Several weeks ago, SLAM writer and Synergy video logger Rodger Bohn was invited to a closed-door, pre-combine workout session that included Karl Towns, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and Louisville guard Terry Rozier. He says the first thing Towns said to him was, "Hey, Rodger, I can still shoot the ball."
He did everything from mid-range jumpers to NBA threes, both on the move and with his feet set, and it just shows that he's going to be a dynamic player in the NBA, because not only has his back-to-the-basket game developed so much at Kentucky, but again he's going to really shock people with his ability to stretch the defense.
This sort of shooting touch has been oft-rumored in casual references and random Tweets, but now we're starting to get hard, tangible, recorded evidence that it is in fact real. And I'm not sure it's even started to sink in what this could potentially mean.
Twenty years ago, Kevin Garnett started a revolution.
He didn't do it intentionally. He wasn't trying to change the game. KG was simply being himself - it just so happened that he was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.
NBA power forwards of the 90s were not the star players. That designation overwhelmingly belonged to the center position in that era. Patrick Ewing. Hakeem Olajuwan. David Robinson. Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo. Shaq. Centers were the pillars of the game of basketball at the time; inheritors of the legacies of Kareem and Bill Walton, Wilt and Bill Russell, all the way back to George Mikan.
By contrast, the power forward position was as blue collar as it got in the NBA. It was a group of guys who got relegated to 'the dirty work'. Kurt Thomas. Anthony Mason. Dale and Antonio Davis. Robert Horry. Dennis Rodman. Like any position, there were a few players who defied the norm - Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, pre-druggie/pre-300 lbs Shawn Kemp - but for the most part, your typical power forward was on the floor basically to rebound, defend, and punch guys in the mouth if they got too close to your All-Star center.
Then Kevin Garnett came along. 7' tall, pogo stick legs, with the arms of a condor and the grace of a deer. Able to handle the ball like a wing, pass it like a point guard, and shoot out to 20 feet. The combination of those skills in a guy of that physical stature was unheard of in 1995. 7-footers didn't dribble between their legs. They didn't face up and shoot from high school 3pt range. Kevin Garnett did, and everyone who saw him was shocked.
"I think back then, you started to think about how big, how tall these guys were with those skills, and is that going to be the norm?" Gregg Popovich says, recalling Garnett's arrival. "Are we going to have more guys like this come along that can do that? That's what I thought of when I first saw him. It was incredible."
George Mikan came into the league in 1946. KG's revolution started in 1995. That's 50 years of professional basketball teams knowing, inarguably, fundamentally, in their hearts and souls, that the way to win was the dominant, low post center. That's the system Garnett upended - five decades of tried, tested, and proven basketball certainty. That's why he's called a basketball revolution.
Every big man today who facilitates from the high post, pushes the ball up the floor in transition, or steps out beyond the three point line, owes something to the legacy of Kevin Garnett, and many are very acutely aware of that.
"He revolutionized the sport," Bosh, the Miami Heat star, says of Garnett, without hyperbole. "He was a young fella, being an All-Star, taking the rebound and pushing it down court and finishing with a dunk. I had never seen that before. So I was like, 'If I want to be in the NBA, I've got to do that.' "
Much of the debate over Karl Towns or Jahlil Okafor revolves around what it means to fit into the modern NBA.
And I believe that the aspect of 'fit' is not being fully understood, nor is it's importance. It seems like the prevailing idea right now is 'back-to-the-basket' versus 'face-up jump shots'.
That's certainly part of it, but it's also so much more than that.
KG came into the league right as the league was transforming to take advantage of KG as a player.
Throughout the '90s, the restrictive and physically punishing nature of NBA defenses had led to a constant decline in scoring. In 1997, the league-wide scoring average was just 95.6. Garnett's arrival was the first of what I consider the three major alterations in NBA basketball that changed this and brought about the 'modern' era.
First, to increase scoring (which was the terminology the NBA used to mean "increase excitement and fan interest") the league made a series of rule changes. In 1997, players were barred from using forearms to defend players facing the basket. In 1999, hard contact in the backcourt was also barred, eliminating the "re-routing" tactic defenses would use - physically blocking players coming off screens or flashing to the corners. And then 2004 was the infamous "hand check" rule.
Second, NBA teams began truly understanding the value of the three point line. Three pointers are the second-most efficient shot in basketball, and setting up for them has the added effect of spreading the defense and forcing it to move - key elements in our understanding of how to score in today's NBA. For these reasons, the use of the three point line has exploded exponentially over the last 25 years.
|League Average - 3pt Attempts
|League Leader - 3pt Attempts
|1990 - 1991
|1997 - 1998
|2005 - 2006
|2014 - 2015
(fwiw, the Timberwolves attempted just 14.1 3ptA last season. Hooray for shooting like it's still 1999!)
Third, players like Garnett - bigs who could handle, pass, face up and shoot out on the perimeter - started becoming the norm, and teams began experimenting in how they could be utilized in the new NBA landscape.
The hand check rule changes opened up the floor for quick guards. With defenses no longer able to shove and grab them, their small size and quickness went from a liability to an asset. This paved the way for the superstar point guards we see today. Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Damien Lillard, non-injured Derrick Rose, Steph Curry, Steph Curry, Steph Curry - all franchise players because of the change that allows them to spam the pick, then gives them a myriad of options on the roll.
The decline of the traditional big man began because of this. In a motion offense where the goal is to get the guard moving towards the hoop, having a 7-footer camping out underneath it is a detriment, even if that 7-footer is on the same team. Not only is his defender there with him, next to the rim, but he himself becomes an obstacle for his teammate just because he's there and taking up space. Teams began realizing that sending a guard around a screen only to have him run headlong into his own teammate was impeding the guard's ability to attack the basket, and breaking apart the floor spacing and flow needed to execute the pick-and-roll. The big not involved in the roll needed to not be in the paint when the roll happened.
