This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
One of Twitter's premier video coordinators (and a personal friend) Zak Boisvert is an assistant coach at West Point who has noted how the NBA has moved towards a shift in off-ball placement of shooters around a pick-and-roll.
On side ball screens where there is one player placed in the corner on the same side, a single-side bump occurs. The terminology describes the do-or-die choice the corner man's defender has at the time of the screen: He can stay with his man, who raises out of the corner, and risk giving up a dunk to the screener, or help on the screen by tagging the roller to leave his man open for a three.
It's a difficult action to guard, and most side ball screens are designed to develop such a situation:
But there's an obvious point to be made once you see the videos: If the single-side bump is so important, why does the shooter not just start high?
That positioning would make it more difficult for him to take away the higher percentage shot, which is at the rim. With the defender starting closer to the baseline, he's in a better position to help against the most advantageous offensive scoring zone.
Somewhere along the way, teams beat me to the punch on this assertion. As Boisvert and I mused in a recent message chain, there's been an explosion this season of set plays that include high single-side bumps. Naturally curious as to where this came from and who might deserve some credit as a pioneer, I went back and watched a bunch of set plays and ball screen film from a season ago.
As it turns out, the most likely culprit is Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets. Last season, the Nuggets favored high single-side bumps, specifically around Mason Plumlee as the screener.
Why was Plumlee frequently in this spot and not Nikola Jokic? It all comes down to Malone knowing how to maximize Plumlee, who is an elite lob-catching big.
So far this season, Plumlee is 5-5 on pick-and-rolls where he rolls to the basket or slips the screen, according to Synergy's play tracking data. A season ago he was 65-86 (75.6 percent) and among the league leaders in field goal percentage. But Plumlee is known for slipping screens, or barely brushing with contact on the defense. He uses angles and anticipation well to dart to the hoop while his man is still reacting to the screen. He is even better at finishing above the rim.
How does the high single-side bump get Plumlee open? That's where we turn to the film.
Examine this one here: a set-up ball screen set by Plumlee after a shooter clears through and fakes a ball screen of his own:
There's a lot to digest in a short amount of time.
Plumlee's defender has to go from lane protected to screen defense almost instantly as Plumlee only slightly steps into the screen instead of sprinting from the baseline. By standing close to where he'll set the screen, he negates the anticipatory instincts of his defender.
The other part of this is the man guarding the shooter, who likely hugs as the ball screen occurs. He's technically one pass away and should be in a driving gap, so helping closer to the rim is out. The angle the shooter exits this play with is critical: His defender cannot help at the rim, so the ball handler really only has to read Plumlee's man.
What this formation lacks is a disguise. In order to clear that side of the floor for a single-side bump, the left wing would start unoccupied ahead of the ram action (that decoy down screen Plumlee sets at the free-throw line). Good teams will see the action as it occurs and perhaps bring a help defender from the opposite corner to chip down on Plumlee at the rim.
So Malone adjusts and runs the same set from another common formation. The Philly formation is named for the popularity of an action run for Allen Iverson nearly 20 years ago. The "Philly" or "Iverson Cut" brushes him across the free throw line through staggered screens, usually set by bigs.
Notice the same step-up from Plumlee as the video above, where he simply reverse pivots and takes one step into a ball screen:
Now that's what we're talking about. Same design, better disguise.
That back corner behind Plumlee is completely empty, so nobody can help on lobs to the rim. Dunk after dunk after dunk, all brought to you by the spacing created by Malone's offense.
To be fair, Malone isn't that innovative. He's just using sets like these more frequently as a staple of his second unit's offensive attack. These actions have been occurring for years with high-side bumps out of the Pistol or 21 series. It's a staple of the NBA and was brought here in large part due to Mike D'Antoni's influence with the "7 Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns.
The action that simulates a high single-side bump has been called a "Nash" action, where the point guard makes a pass somewhere between a true chest pass and a dribble handoff, then crashes into the other defender. A big then raises to set a ball screen, and the combination of pace and bodies in a small area creates a graveyard of navigation for the defense.
Because Pistol sets are run through early offense and semi-transition, they happen with pace, making them extremely difficult to guard:
Key to this action are the two weak-side offensive players. They will exchange in some fashion, whether through a down screen or simply jogging to trade spots. That action keeps the help defense away from the rim and focused on their men. The ball is above the top of the key at the time of the exchange, so they're more worried about being one pass away (near the wing) than helping at the rim (near the block). It's a nightmare of an action, which is why nearly every team runs it in some fashion.
Denver weaponized it for Plumlee by instructing him to slip these screens. If you watch again, he barely makes contact here and is only worried about that window created by the elevating help defense staying open long enough for him to dunk. Contact on a screen could hang him up in the action and slow him down, so his job is to stand in the way and then get to the rim.
So many teams run Pistol, there has to be a way to shut it down, especially when you know it's coming. Right? Jam the wings, switch the screens; there are a lot of options available to a defense.
Malone stays a step ahead. He'll get the same resulting action, that borderline illegal guard-to-guard flip screen, after a quirky middle give-and-go between a guard and Plumlee:
So much movement and pace. All of this is effective for Plumlee because he understands how to roll, and the play design elevates the help defense to areas they cannot help. The ball moves faster than people, so reacting to the ball is going to leave openings if offense is done right. So many dunks result from these plays that their result can be no accident.
To be clear, it's not like Plumlee is an All-Star, but this is a great example of how coaches can run actions for lesser offensive threats to keep them engaged and, more importantly, give their superstars a breather and/or different look.
Kudos go to Malone for placing his backup big in a position to succeed and not ramming the same offense they run for Jokic down Plumlee's throat. The result is a great maximization of talent through these sets.
Any X's and O's or innovative offense is only as good as the players placed within the offense needed to execute it. The Nuggets are the perfect marriage of both.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).