The NBA is trending bigger and longer these days, as my friend
and colleague Imman Adan wrote earlier this season. Small
ball, she noted, started as a counter to traditional two-big
lineups. Shooting and spacing reigned supreme, and that generally
favored smaller players. As the personnel changed, schemes did
Now, we're in the midst of a counter to
The Cleveland Cavaliers, with their trio of 7-footers (Lauri
Markkanen, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen), were mentioned as a team
that threw opponents for a loop. Additionally brought up were the
Toronto Raptors, who aren't as tall — Pascal Siakam has started
many-a-game at the 5 this year — but made up for it in collective
This passage from her piece has been
lingering in my head for months now.
As teams in the three-point era attack with heavy diets of
pick-and-roll, switching defenses became a necessity. On the flip
side, traditional centers being switched onto crafty guards around
the perimeter usually spells doom. And with an extreme emphasis on
floor-spacing and three-point shooting, this mismatch can do
serious damage quickly. In order for small ball to succeed in
keeping the big man off the floor, smaller defenders who can more
than hold their own against bigger guys are essential (à la
It’s easy to understand why small ball took the league by storm.
But while most teams have conformed, trying to play smaller with an
emphasis on floor-spacing, a few teams have gone in another
direction: banking on length and hoping that "long ball" is the
answer to the league’s small-ball reign.
The league opting to shift — prioritizing skilled size (and/or
length) as opposed to smaller players with similar skill sets —
shouldn't come as a surprise. Think of your personal top 10 to 15
players, when healthy or otherwise: How many of them are under
Everyone wants the next LeBron James or Luka Doncic — or the
big-man division of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel
Embiid (to a lesser-but-growing playmaking extent) — because of
their ability to dictate the action with plus size.
With that, though, it begs the question: What's gonna happen to
those guys under 6-5 who aren't outlier-good like Damian Lillard
(when healthy), Trae Young or Stephen Curry?
The mind can be funny sometimes. It'll do this thing where a
memory pops up, but it isn't fully fleshed out. You'll get the
outline of a moment, maybe a few details, but gaps will exist.
Sometimes those gaps get filled as time goes on.
I'm sure we've all been told a past story involving ourselves,
where a party recalls an event that you don't, but you nod and
agree anyway because surely they remember if you
don't. It becomes accepted if it isn't challenged. But if it's
challenged, and you're proven wrong, there can be a little shock to
That's my experience of the 2016 NBA Finals.
I remember the important parts. The blown 3-1 lead. The Draymond
Green suspension. Kyrie Irving's shot. Kevin Love's isolation stop
against Curry. LeBron's chase-down block (why the heck didn't Andre
Iguodala dunk?) that still prompts disbelief.
"CLEEEEEVELAND, THIS IS FOR YOU!"
I remember some of the nuts and bolts. How switchy the Warriors
were. The deadly Curry-Green pick-and-roll and the ensuing
short-roll madness if it wasn't defended well enough. How slow the
Cavs played, until they didn't want to play slow anymore.
What I didn't quite recall was how the
"find-Steph-and-attack-him" strategy went.
I remember LeBron relentlessly seeking that matchup. Curry
chilling in the corner, until he wasn't. The hedge-and-recover
strategy the Dubs deployed so LeBron couldn't get that switch. With
that, my brain did the memory thing I just explained:
1) The Cavs won the series.
2) LeBron was a monster down the stretch of that series.
3) LePredator has been money seeking mismatches through the
latter stages of his career.
So I assumed it worked.
It did not.
The film was littered with late-clock possessions, long jumpers
and Curry mostly holding his own. The numbers back it up: the Cavs
scored roughly 0.8 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a
LeBron-led pick-and-roll with a point guard screening for him, per
Second Spectrum. That figure was a little better when Curry was the
target (0.87 PPP), but the efficiency simply wasn't there.
In that low-scoring Game 7, this was the best rep the Cavs got
out of it.
There's LeBron, directing traffic. Kyrie's the primary screener
to get Curry into the action. Curry hedges and tries to get back,
but the Cavs counter with Love setting a flare screen for Kyrie.
It's a delayed version of HORNS Flare, if you want to get nerdy
about it. Now, it's Anderson Varejao (why did he play?) on an
island — you could guess how that was gonna go.
Though my memory proved to be incorrect, I needed to go back to
this series. It's where my curiosity of inverted ball-screens
began; a curiosity that has only grown as the league has
And all guard-screening roads, ironically, lead back to
Curry is one of the greatest players of all-time. He is one of
the five best offensive engines the sport has ever seen, thanks in
large part to his outlier shooting ability. Spot-ups, pull-ups,
movement triples off of screens — nobody has ever weaponized a jump
shot like he has. Because of that, Curry is a cheat code for
It's easy to see on the ball — you have to defend him the second
you cross half-court. Bigs are forced to play higher up in
ball-screens unless you somehow have one good enough to
consistently hang with him on switches. Green has been the NBA's
premier short-roll threat for nearly a decade, but those
opportunities are there because of the attention Curry
What makes Curry unique, to the chagrin of his fan base, is how
devastating he can be as an off-ball weapon. You have to account
for him as a shooter, because duh. But that threat also makes
him the most dangerous screener alive.
