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Changing of the guard: The future of screening is here

Changing of the guard: The future of screening is here

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 too.

Now, we're in the midst of a counter to that counter.

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 length. 

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 Draymond Green).

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 6-foot-5?

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?

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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 the system. 

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 changed. 

And all guard-screening roads, ironically, lead back to Curry. 

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 creating advantages.

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 commands.

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."

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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 elsewhere.

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 do."

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.”

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 space.

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 (subscribe!).

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 non-guard things.

"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 remarkable."

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 it."

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 comfort.

"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 defenses.

"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 said.

Bickerstaff also acknowledged that personnel will be key, highlighting NBA Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley as a unique case.

"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 wings.

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 determined.

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 value. 

"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 mismatch hunting.

(Note: Scroll right for full table)

Season On-Ball Screens (per 100) Off-Ball Screens (per 100) Screens (per 100)
2015-16 3.7 17.5 21.2
2016-17 4.9 17.3 22.2
2017-18 5.2 19.5 24.7
2018-19 6.3 17.7 24.0
2019-20 8.5 17.2 25.7
2020-21 9.2 16.1 25.3
2021-22 10.8 15.9 26.7

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 remember.

All stats are updated through games played on March 15.

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