Tracking off-ball movement while containing the player with the basketball makes defense so difficult. It sounds like a simple concept, and on many levels it actually is a simple concept. Stay between your man and the basket, cut off driving lanes to the hoop, and trust you and your teammates will make the correct adjustments in rotating to the open players. When an offense becomes stagnant, it becomes a lot easier to defend. Throw a lot of motion, misdirection, and ball movement into a system — you’ll see chaos wreck an undisciplined defense. Even disciplined NBA defenses can struggle to contain the best motion offenses.
This past season provided some of the best offensive upticks we’ve ever seen. According to Basketball-Reference, the league’s average offensive rating rose from 106.4 points per 100 possessions in 2015-16 to 108.8. The 2.2 jump was the third-biggest year-to-year jump in the 3-point era (since 1979). The jump from 82-83 to 83-84 was the second-biggest (+2.9) — likely due to a large increase in free throw rate. The biggest jump (+3.2) came in 2004-05, when the NBA opened up offenses with new defensive rules Mike D’Antoni infamously torched with the Phoenix Suns.
The 2016-17 season produced the most offensive efficiency in the 3-point era. The 108.8 offensive rating for the league was a half point greater than the previous high (108.3 in 86-87, 94-95, and 08-09).
An emphasis in understanding efficiency on both sides of the ball has contributed greatly to this increase in scoring. Amazingly, it took a couple of decades to truly understand 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers. The league finally embraced the 3 in full this past season. Eventually, defensive systems will not only account for this increase in 3-point attempts, but begin to take them away as much as possible.
NBA offenses will have to adjust by making more chaos for the defenses trying to stop them. A big way of doing that is by moving shooters off screens. While making a defense collapse and kicking it out to shooters works wonders, a great way to vary how a defense reacts is by bringing shooters off screens. Steph Curry, Kyle Korver and J.J. Redick excel at this very task. Other shooters should be utilized more often by running them through a series of obstacles for the defense to set the shooter free.
As we get deeper into this offensive boom era, here are three players for next season who should be featured more by running off screens to open up the offense.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
How has he done?
Mike Conley was the most efficient scorer in the NBA last season when coming off screens. Put the minimum number of possessions at 100, 80, or 75. Conley’s efficiency outbids all other scorers in this situation, according to Synergy Sports. On 113 possessions, Conley scored 151 points, good for 133.6 points per 100 possessions.
Synergy started tracking this stuff in the 2004-05 season. The previous best (minimum 100 possessions) in any NBA season prior to Conley came from Steph Curry in 2013-14. He scored 120 points per 100 possessions off screens.
Conley made 52 percent of his shots and possessed an effective field goal percentage of 65.2. He knocked down 50 percent of 2-point shots and 54 percent of 3-point shots coming off screens. This was by far the best efficiency by Conley in his career on a significant number of possessions.
He should end up in these situations a lot more. It hurts not having Chandler Parsons on the floor because he can deliver passes and create attention from the defense. Conley uses off-screen possessions 8.7 percent of the time. It sounds ambitious, but the Grizzlies should try to double that number. Putting him around 17 percent of possessions off screens would move him into the top 12 for percentage of possessions. It doesn’t take the ball out of his hands more; it just puts him in different scoring positions. With Marc Gasol on the floor, the Grizzlies have a great distributor to find Conley in motion.
How do they do it?
The Grizzlies love to use Conley as a faux screener to get him on the move. Often you’ll see him ghost a cross-screen or back screen in order to get the weak-side defense to suck in toward the hoop. Then Conley finds his way looping toward the top of the 3-point arc to run his man into a Marc Gasol pick. Once freed up, he’ll either take a dribble to gather himself or just let it fly. Conley does a great job at setting up these smoke and mirror screens for misdirection. He also excels at adjusting his positioning for the pass by reading how his man and the helper are navigating the pick.