Garnett was ideally suited to lead the way for the next generation of big men in this new, motion-oriented NBA. His mobility opened up the floor for his teammates. He was able to initiate plays from the elbows, and attack mismatches both on the perimeter and in the paint. He could push the ball for easy baskets before the defense could get set in transition, and float and screen to force the defense to move in the halfcourt. Teams saw how the utility of a big like Garnett could open up the floor for them.
That utility in a big became the holy grail for the NBA in the late '90s and early 2000s. Every team wanted a big man who could play like Garnett, and seemingly every young big coming into the league from then on wanted to be the next Garnett: Lamar Odom and Darius Miles, Jonathan Bender and Stromile Swift, Amare Stoudemire and Chris Bosh and Tyrus Thomas and (may he rest in peace) Eddie Griffin. It was a parade of young kids trying to be KG when they didn't know what being KG was, and the league didn't yet realize that a player like KG wasn't just unique, but that he could turn basketball upside-down.
In 2003, Mike D'Antoni blew those doors completely off their hinges.
He implemented the first fully realized spread/motion offense in Phoenix, built on Steve Nash and two players who followed in the footsteps Garnett set down. Amare Stoudemire became the most feared pick-and-roll weapon in the league - a mobile, 6'10" freak athlete big like Garnett, who's pick-and-roll combination with Nash appeared as unstoppable as Stockton-to-Malone. And to make sure Nash and Stoudemire had clear lanes to the hoop, D'Antoni played Amare at center and started what I consider the second step in the KG revolution - the first true attempt at a modern big man, Shawn Marion.
Prime Shawn Marion was a very Garnett-like player. He was rail thin, highly mobile and highly athletic, with a diverse skillset. He could handle the ball and pass it, and played phenomenal defense. At 6'7" and maybe 225 lbs, he wasn't a true big man physically. But he could rebound and defend the power forward position like one (10.5 rebounds, 2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game between '03-'08) and had a facet KG did not: a three point shot.
The pick-and-roll itself isn't anything new. In fact, it's pretty old. Pretty much every Stockton-to-Malone call you've ever heard is a pick-and-roll play, and that was happening in the late '80s/early '90s. But the ability to utilize it was much more restricted back then because of the highly physical defense that was allowed, and the fact that NBA had yet to understand the importance of the three point line as a floor spacing technique.
D'Antoni was smart enough to realize that the rules restricting physical contact on defense could turn an undersized, relatively unathletic guy like Steve Nash into an incredible weapon off screens. Nash's game was about shooting and making smart decisions, which could now be exploited under the new no-touchy rulebook. D'Antoni then came up with the answer to a question no one had really thought to even ask at that point: if the non-rolling big isn't in the paint, then where is he? D'Antoni decided the answer should be "behind the three point line".
The system D'Antoni invented around that concept was not only very different, it was - to the NBA's old guard at least - borderline heretical. And until basically this year, when the Steph Curry Warriors absolutely flattened the league with their modified version of it, it was assailed every season, from all corners, as something that couldn't get the job done when it mattered. Nothing beat the traditional big man. You couldn't win being a "jump shooting team."
Looking back on it all, the idea it wouldn't work - that the system was just some kind of gimmick or fad - seems absurd. That system went gangbusters on the league right out of the gates, drowning opposing teams in motion scoring...usually an Amare dunk or wide open three point shot. By the end of 2004, with the advantage of the hand check rule change, they were leading the league in scoring by a gigantic margin - 110 points/game, with the next closest (Sacramento) a full 6 points behind at 103.7 points/game.
Because they played Amare at center, the Suns were never able to build more than an adequate defense (although they were much better defensively than most realize, usually ranking between 14-18 in defensive rating) But ironically, their inability to get past the Spurs and Lakers in the playoffs - an argument that conveniently ignores the fact that no one was getting past the Spurs or Lakers then - ultimately became falsely attributed to the offense.
Disregarding the mis-characterization of the Suns as a "jump shooting team", the push back on D'Antoni's system was rooted more in aversion to change than truth. The Suns lead the league in scoring in six of the seven seasons between 2003 and 2010, even through a coaching change and the modification of their offense to accommodate Shaq. What they did with their offense was proof positive - despite the doubters - that the "new way" did indeed work, was sustainable and could be replicated and even adjusted.
The smart teams realized what Mike D'Antoni had done and began rebuilding or adjusting themselves to emulate it.
Don Nelson went back to his "five equal parts" theory with the Warriors. Stan Van Gundy built as close to it as he could with the Magic, although he was somewhat hampered by Dwight Howard's refusal to play the pick-and-roll (he still inexplicably refuses)
And the Spurs, who were probably the D'Antoni-era Suns' greatest rivals, began transforming even earlier, while they were still competing with the Suns and as the Suns were still hitting their stride.
In February, Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford got on ESPN Radio with Zach Lowe for a Grantland podcast and talked about how the team, and specifically Pops, morphed the Spurs from a defense-oriented, low post team into an offense-oriented pick-and-roll team.
Zach Lowe: Much has been made...and it's really been a long term transformation [meaning they still play this way now] of you going from an inside-out team built around Tim's post ups, and before that, David's inside-out game, to an offensive team that's been ahead of the league and has been the envy of the league - the combination of pick-and-roll stuff taken from Mike D'Antoni and your own motion offense...and being ahead of everyone on the corner three. And really readjusting the offense so that it's more Tony-centric than Tim-centric.
R.C. Buford: The perimeter touch rules that changed in 2004 created the need for players who could play off the dribble much more so than the time before then. And especially with the skill sets of Manu and Tony, we became a lot less inside-out starting in probably 2005. For sure by 2007. We didn't have as much freedom and motion as we currently do, and that evolved from that time, but we were much less inside-out oriented. And that happens through coaches meetings, self-evaluation of our team with our scouts and coaches, and then being fortunate that Manu and Tony developed into being very good players.
That explanation is why the post up big man has mostly disappeared from the league: the rules changed, so the game changed. This spurred a new type of offense - of which the Suns were the leading edge of - that demanded broader skills and much greater mobility from the the big men playing in it.