Most teams go into games with a designated Curry defender.
Outside of the truly elite defenses, there's generally a noticeable
drop-off between their best defender and their second- or
third-best perimeter option. Even the switchiest teams don't
want to switch worse options onto Curry, though
keeping things in front that way is the lesser of evils.
If those switches aren't airtight, you risk losing Curry (gasp!)
or giving up an easy look elsewhere
(quieter-but-equally-detrimental gasp). Back screens and Flex
action with Curry involved have been easy money for a long
time. They either reveal how tight your switches are, or your
(un)willingness to do it.
Curry has set over 5,600 off-ball screens since Steve Kerr's
first season as the Warriors' head coach (2014-15); that ranks 40th
in that time frame, with 39 frontcourt players ahead of him. In
fact, Curry and Kyle Lowry (3,519, 98th) are the only point guards
in the top-100.
The Warriors have eaten off of his lead-blocking; they've
generated 1.03 PPP on trips featuring a Curry screen, the best mark
in the NBA (minimum 3,000 picks) over that stretch. When asked
about his usage there, Kerr credited his background.
"[Steph] played so much off the ball growing up," Kerr recently
told BasketballNews.com. "He wasn’t really a point guard at
Davidson, he was more of a two-guard.
"When he got to the NBA, he started handling the ball a bit
more, but he was still really lethal running off screens. We wanted
to use him in both capacities. I think he learned, probably, at
Davidson under Bob McKillop, and maybe in high school before that.
He just learned the game at a pretty high level."
Kerr also said it didn't take much to get buy-in from Curry.
"I never really asked him about setting screens," Kerr
continues. "I just sort of drew up some plays and had him do it,
and it was incredibly powerful — No. 1, because of the way he
shoots, and No. 2, he’s a great screener."
There's an underappreciated art to
screening, and Curry is the poster boy on the guard front.
Beyond him, and arguably thanks to him, there are a handful of
top-tier guards who also leverage their gravity to create chaos
One of those players is Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, whose
work as a screener should get more notice. Cross-screens for
post-ups; back-screens and Flex screens for cuts and lobs; pindowns
for the big fella to curl off of in the mid-range area. He's done
it all, and the Nuggets have generated nearly one point per
possession — 1.02 PPP, a Curry-ian number, when specifically
screening for Jokic — because of it.
For more ruggedness, look north of the border.
Lowry loved mixing it up in similar actions while he was a
Raptor, and continues to do so in Miami. His most effective work is
coming in pick-and-rolls now. The partnership between Lowry and
Jimmy Butler, with Butler as the ball-handler, has been fruitful —
nearly 1.2 PPP on direct hookups — due to his ability to force
switches for Butler to hunt.
Fred VanVleet has a similar dynamic with his fellow All-Star and
teammate Pascal Siakam. Even if a switch isn't forced, VanVleet's
ability to shoot off movement can spook defenses. There's nothing
quite like a good ghost screen to keep defenders off-balance.
All four guards are incredibly talented; they're also outliers
in terms of their usage as screeners. When asking about the rarity
(and effectiveness) of this role, there was a common thread between
physicality and mentality.
"I’m just not afraid to put my body on people," VanVleet told
BasketballNews.com before a shootaround.
"I had good coaches growing up that taught how to screen — it’s
definitely a skill set. With my shooting ability, a lot of teams
don’t want to leave my body. So when I set a screen, I usually free
somebody up — either them, or I get open on the back end. That’s
the easiest way to get good shots — set good screens. That’s
something I’ve been doing for a long time."
"Steph’s a lot stronger than people realize — he kinda reminds
me of John Stockton in that regard," Kerr said of Curry. "Stockton
used to be a great screen-setter and wasn’t afraid to screen across
the lane and take on some big guy and open up the lane for Karl
Malone. Steph’s the same way; he’ll hold onto a screen and free up
his teammates, then pop up on the weak side for a shot. It’s a big
part of his game, and one of the things that make him very unique
because most other guys who play his position don’t possess all of
that in their skill set."
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse also noted his (former) player's
willingness to muck things up.
"[VanVleet and Lowry] are tough as sh**," Nurse told
BasketballNews.com. "They’re physical, they’re strong, they don’t
mind contact. In fact, they like it. That’s the big thing. When you
want to be a good screener, you have to like contact — and they
Mike Malone offered similar sentiments when discussing Murray in a Jan.
2019 interview with The Athletic.
"I learned that a long time ago from my father; the screener is
going to be freer than the man he screens for, but you have to give
Jamal a lot of credit. He’s not afraid of making contact," Malone
said. "A lot of guys, when they
have set a screen, it’s like ships in the night — there is no
contact. Jamal thrives on that contact, and he’s not afraid of
It's worth noting that these
players are the exception, not the rule... at least not yet. As
such, there's room for less-heralded players to make a living off
of this kind of dirty work.
The date is Feb. 23, 2021. Kyrie is kicking off a possession for
the Nets with the Sacramento Kings in town.
