such a play is to simply sag off the big man, instructing his defender to protect the basket and meet Embiid on the other side. But as we mentioned, the diversity of skill sets allows these bigs to shoot rhythm 3-pointers when unguarded.
When actions occur on an empty side, where no defender is in the corner to bluff at the big, skilled posts have all day to get their feet underneath them and take an open jumper:
Most coaches would probably rather give this up than anything else, but it's still not a great option to allow an uncontested 3-pointer to an All-NBA player. Switching does little to negate the post threats these bigs possess, and the action occurs so quickly that it's difficult to flood the lane with helpers. There's truly no great way to stop this attack.
Inverted ball screens are not necessarily a new concept, but they are being used more frequently and effectively.
New Concept: "Free"
We've been seeing unique movements pop up to get shooters open all season.
One such action is the faking of a back screen that turns into a down screen, freeing a scorer up for a dribble-handoff. Credit Army-West Point assistant coach Zak Boisvert for his video edit on the action, of which he has dubbed "Pinch". What Boisvert calls "Pinch" I have been dubbing "free" due to how it frees up a scorer to receive a handoff.
Such an action is difficult to guard because there is no high-side defender that can switch and take away the ensuing handoff. If the handoff is switched, then an elite shooter or ball handler like James Harden gets to go one-on-one with a post defender. That usually ends as expected.
Going underneath the handoff isn't an option, either. Great shooters that come off the handoff will comfortably pull-up. For a player like Harden or any elite shooter, that's a defensive death sentence.
The Rockets score in almost every way imaginable from this type of set:
As a decoy action, the Rockets run this as a designed play out of a sideline inbound situation. The free screener, usually a guard, sets up a few feet back from Harden as the inbounder. Back screens are a frequent action at all levels from sideline inbounds, as are shuffle screens for the inbounder to cut towards the basket.
The defense is obligated to guard the positioning as if it's a shuffle screen coming, preventing them from helping when the angle suddenly is switched. Here, Harden sprints into a handoff for 3:
The Utah Jazz have run this action for shooters Kyle Korver and Joe Ingles too. Defenses have not yet figured out the perfect counter, and with a massive handoff machine in Rudy Gobert, the Jazz execute "free" nearly every time:
Any postseason series involving the Houston Rockets will see this action become a focal point of the scouting report. (Likely the Jazz, too.)
I'm eager to see what counters teams will throw at the action to deny dribble handoffs. Will they begin to jump switch and play the screener on the high side? Will teams pressure the big so he cannot execute the handoff in scoring range? The playoffs are the time to focus on the individual plays and take away what teams do well.
Mike D'Antoni's genius will certainly be tested come April and May.
NBA Concept: "HANDOFF overrun"
As Boisvert points out, the credit for popularizing the "Free" action belongs to Mike D'Antoni and the Houston Rockets. They have been running "free" all season for James Harden, as well as for the sharpshooting Eric Gordon. The NBA is a copycat league, after all.
The creative credit that belongs with Quin Snyder comes for another variation of a dribble handoff that gets executed with a shooter. I have been calling it "overrunning the handoff", for its combination of dribble handoffs and re-screen concepts.
Kyle Korver has been terrorizing defenses for years with his three-point prowess. Again, this appears to be a designed call from the bench against teams that start to hug Korver. When they hug--or deny--him from dribble handoffs, the Jazz need a way to get the ball to him.
They instruct Korver to overrun the handoff knowing he won't be able to execute, then turn around and run back to where he came:
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors do an outstanding job flipping their positioning to get a wide base, allowing Korver to run through the handoff. Once he does that, he can either catch-and-shoot or penetrate off the bounce. It's a nifty counter for teams to have up their sleeve when shooters get denied, as it lends itself to the same principles of flipping a ball screen against ice coverage.
Many of the concepts or actions that work will soon be integrated into multiple team's attacks.
The Utah Jazz are one group that stays on the forefront of innovation with their playbook, making them a fun watch for coaches. Regardless of how you watch the game, you can find beauty in the complex chess matches that take place within the game. Some of these concepts are high-level maneuvers and could make a massive impact in a postseason series.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).