It says something that one of the greatest coaches in the history of the league almost immediately saw the greater value in the new way. San Antonio ripped the core of D'Antoni's system out, dropped it in Parker's lap, and said "Tim's your Amare now". And that transition took hold league-wide.
The pick-and-roll is now the foundation of the NBA playbook.
Here's some numbers from this past season to give context on just how much the NBA has shifted to the pick-and-roll:
- Teams run the pick-and-roll more frequently than any other play type. Per Synergy, NBA teams ran the pick-and-roll 58,187 times this season. The spot-up jumper was second, at 49,127. Post ups didn't happen at even half that rate - only 22,547 total post ups.
- Only four teams ran more than 1,000 post ups this year. Every team ran at least 1,500 pick-and-rolls.
- Orlando lead the league in pick-and-rolls with over 2,500 total. Memphis lead the league in post ups with less than half that number - 1,243.
- The team that ran the fewest pick-and-rolls - predictably, the Knicks and their faux Triangle - still ran more of them (1,511 total) than Memphis ran the post up.
Looking through the data gives us a good reason for why this is happening: the pick-and-roll is simply better shot selection. The league average in PPP, FG%, and Scoring Frequency are all higher in pick-and-roll sets than any other play call except basket cuts.
|League average PPP
|League Average FG%
|League average Score Frequency
(btw, if you want to know why the basketball community blasts "hero ball", now you know. Isolation is the least efficient play call out there)
Minimum 100 possessions, only two big men in the entire league scored more than 1.00 PPP on post ups this year: Jonas Valanciunas and Carl Landry. That's a pretty sobering figure, considering a made post shot is worth two points, and free throws are included in the score on top of that. To be below 1.00 PPP would mean most players are shooting well below 50% on their post ups - which have been traditionally seen as good shots because of their close proximity to the basket - and we can see from the league average FG% on post ups that this is indeed the case.
The data points here are why the NBA began favoring the pick-and-roll over the post up (which is really just an isolation play with the player facing away from the hoop instead of at it) - when executed properly, it tends to get easier, much more open looks than post ups or isolation, particularly for bigs, who start with one player already in defensive position guarding them, and are easy to double in the paint.
For example, Al Jefferson led the league in post up possessions this season, but scored just 47% of the time on them, for only 0.93 PPP. Anthony Davis led the league in pick-and-roll possessions (among roll men) this season, scoring on 59% of them for 1.16 PPP. This trend is pretty much universal, and the difference applies to individual players singly as well.
|PPP Post up (# of attempts)
|PPP Pick-and-roll (# of attempts)
|0.93 (659 attempts)
|0.98 (176 attempts)
|0.95 (533 attempts)
|1.02 (294 attempts)
|0.87 (468 attempts)
|0.99 (204 attempts)
|0.89 (420 attempts)
|0.93 (215 attempts)
|0.95 (397 attempts)
|1.00 (292 attempts)
|0.89 (363 attempts)
|0.96 (199 attempts)
|0.69 (344 attempts)
|1.18 (132 attempts)
|0.81 (313 attempts)
|1.05 (209 attempts)
|0.94 (268 attempts)
|1.08 (292 attempts)
|0.85 (203 attempts)
|1.16 (365 attempts)
Even the players we typically think of as being very traditional post players are really more "hybrid" players, and more effective in the pick-and-roll. When executed properly, it's simply more efficient shot selection than the post up, which is why the NBA is is headed towards one and away from the other. Timmy began making that transition 10 years ago. Brook Lopez actually played in the pick-and-roll more this year than the post, which is definitely not the type of player we think of him being.
So the new way is actually now the standard way, and the old standard way is now just the old way. The post up isn't dead - it still has a lot of use in specific situations to create or exploit mismatches - but teams aren't building their offense on it anymore.
Scoring in the NBA is it's easiest to do when you make the defense move.
Kerr: "I think every player is better suited to play with movement than with isolation"
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) May 29, 2015
The basic principle in generating an open shot is getting one or more defenders out of position. That means you have to get the defense to move.
It should be no surprise that play type efficiency is 'proportional', for lack of a better term, to how much they move the defense. Pick-and-roll forces the defense into motion. The basket cut happens most often when the defense has already been moved out of position, and beaten.
Conversely, post ups and isolations require very little movement to defend. They give the defense time to set itself - so the play starts with a defender already in the way - and if that defender does get beat, the help defense is also already set up in position only a couple steps away. A set defense is called a set defense for a reason: it's ready. The defense is in position. And it's easy for defenders to stay in position when all they have to do is stand there, or run 10 feet to one point, then run back again.
Moving the defense doesn't mean two guys standing in place and moving the ball between them; it means moving the players themselves - big men included. In fact, moving the big men is arguably the most important part. The best shot is the one 0 feet from the rim. Defending bigs nominally occupy the space under the rim - ergo, to get shots there, you have to get those bigs out of the way. The easiest way to do that is to move your own bigs.
The concept of movement is the foundation of the modern NBA big man.
And by building on that foundation, big men are able to add greater levels of versatility to their games that allow teams to execute much more dynamic and efficient offenses.
The pick-and-roll is movement. Setting screens for guards is movement. Shooting the three ball isn't necessarily perpetual motion, but it's certainly movement along the large space of the arc. It's all about mobility - the ability to get to places and spaces on the floor in coordination with the guards. It's the legacy that pioneering big men like Kevin Garnett are leaving in the NBA, who have the physical quickness and agility to cover ground on the perimeter like a guard. Garnett's mobility added an additional layer of utility to the post positions.
Teams that run modern NBA offenses rarely have their bigs -or any of their players, for that matter - standing in one place on any given possession. The bleeding edge of this now is, of course, the Golden State Warriors, who spent this season annihilating the league with a modified pick-and-roll "flex system".
The flex cut is built on the idea of all players on the floor being more or less interchangable.
Basic flex action looks something like this: One big man is in the post, the other is at the three point line, and both wings are in the corners. The point guard brings the ball up the floor then passes it to the big on the perimeter. As this is happening, the big in the post sets a down screen for the wing in his corner; that wing uses the screen to cut across the lane, while the big in the post moves out to the perimeter. If the cutting player has an open look, the big with the ball makes the pass to him. If not, he passes to the other big that's now moved out to the perimeter, and then takes his place in the post, setting a down screen for the wing in the other corner.
