Like the previous two campaigns, the 2016-17 NBA regular season has so far belonged to Golden State. At 47-9 entering the All-Star break, the Warriors sit four games ahead of the second-place San Antonio Spurs. They have the league's best offensive rating, second-best defensive rating, and are scoring 118.2 points per game, the highest mark for a NBA franchise since 1992.
While Golden State has a pair of elite isolation scorers in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, it's the Warriors' collective skill and savvy as passers, screeners, and cutters that makes them unique. They average 30 assists per game—the most of any team since the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers averaged 31.4 in 1985—and assist on 70.9 percent of their made field goal attempts.
To put things another way: there's a bigger gap between Golden State and the Boston Celtics, who are 2nd in the NBA with assists on 64.4 percent of their made field goals, than between the Celtics and the 13th-best Orlando Magic.
As we head into All-Star Weekend, let's take a closer look at how the Warriors work so well together.
In order to maximize a cut, a team must be able to make a series of micro-decisions in milliseconds. Good cuts require the perfect set-up, timing, and speed from all parties. The screener must read when, where, and how to set a screen in order to start the action, which requires a lot of subtlety and the ability to read the defense second-by-second. The player receiving the screen must set up the screen by getting his defender out of position, while also reading when the defender has overplayed the screen. And the passer must read the defense and the two players defending the screen.
In the video below, watch how Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers is trying his best to trail Curry as he receives a very basic screen from Durant. Curry feels Rivers attached to him, so he sets up the screen by cutting under the screen for a few steps before making a beeline for the top of the key. This forces Rivers to fall a half step behind before bumping into Durant, and a full two steps behind as Curry catches the ball and turns the corner toward the basket. Had Curry just run off of the screen, the action likely would've ended without any separation. But because Curry was able to set up the screen, he managed to create an open look:
In the next video watch how Klay Thompson receives two screens along the baseline. The first is from Draymond Green, who completely stops Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo in his tracks. The second screen is from James Michael McAdoo, who is paying attention to Rondo to see if he is in position to recover. Had Rondo been in position, McAdoo would've set a second screen on him. Instead, he realizes that Rondo is too far behind to recover, and that Cristiano Felicio is preparing to switch out onto Thompson. McAdoo preemptively screens Felicio to keep him from switching out in time:
Thompson himself makes a read on this play. His initial cut was designed to end on the wing, the furthest distance from Rondo. However, if you watch carefully, you can see the exact moment that Thompson realizes that Felicio is the closest defender—he plants his foot and fades toward the corner, creating just enough space to get the shot off.
Another trick used by Curry and Thompson is stopping short on their cuts when defenders try to anticipate their angles or go under screens. Below, watch how both guys begin taking an angle toward an open spot on the floor, only to stop short on the cut or fade when they feel defenders try to take shorter angles to meet them on the perimeter:
The Warriors use three types of basic reads when setting off-ball screens: short cuts, slip cuts, and curl cuts. A short cut is a type of backdoor cut that happens when the player receiving the screen takes a step toward the screen, but then cuts backdoor toward the basket. This cut is most effective when the defense tries to overplay the screen and jumps toward the ball early.
Here, Curry sets a pin-down screen for Andre Iguodala—who jabs toward the screen, feels the defender overplay it, and then cuts toward the basket for the easy finish. In the second clip, Curry is the one receiving the screen, and cuts backdoor the same way that Iguodala did in the first one. This time, however, Curry's gravity—that is, his ability to draw defensive attention—forces both defenders to overplay the short cut, leaving Ian Clark wide open behind the arc:
A slip cut is the exact opposite of the short cut. Instead of the player receiving the screen making the cut, the screener slips the screen and dives toward the basket. These types of cuts are especially effective when the defender guarding the screener hedge out on the play, leaving the screener open to cut toward the basket. In the clip below, both Thompson's and McAdoo's defenders are focused on keeping the ball away from Thompson at the top of the key, leaving McAdoo open to slip to the basket for the easy dunk:
The third option is for the player receiving the screen to come off of the shoulder of the screener and then curl toward the basket. This option is especially useful when the screener is a player with a lot of gravity—again, in this case, Curry. Curry's defender is so preoccupied with not allowing Curry to get any breathing room that he is unable to bump or hedge out on Iguodala's curl toward the basket:
These curl cuts become even more complex to defend when both players involved are elite shooters. Thompson loves to curl off of pin down screens from Curry, especially when the defense is switching every screen between the two. Here, you can see how switching usually leaves Curry's defender trailing the play and out of position when Curry sprints toward a dribble handoff:
Slip cuts, short cuts, and curls seem simple enough. However, the Warriors' ability to read both defenders and each other and pick the right variation—or just use screens regularly—is what makes them so difficult to guard for 48 minutes. Golden State can run a half-dozen such screens in a single possession, each time making a slightly different read, and each time forcing the defense to react.
Reacting becomes even more difficult when the Warriors' shooters come off of two screens instead of one. In a single pin down screen, each player has to make one decision; in a double stagger screen, both screeners can slip if they feel the defense overplaying on a hedge. Meanwhile, the player receiving the double stagger has three choices: come off of both screens, short cut the first screen, or short cut the second screen.
One of Golden State's favorite out of bounds plays over the last few seasons has utilized all of the above options. The shooter, usually Thompson, can force his defender to chase him through two screens, almost always causing the defender to fall behind the play. Or, if the defender tries to get an early jump on the stagger screens, Thompson can short cut backdoor for an easy layup. The third option is to use the first screen but short cut the second, sneaking in between the two screens for an easy layup. All the while, the screeners can slip toward the basket if their defenders overplay Thompson.
In the clip below, you can see how the Warriors utilize all four options, keeping defenders guessing:
Double stagger screens also create a challenge for on-ball defense. In the two clips below, watch how the defense provides two completely different looks—but ends up with similar results. In the first play, the center guarding the second screen drops back into the paint, leaving Curry open for a mid-range floater. In the second, the opposing center plays up on the screen, and is rewarded by having to guard Curry in isolation:
The Warriors have elite isolation scorers, but they don't rely on isolations very often. According to Synergy, Golden State ranks No. 24 in the NBA in isolations per game despite having the sixth-best efficiency on such plays. This is the right choice. Even at 0.93 points per possession, the Warriors' above-average isolation scoring is much less efficient than the frenetic screen, pass, and cut of offense that has become their calling card.
Even when the Warriors aren't running a dozen screens and cuts in the half court, simple plays such as a Curry-Durant pick-and-roll can create all sorts of conundrums for opposing defenses. How, exactly, are you supposed to guard this? Hedge on Curry, and you're left scrambling to close out on Durant. Don't hedge, and Curry is coming off of a screen with a step on his defender. Switch, and you'll end up with a point guard defending the 7-foot-tall Durant:
Just over 14 percent of the Warriors' field goal attempts come off of screens, nearly twice as many as every other team in the league besides the Dallas Mavericks (9.8 percent). Golden State has perfected the art of the screen and cut, and so far, they've been rewarded with one of the most dominant offensive seasons in league history.
The Warriors still have to prove themselves in the playoffs, and in tense, pressure-packed close games. Earlier this season, there were moments when the team—and Durant in particular—fell back into isolation ball. That could happen again. It's easy to trust that constant motion will create open shots when things are rolling, but harder when the game slows down and shots aren't falling.
For now, however, Golden State has built upon its previous two seasons and integrated one of the NBA's best scorers into the league's most un-guardable offensive system. Barring any major injuries, the Warriors seem like a lock to reach their third-straight Finals. At their best, they don't just play beautiful basketball. They make the game look easy.
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