DeAndre Jordan is screening for James Harden on the right side
of the floor. Joe Harris is chilling in the left corner after
receiving a screen from Bruce Brown, a 6-foot-3 guard — or so
we thought — starting in place of Kevin Durant.
Brown jets up to Irving's left, setting a screen on De'Aaron Fox
in order to:
1) Get Irving downhill.
2) Attack Marvin Bagley III — a woeful drop defender — in
Irving comes off the screen before hitting a rolling Brown with
a pocket pass. Bagley committed to Irving's drive, putting him out
of position. Richaun Holmes, Jordan's defender, is late rotating
over in fear of giving up a dump-off to Jordan in the dunker spot
That bucket was one of the first of 11 that Brown would have en
route to a career-high 29 points.
Nets head coach Steve Nash was ecstatic after the game; not only because
of Brown's performance, but because of his offensive utility doing
"Bruce is remarkable," Nash said
following the contest. "I mean, I believe he mostly played point
guard last year and he's playing — what do you want to call him,
our center? He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in
the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is
What do you want to call him, our center?
After the game, Brown revealed he "played 1 through 5" in AAU.
He "played the 4" at some points during his college career at
Miami, but never center.
Then, we got the kicker: "I love the role and I'm just trying to
do whatever it is for us to win. If I have to do that, then I’ll do
We're not far removed from "traditional" centers having to make
wholesale changes in the name of adaptivity. If you were a
post-centric center, but weren't good or efficient enough to build
around, you had to find other ways to be effective. The common ask:
Expand your range to the three-point line.
We might start seeing a similar shift among non-primary guards.
We're definitely seeing it with non-shooters; similar to
Brown, Matisse Thybulle has found some utility screening for
Harden to mitigate his lack of shooting gravity. Accentuating
your star(s) will always take precedence to a role player's
"A lot of those [big creators] — LeBron, Giannis just to name a
couple — have been in those [inverted] actions for a few years
now," Nurse added.
"When you got those guys, you
find every possible way to get them the ball."
Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff told BasketballNews.com that he
thinks inverted ball screens will be "something that you’ll see
more of" moving forward, due to the strain it places on
"What it does is put people in positions they’re not used to.
Guards aren’t used to being the defender of a screener in a
pick-and-roll, or a dribble handoff and things like that,"
Bickerstaff also acknowledged that personnel will be key,
highlighting NBA Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley as a
"It’s gonna be down to the big guys and their skill sets,"
Bickerstaff said. "Evan has the ability to make those passes out of
pick-and-roll; how many big guys have those skills? I think it’s
going to be personnel-based for what’s on your team, but it’s
definitely a weapon that people can take advantage of."
Yeah, having a big man that can do this will help:
The league will certainly be on the hunt for more big creators;
it's not a coincidence that five of the first eight picks of this
year's draft are (Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey), or
could be (Jalen Green, Franz Wagner) molded into, initiating
As long as that's the case, it's fair to assume we'll see a rise
in non-traditional roles from backcourt players. More off-ball
screening. More inverted pick-and-rolls.
How much of a rise, however, is yet to be
Rafael Barlowe, founder of NBA Draft Junkies and director of scouting for
NBA Big Board, told BasketballNews.com that the
concept of inverted actions "is pretty exclusive to the NBA."
"In Europe or college basketball, you really don’t even have the
spacing to get mismatches like that because there’s always a big
just standing in the paint," Barlowe explained.
Barlowe says that screening "isn't a high priority" for him when
evaluating guards, but acknowledges there could be some intangible
"I like to see it from a toughness standpoint," Barlowe said.
"Is the guy willing to give up his body? Is he willing to do it for
four quarters? It also shows a level of unselfishness, because
you’re willing to screen to get your primary ball-handler an
advantage over and over again. For some people, it may hurt their
ego that they’re being used as a screener as a guard."
One Western Conference scout thinks screening "is sometimes
overlooked" in the evaluation process, and that young guards could
benefit from developing the skill earlier.
"Screening is a critical part of the game, and it's something
that I look at a lot on the college side," the West scout told
BasketballNews.com. "When we talk about bigs and forwards that have
guard skills, I think guards can really benefit in their
development in high school, in college, and in the NBA of how to
set screens. I think sometimes guards don't know how to screen,
then they get to the NBA and realize, 'Wait, screening is a huge
part of the game now: guards included.'"
That point can be backed up statistically. Guards are setting
nearly six more screens per 100 possessions than they were during
the 2015-16 season, per Second Spectrum. Interestingly enough,
we've seen a gradual decline in off-ball screening and gradual rise
in on-ball picks, which coincides with the rise of switching and
(Note: Scroll right for full table)
||On-Ball Screens (per 100)
||Off-Ball Screens (per 100)
||Screens (per 100)
Over that stretch, there's been no deadlier (or more frequent)
off-ball screener than Curry. No player has received more inverted
ball screens than LeBron (4,924); his playoff number (1,097) is
more than second-place Harden (625) and third-place Donovan
Mitchell (353) combined.
It's fitting that you can take things back to LeBron and Curry,
since they've been instrumental in bringing this change forward.
That 2016 Finals may have been more noteworthy than we
All stats are updated through games played on March
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