The trick to this is, because the core action is the down screen and cut across the lane, this play can basically be cycled continuously for the entire duration of the shot clock until one of the defenders chasing a cutter fails to keep up.
That's where the "interchangable" part comes in. At any given moment, a player can be at the top of the key, in the post, in the corner, or cutting across the lane, and that player has to be able to move, pass or shoot at any time in any of those situations.
So if you're a big, that means you have to be able to screen, roll, pass from anywhere to anywhere, and shoot out to at least 18 feet. It takes the mobility to be anywhere on the floor, and the versatility to play outside the power forward/center positions.
Golden State's version of this is essentially the core of the "Seven Seconds or Shaq" method their assistant coach Alvin Gentry used when he succeeded D'Antoni in Phoenix, flowing into flex action, and married with the corner three sets and Triangle split screens Steve Kerr picked up playing for the Spurs and Bulls.
This sort of action is what most teams have been trending towards for the past 5-6 years, and will be the future of the NBA - particularly now that Golden State has dispelled the myth that teams can't win this way.
Victorious Gentry: "Tell Mike D'Antoni he's vindicated! We just kicked everyone's ass playing the way everybody complained about!"
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 17, 2015
Steve Kerr also directly credited Mike D'Antoni for building the foundation of his Warriors by being the pioneer with the Suns (Kerr was the General Manager in Phoenix while D'Antoni was coaching there). He also, later, would call Steve Nash "the original Steph Curry".
From the front office to the floor, 11 former members of the Suns are in the Finals. They are coaches (like Golden State's Alvin Gentry and Jarron Collins), executives (like Cleveland's GM, David Griffin, and director of player administration, Raja Bell) and players (like Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa and Cavaliers swingman James Jones). All are disciples of Mike D'Antoni and the fast-breaking, ball-hopping, paint-clearing, seven-seconds-or-less offense that has spread from Phoenix to every corner of the NBA. "Mike was a visionary," says Kerr, who used to be D'Antoni's GM. "He changed the league." The last three champions—San Antonio, Miami and Dallas—took hints from the Suns with their small lineups and incessant pick-and-rolls. "That's what everyone is moving toward," says Bell.
The key advantage Golden State has, of course - which is why they run flex so overwhemingly successfully - is Draymond Green, a big who can screen like a big, but also move, pass and shoot like a guard. He's the very definition of what teams wanted but never had back in the 1970s when flex action was invented: a truly interchangable player.
This has allowed the Warriors to push the boundaries even further, by having Draymond or Bogut initiate the play (Dray's even begun bringing the ball up the floor himself now). This puts Curry in one of the corners instead of at the top, which means that after just the first flex cut, it's pretty likely that either Steph or Klay Thompson is wide open somewhere on the floor.
Another great set the Warriors (and several other teams) run is called "horns", where both the power forward and center come out to the free throw line. The point guard gives up the ball, then uses one of them as a pick or, more often, runs a Triangle split between them. This inverts the defense; the defensive bigs who normally protect the rim are now out at or even above the free throw line, leaving the painted area vacant.
Again, moving the bigs on offense to move the bigs on defense. This opens up the floor for the offense to generate much easier shots with, because it leaves a huge area of it open and thus free to move through. By forcing the bigs to vacate the paint, the offense can easily get behind the defense - often for uncontested or lightly contested layups. That's much, much more efficient than post up and isolation situations, which attack the defense head-on.
The motion here is how modern big men fit into today's NBA. David Lee starts the play at the three point line as the left side of the loose elevator screen. As soon as Klay splits the screen, he slides to the elbow and sets a back screen for Curry, coming in from the corner - essentially a pick-and-roll play, except that Curry doesn't have the ball when he comes around the pick. Steph gets the ball after clearing the screen, then immediately slings it to Lee who's already rolling to the hoop and gets a wide open layup.
And again, Draymond Green adds additional facets to this, as he's also able to fade to the corner for a three instead of rolling, or even be the guard, making the pass to David Lee (or Harrison Barnes, who is Golden States' other favorite target for this)
It's motion in four tiers instead of two - extended from the idea of the pick-and-roll and with a lot of misdirection - but the result is a vastly easier shot to make than if Lee had posted up, or faced up and attacked off the dribble or took a contested jump shot. By being mobile, bigs can generate open shots for their teammates and themselves.
I generally term the Warriors' offense as a whole - not just when they run the flex cut - a "flex system", because it's built on the core principle of the flex play: if your bigs have to play like guards, they can play like guards. That's really the best description there is for Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut - bigs who do things beyond the traditional description of their positions. They can not only rebound and defend the paint like big men, they can also move, pass, defend the perimeter and (for Dray) even shoot like guards as well.
The Warriors also categorically avoided posting up this season.
To give context of just how little Golden State went to the post this year, consider this: as a team, the Warriors posted up only 530 times all year; Al Jefferson posted up 659 times all by himself.
Andrew Bogut only had 70 post ups this season. David Lee, just 76. Dray Green, a mere 40. The Warriors used the post up almost purely to exploit major mismatches - Shaun Livingston being a 6'7" point guard for example, or when the Rockets put Corey Brewer on Green in the playoffs. Likewise, most of the jump shots the Warriors' big men took were kick outs from drives, or ball rotation along the three point line in Dray's case. Mainly, their bigs were moving, being used as facilitators, setting screens, find the corners, or diving to the hoop.
The reason for this is posting up is stagnant offense. The offense isn't moving, so the defense doesn't have to move. Coach Nick notes this in the video, which echoes the shot efficiency data and Kerr's assertion that players are simply better suited to be in motion.
A full post up offense also dictates pace and limits variety, particularly when the centerpiece of the offense basically only posts up. Those players often require special accommodations on the offensive end to thrive - sometimes to the point of dictating their team's entire playbook, as in the case of Al Jefferson. Charlotte has to tailor their entire offense specifically for Big Al, because he can't really play any style except the low post game. This not only makes their offense predictable, but arguably limits the abilities of their faster, more dynamic players like Kemba Walker, and makes it much more difficult for non-scorers like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo to contribute, as the types of plays that could get them easy baskets are largely eliminated from the playbook. By contrast, big men who can operate in a pick-and-roll/flex system always have the option of going to the post if they're able to, but aren't tied down to it, allowing their team to be much more prolific in their shot selection.
The Warriors ranked first in screen possessions this season, second in transition possessions and second in basket cut possessions. Twenty-third in isolation possessions, and twenty-fifth in post ups. They systematically generated the best play types, and avoided the worst ones. It should be no surprise they had the NBA's best offense, and it isn't a coincidence their offense - as Kerr states - is built on motion.
The necessity for mobile big men also applies to defense.
Basketball is a two-way sport. One team tries to score, and the other team tries to stop them from scoring, and NBA players play both sides of this.
The context of what this means in the NBA today is revealed in the possessions numbers above - 58,187 pick-and-roll possessions last season. 49,127 spot up possessions is the next highest rate. So that's nearly 10,000 more pick-and-roll plays than any other play type, which means teams defended the pick-and-roll nearly 10,000 more times than any other play type.
That makes pick-and-roll defense the foundation of modern NBA defense - it's the play that gets defended the most. This is where I think the greatest omission in what it means to be a modern NBA big man is made - he has to be able to play both ends of the floor.
Let me say that again.
Being a modern NBA big man means playing a modern style of offense and a modern style of defense.
In the same way Mike D'Antoni revolutionized NBA offense, Tom Thibodeau revolutionized NBA defense.
The foundation of pick-and-roll defense is called "hedging", and it's a technique that was largely pioneered by Thibodeau while working as an assistant for Rockets in the mid-2000s, then fully deployed in 2007 while he was an assistant for the Celtics.
We did in-depth coverage of the correct way to hedge the pick-and-roll in April, so I won't detail it again here, but here's the cliff notes version: the big man defending the player setting the screen steps out and shows, or "hedges", on the other side of the screen as the ball handler comes around it. The intent is to slow the ball handler down enough for his own defender - who's being picked off by the screen - to catch back up.
The trick here, of course, is that the pick-and-roll is designed to create a big-on-guard mismatch. That means the defending big has to be able to cover the guard with the ball for a second or two for sure, and possibly the duration of the entire play. This makes the mobility of the big man the key element of the entire defense at that point - if he can switch onto the ball handler and hold his own, his team can effectively negate the mismatch and zero out the play. If not, then....well, it ends in a way we Wolves fans are all too familiar with.
We covered this in the April defense primer, focusing on how the Wolves' bigs over the years - particularly Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic - are simply not physically quick enough to hedge the pick-and-roll, and how that problem basically voided all other effort on defense. Once the ball handler successfully clears the screen, the mismatch is set, and that nearly always favors the offense at that point. Defending the pick-and-roll requires a "switching" big man, who can show on screens or even just guard the ball handler in isolation if that's what it comes to. As Zach Lowe elaborated recently:
Love is not a two-way player — at least not now. And even if his defense improves, he'll never be quick enough to regularly switch onto wings during the pick-and-roll — a skill more coaches crave from big men as the league gets smaller and faster. Most perimeter players can switch among themselves without creating fatal mismatches, but that doesn't do much good against a pick-and-roll involving a point guard and a big man. A power forward who can switch that play has unique value. He is the pivot point between a normal NBA defense and a switching machine that walls off the paint.
That last point - "a power forward who can switch [the pick-and-roll] has unique value" - is the crux of what every NBA team is searching for these days. They all want a switching big who can show and defend the pick-and-roll.
Of course, Thibs had a trump card fielding his hedging system in Boston - he already had the prototypical switching big man, Kevin Garnett, who was (and still remains) arguably the best hard hedger in the league.
Once again, Garnett became the leading edge of the new way of doing things in the NBA. The same mobility that allowed KG to prowl the perimeter on offense turned into an equally powerful tool on defense - it allowed him to show on screens and recover to his man on pick-and-roll plays, and "free safety" everything else.
By the time Thibs became the head coach in Chicago, he had pioneered another defensive tactic against the pick-and-roll: ice. Instead of showing hard on the screen to give the defending guard a chance to catch up, the defending guard jumps the screen early, while the defending big sinks back towards the paint. This triangulates the ball handler between them and the sideline, and allows the defending big to contest both the ball handler and the roll man, largely eliminating the need for a third defender to rotate over.
Essentially what this does is plays the numbers - by cutting the ball handler off on the sideline and keeping the rolling big from rolling, icing basically forces the ball handler to give up the ball to the big on the perimeter as a pick-and-pop play, then dares him to take the long jumper - the least efficient shot in basketball.
The catch is that now many teams have bigs who can shoot out to the three point line, which makes giving them space off a pick-and-pop incredibly risky. If you leave, say, Kevin Love, Draymond Green, or Dirk open on the perimeter, they're likely just going to kill you from three point range.
So now most teams run an extension of the hedge called the "blitz". Whereas in hedging, the defending big shows on the screen for maybe a second or two just to slow the ball handler down, in a blitz, the defending big comes all the way around the screen and attempts to trap the ball or turn if completely around (the same way a blitzing defense in football crashes past the offensive line to trap the quarterback - hence the name)
This requires a third player to be in position to rotate to the rolling big. But if executed correctly, blitzing forces a pass at a bad angle that allows the defending big time to recover, or just completely eliminates the pass altogether.
The necessity for mobile bigs is obvious here. Hedging and blitzing both require bigs who can get out to the three point line, show on screens, and either run back to their man before he gets to the front of the rim or follow the ball handler as part of a trap. It could also possibly require simply guarding the ball handler in isolation. Even icing requires enough lateral quickness to not give up a layup if the ball handler simply decides to attack head-on.
This is where the biggest disconnect between the dialogue of "being a big in the modern NBA" and the actual reality of it happens. A lot seem to believe that if you're 7' tall, can rebound ok, and can shoot the three, then that's all it takes. But that's pretty shortsighted, in truth - backwards even, in a way.
As Kevin Garnett says, "If you can defend in this league, you can play." In fact, for bigs, it's overwhelmingly more important to be modern on defense than on offense. Plenty of big men have psuedo/non-modern offenses and play fine. Many of the key bigs for this year's playoff teams - DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Robin Lopez, Timofy Mozgov, Andrew Bogut - have extremely limited offense, or simply no offense at all. But because they don't take away from their teammates' offense, and can defend the modern offense on the other end of the court, they end up being cornerstones that their teams rely on.
If a player can't defend his position, then pretty much everything else he does is a wash. Bigs who can score from the outside - or from the inside, for that matter - but can't defend the pick-and-roll, can't switch on to other positions, can't make quick rotations, and can't defend the three point line make life very difficult for their teams. This is why you'll often hear analysts say it's almost impossible to build around a big man who doesn't rebound/defend.
Mobility is the backbone of modern NBA defense, and the difference between teams who play good defense and teams who don't largely hinges on whether they have big men who can hedge and blitz. No team ran the pick-and-roll fewer than 1,500 times this season. That means every team ran it 18 times per game at a minimum. Between frequency and efficiency, the inability to defend the pick-and-roll can be fatal for NBA teams - as it has been for the Wolves for many, many year now.
This makes Karl Towns the best pick the Wolves can make.
The modern NBA is all about mobility and versatility, particularly for bigs. Playing the pick-and-roll on both ends, handling the ball, screening, facilitating, shooting, defending the three point line, defending the paint - bigs have to be able to do it all to thrive in the NBA now. Draymond Green is the prototype; he's the player type every team should be looking for.
"I had no idea Draymond was going to be this good," Kerr admits. "But you look at the way the game is played now, and it's all about versatility and two-way players. Can you score a basket and then go guard three positions?"
Towns produced better at Kentucky than Okafor did at Duke, and that's one thing. There's room for debate about coaches, teammates, strength of schedule, etc there. But when taking into consideration where their floors are as players and the league they're about to enter into, I think Towns trumps Okafor handily at that point.
I do think Okafor will be pretty good in the NBA. But simply saying he'll be good and Towns will be good, or that one is 'just' better than the other, is not giving the comparison enough context. There are degrees of good and bad, and Towns is several degrees better.
Karl Towns on offense.
Karl Towns in pick-and-roll/transition:
The staple of the NBA offense today, Towns is ideally suited to score the basketball on the move. He led the entire NCAA in transition efficiency last season at 1.87 PPP, which is a particularly important facet for any Wolf to excel at, with Rubio, Wiggins and LaVine as teammates.
Towns was also solid in the pick-and-roll - he has quick feet, great hands, and strong finishing ability at the basket (0.67 FG% at the rim). He also has the ability to set and re-set screens if the initial play fails, and has great instinct for creating passing angles for the guards.
Towns was also artificially limited at this by the nature of NCAA play - where the lower skill levels and pace allows teams to play zone much more often - as well as by having combo guards in the Harrison twins rather than a true point guard. So it's likely that he will be even better at this in the NBA.
Karl Towns moving the ball:
Kevin Garnett set a new standard in facilitating for big men, and it's become - as exemplified by the Warriors - one of the key facets of bigs in the modern NBA.
Towns was, under the radar, one of the best passers in college basketball last year. His high basketball IQ shines here; he's able to facilitate not just out of the low post, but from the high post, facing up from the perimeter, and even off the dribble. His 2.2 assists/40 minutes ranked 4th among all centers and power forwards in NCAA.
Towns sees plays develop in advance, and has a cerebral ability to see all of his options and wait for the right moment to make the right play. He has a great combination of awareness, patience and accuracy.
This is actually an area where there's a gap between Towns and Okafor that is contrary to the perception. Okafor is highly praised (rightly so) for his court vision and passing ability, but in truth, Towns was both more efficient and more effective moving the ball.
Vantage Sports' unique camera system, which allows them to break down plays in a much more intricate way, reveals and even larger gap that normal analytics don't capture. Here, they break down Towns and Okafor with the ball in the context of opportunity (per touch basis)
Although Okafor and Towns appear to have inconsequential passing numbers in the box score with 1.3 and 1.1 assists per game, respectively, there are important distinctions to be made here that Vantage data can help tease out. Towns has an Assist+ Post% of 54.6 percent compared to Okafor's 41.3 percent rate. Also consider that Towns has a far lower Indirect Pass Rate (11.4 percent to 23.9 percent) and a higher True Facilitation (1.16 to 0.44). Both have shown the ability to pass out of double-teams, but Towns has shown better dexterity and ball control than Jahlil, whose Deflected-Pass Rate of 2.04 is far higher than Towns's 0.76.
Karl Towns in the post:
The low post may not be the foundation of the NBA playbook anymore, but it still has its uses attacking mismatches, creating misdirection, and forcing a particular pace. And, of course, doing many things is better than not doing as many things. The modern NBA values dimensionality. The more tools in a player's belt, the more aces are up his sleeve.
Towns' low post game comprises mostly of hook shots. He's able to hit shots over both his left and right shoulder, and began incorporating some sweeps and counters into his repertoire as the season went on.
Towns doesn't have nearly the level of footwork in the post that Okafor does, but this is actually another case where the perception is not the same as the reality. One of the most interesting data points is that, despite the difference in polish, their FG%s in the post are rather close, and their PPPs are nearly identical.
|FG% Low Post
|PPP Low Post
Vantage provides an even more interesting look, by taking contests and movement into account. Okafor excelled when establishing deep position and immediately going into a shot. But when facing heavy defense, or when forced to put the ball on the floor and change position, Towns actually had the edge.
Although Okafor's 17.3 points per game on 66.4 percent shooting appears to dwarf Towns's 10.3 on 56.6 percent shooting, Karl-Anthony was far and away the more efficient offensive producer this season. Karl-Anthony holds a Contested FG% of 52.4 percent on his right hook shots compared to Okafor's 30.0 percent. Jahlil tends to bully his opponents inside more than Towns, making his offensive game premised more on deep paint position or overpowering his competition than the Kentucky prospect. The disparity in each player's Dribble Factor shows Jahlil to be a far more efficient catch-and-finish player than Towns, but Towns is much more proficient after putting the ball on the floor relative to his own catch-and-release shots, shooting 61.1 percent on 1-dribble shots compared to 45.2 percent for Jahlil. Okafor lacks Karl-Anthony's efficiency in the post, although he has shown flashes of superior footwork with his back to the basket.
This challenges the idea that Okafor is vastly superior in the post to Towns, much less is so good he can be an old school revolution in the new NBA era.
Vantage's conclusion is the same as my own: the basket doesn't discriminate. Two points is two points, and it doesn't matter if it's a sweeping skyhook, a Dream Shake, or a basic shoulder tackle hook. Okafor's game is reliant on position, where he either catches the ball and immediately goes into a move, or uses the dribble to get to a specific spot where his advanced footwork can give him an advantage. Towns seems much more adept at simply taking what the defense gives him, and making something out of whatever look it throws his way.
Karl Towns shooting:
It's turned out what Rodger Bohn saw at Towns' SLAM workout (I know, I know, all the way at the top of the article) wasn't an isolated event. This entire pre-draft season, everyone who has seen Towns practice has raved about his shooting ability.
This probably shouldn't surprise us as much as it has. Towns, in fact, has a lot of history and historical markers as a shooter.
For one, he was a shooter all through high school. He made 127 high school threes in three years at St Joseph's HS in New Jersey (shot 47% from 3pt range). He also went 10-22 from three in the FIBA U17 tournament.
Don MacLean, who played at UCLA and 10 years in the NBA, and now runs pre-draft workout camps with Proactive Sports Performance, effused about Towns' shooting touch to DraftExpress.
He's an above average shooter, and for a guy his size in today's NBA, that's a skill you have to have. I knew he could shoot; I didn't think he'd shoot it as well as he does. Like, he doesn't shoot it like "oh, one day he'll be a good shooter". He's a good shooter right now. And I think, as a lot of guys do once they get into the league and all they have to worry about is basketball, and they're in the gym every day, I think he'll become a very, very good shooter.
(You can watch Towns' DraftExpress workout here. DX disables embedding for their videos)
Another marker is Towns' free throw shooting. This is a definite area where the context of Towns and Okafor is not getting play. Simply saying Towns is good at shooting free throws and Okafor is bad at shooting free throws is a tremendously gross understatement. Towns shot free throws like a go-to wing scorer. Okafor was nearly historically bad.
|Free Throw %
This isn't just one being a good free throw shooter and the other being bad. This is possibly the best and worst free throw shooters of any major big man prospect in the last three decades. It should go without saying how critically important it is for players to make their free throws. They're the most efficient shot in basketball, are completely unguarded, and happen without taking any game time off the clock. Missing them is literally just throwing possessions away.
And since a free throw is basically a set non-jumping jump shot, free throw percentage tends to be indicative of overall shooting ability in general. The fact Towns shot them at a percentage comparable to some of the better shooting wings and guards in college basketball is strong evidence his shooting touch is for real.
Shooting has become a huge component to big man play in the NBA over the last 10 years, spawning the ubiquitous (but highly misused) moniker, the "stretch-4". It's a deceptive terms because people often confuse "shooting big man" and "modern big man". If all a big man does is shoot - meaning he doesn't rebound or defend his position - then he's not really a modern big man so much as just a really tall wing player. But there is the ring of truth that a big man who can shoot is well-suited to today's NBA. Several of them - Matt Bonner, Steve Novak, Charlie Villanueva, etc - make an NBA living being nothing but a big shooter.
The trend towards this has become most apparent in the number of established big men who are adding three point range to their arsenals after a few (or in some cases, several) years of already being in the league. Serge Ibaka attempted six total three pointers in his first three seasons. That went up to 57 in his fourth season, and then up to 205 (in just 64 games, no less) this past year. Chris Bosh averaged 0.3 three point attempts per game his first 9 years in the NBA; he suddenly attempted 218 threes in his 11th (eleventh!!!) season.
The full utility of true big men who can hit the outside shot is still an unsolved Rubix Cube. The combination of that player type and the importance of the three point line is a very recent phenomenon; teams are basically still discovering and inventing the ideal uses for this right now.
Mike D'Antoni's original vision of a spread offense (you can also say Don Nelson pioneered this, in a different way, as well) was modified flex, where the point guard dominated the ball and the other four positions could all play both the pick-and-roll and shoot the three, depending on what decision the point guard made. So far, teams have had to settle for splitting those tasks up in the frontcourt, because there's never been a true center-sized player who can consistently shoot the three. There are plenty of stretch-4s, if you will, but no real stretch-5s. Until, perhaps, now.
If Towns can indeed make those shots at the NBA level, he won't just be a dominant force, he'll likely be a revolution. He'll be the holy grail teams have been searching for for at least the past 3 years, if not longer, and the first guy who could let an ambitious coach pull off a 100% genuine flex offense. Think about how unstoppable Golden State would be - even considering how great they already are - if Andrew Bogut could shoot threes as well.
Kevin Garnett set a unique standard for big men with his combination of rebounds and assists. Dirk set another with rebounds and threes. Towns could possibly be the one to invent the standard of threes and blocked shots. That would be a monumental deal in the NBA.
Karl Towns on defense:
This is the other area where saying "Towns is good and Okafor is bad" is incredibly mis-representative. The gap between them defensively is not casual. It's not a kinda close/kinda debatable comparison of, say, Robin Lopez and Timofy Mozgov. This is comparing David Lee to Tim Duncan.
Karl Towns has the highest Defensive Win Share/40 mark (0.141) of any NCAA player in the last 6 years (Sports Reference's database starts tracking them in '09). This exceeds, among others, Anthony Davis (0.131), Draymond Green (0.117) and his own teammate, Trilly Cauley-Stein (0.134)
Towns posted a higher Defensive Win Share total (remember, this is straight up cumulative) in 822 minutes than Okafor did in 1,143 minutes. In fact, Okafor's Defensive Wins Shares don't even exceed Nerlens Noel's, who played just 765 minutes (in 14 fewer games) at Kentucky in 12-13. Had they played equivalent minutes, Towns' Defensive Win Share total would have been nearly double that of Okafor's (4.2 to 2.2)
The monumental gap here, even considering it's just one statistic, is accurate to the difference in actual defensive play between the two. Towns excelled in three key areas defensively that Okafor really struggled with.
Karl Towns defending the pick-and-roll/perimeter:
This makes Towns the ideal new generation big man as much, if not more, than anything else. Towns is perfectly suited to defending the pick-and-roll flex systems NBA teams use now. He can hedge, ice and blitz the roll, rotate and recover all the way out to the three point line, and even - as was particularly evident in the Kentucky/Wisconsin game - just flat out defend wings and guards in isolation.
This action is exactly what analysts mean when they talk about those Draymond Green-type "switching bigs". Towns can switch onto any other position on defense and have a fair shot at successfully defending the possession. That's gigantic utility on the defensive end. It's what every team wants in a big man these days.
And of all the areas Okafor has trouble with, this is probably the biggest. A lot has been made about his effort level here (which wasn't great, no question) but I'm not sure that 'trying harder' is going to help all that much. Nikola Pekovic gives 10,000% effort on defense. He still has absolutely no shot at containing Chris Paul in pick-and-roll. He's physically just not able to, and I think that's where Okafor is - he just doesn't have the lateral quickness (or the mental intuition of timing and angles either, really) to ever be an effective force.
I won't ever be able to put together better tape on this than DraftExpress, so just watch their breakdown here.
I think, at best, Okafor ends up being an Al Jefferson-type here, where you kind of have to cheat the system to hide him and hope the other team doesn't have a good counter scouted out. At worst, he's Shaq, where whatever team he plays for just gets torched every night by whatever point guard the other team has. (If you've ever wondered why everyone from Mike Bibby to Troy Hudson could burn the Laker 'D' to the ground, it was because Shaq never ever tried to hedge the roll. Guards could come around the screen and have 15 feet of wide open floor, because Shaq was perpetually camped out under the hoop) The Wolves already exist in this state. It would be preferable to get better at it.
Karl Towns rebounding:
Another excellent marker for Towns is his rebounding, which more than any other stat translates consistently to the NBA level. Towns has an uncanny ability to come up with highly contested rebounds, or even just loose balls in traffic in general.
This is driven by Towns' excellent court awareness, and his cerebral understanding of position and timing.
By contrast, Okafor was well below average on the glass for his size and position, particularly on the defensive end. His 6.5 defensive rebounds/40 ranked 15th out of 17 in DraftExpress' database of all centers this year (Towns averaged 8.2 DefR/40) Part of this is Duke's system, which tends to artificially lower rebounding numbers for bigs. But as DX notes, Okafor also doesn't get good position, doesn't consistently box out, and sometimes just flat out doesn't try.
Karl Towns defending the paint:
This should be pretty self-explanatory. Towns posted the best blocks% in all of college basketball last year. His 4.2 blocks/40 minutes is comparable to Tim Duncan's Wake Forest mark. Opponents also shot just 17.6% against him in the low post.
And the biggest benefit with Towns in this area may be the one that's not kept track of: the Dwight Howard Effect. Basically, the degree to which the opposing team doesn't even attempt layups simply to avoid getting close to a great paint defender (Dwight Howard was the league leader at this the first year it was charted for SLOAN Analytics, hence the name) Think about how much Rudy Gobert forces teams to change their playbook. Again, long 2s are the least efficient shot in basketball. A player who gets the other team to voluntarily take them just by being on the court has incredible value.
Okafor's 4.5% block% was barely a third of Towns', and was 99th of 100 in DX's database of top centers. This isn't too surprising, as 4.5% is close to the block% you typically see in high-end wings at the college level. Okafor was also much less effective guarding the low post, as he frequently doesn't prevent position or body up his man.
Flex offense and defense has changed the standard for bigs in the NBA.
It's very much become a multi-task position, which demands bigs be reasonably skilled in just about everything. Major deficiency in just one or two aspects could collapse everything, because every other team is relentlessly collecting modern big men and exploiting every possible facet of their games.
Gathering as many two-way players as possible seems like an obvious goal, but it has become even more urgent for front offices to do this as teams trend toward fast-paced, drive-and-kick offenses heavy on passing and 3s.4 It's harder to be one-dimensional, on either end, when everyone is moving. Doing everything at a "B" level is the new NBA skill.
I think Jahlil Okafor will be a good NBA player, and will have a good NBA career. But he's a guy with one single exceptional skill; the rest is average-to-bad. That's a big risk in terms of a possible floor, and a poor fit for the way basketball is played today. It's round hold, square peg. Yes, you can make them fit together, but only by bending one or the other out of shape.
On the other hand, Towns does just about everything on the court, has no glaring weaknesses, and played historically well in some areas at Kentucky. He wasn't just the more productive player; his combination of mobility, versatility and aptitude makes him perfectly suited to the modern NBA. So much so that he could potentially be its next revolution, changing the landscape in the same way Kevin Garnett did 20 years ago.
Towns is already virtually guaranteed to be a 'do everything at a "B" level' player. But what if he actually does some...most...of it at an "A" level? What if Draymond Green was 7' tall? What if Rasheed Wallace played as hard as Kevin Garnett? What if Kevin Garnett was a three point shooter?
What are the Warriors if Andrew Bogut shoots threes? What are the Rockets if Dwight makes his free throws? How good are the Spurs if Diaw blocks shots as well as Tim Duncan?
That's the potential ceiling you're talking about with Towns. Is it likely he'll get there? We'll see. But it is there.
And that should make the first pick of this draft an obvious decision.