This action by Conley doesn’t just get him good shots on the perimeter. You also can see how it gets Conley better driving areas to the basket. Remember, first and foremost, the majority of NBA offenses want to get shots at the rim. Those have the highest level of expected points and put players in a great position to draw fouls for free points.
You’ll often see Conley set up those looping arcs toward the perimeter only to switch direction and dart toward the hoop. If defenders overplay, he drives to the basket. If he gets defenders on his hip, he uses that advantage to get into the interior. He’s such a good finisher in the lane that help defense rarely bothers him.
The Grizzlies can do this a lot more this season, but they need someone to grab some attention away from Conley to make it consistent.
Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons
How has he done?
Of players with at least 100 possessions coming off screens, Avery Bradley was 10th in the NBA in scoring efficiency. He put in 119 points on 118 possessions, sneaking him over the 100 points per 100 possessions barrier. Bradley finished second behind Isaiah Thomas on the Celtics for most off-screen possessions. Now both players are off the team. Thomas was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kyrie Irving deal. Boston also sent Bradley to the Central Division, but he went to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. It was a cap-cutting move that allowed the Celtics to bring in Gordon Hayward while still acquiring a productive role player in return.
The Pistons have a lot to fix with their roster and approach. Stan Van Gundy invested heavily in Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, only to have both players perform at extremely subpar levels this past season. It’s hard to know how fixable this problem is without making major moves, but bringing in Bradley could return some normalcy to the attack of an SVG team.
Since becoming a higher volume 3-point shooter for the Celtics, Bradley’s accuracy has made him a great 3-and-D player. Over the last four seasons, Bradley hit 37.1 percent from downtown on over 1,200 attempts. He knocked down 39 percent of his 3-pointers last season. As a shooter coming off screens, he hit 44.4 percent of his shots with an eFG of 51.9 percent. Bradley made 43.2 percent of those 3-point attempts off screens.
How do they do it?
Off-screen possessions make up 13.1 percent of Bradley’s possessions. It should probably be up around 20 percent. In SVG’s system, that seems very possible. The Celtics used Bradley a lot by starting him down low and running him at full speed around screens. He didn’t do much to set up or use misdirection. He just used good speed and great feet placement to set up the start of his jump shot off the catch. It usually came in the form of an elongated pindown screen to free him up on the perimeter. Whenever Bradley needed to readjust on the perimeter, he could find a teammate to free him up.
You can see a lot of similarities in how Bradley is capable of being used off screens and how Van Gundy used to utilize J.J. Redick in Orlando. Bradley isn’t nearly the shooter Redick is, but they do have similar footwork to square themselves up for the shot. Orlando often used Redick to curl around screens and attack for layups. The Magic assumed perimeter defenders would overplay him flaring out to the 3-point line. Orlando took advantage of that aggressive anticipation to get him easy buckets.
Like Bradley in Boston, Redick found a lot of actions starting with him near the paint in the lower third of the court. Then he’d fire up toward the perimeter, adjust to the help off the screen, and fire off a jumper.
Bradley’s usage on these screens and his opportunities in Detroit should increase. He’s more than capable of pouring in the jumpers when he does run off screens.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
How has he done?
The only big man on this list, Karl-Anthony Towns does a surprisingly great job coming off screens and turning them into quality jump shots. While his 3-point shot was erratic at times last season, he eventually found a good rhythm shooting the ball. Through January, Towns didn’t look anything like a big man stretching the floor. He made just 33.7 percent of his 3-point attempts on roughly 3.5 per game. He just couldn’t find any rhythm shooting from the outside. Once February came, Towns’ arsenal opened up significantly.
In the final 34 games of the season, Towns became Karl-Anthony Korver from deep. Towns knocked down 41.2 percent from deep on 3.2 attempts per game. All of a sudden, Towns became not just a weapon but someone the T-Wolves could run off screens quite effectively. As a shooter coming off screens, Towns excelled. He scored 108 points on 108 possessions, ranking 12th in the NBA in efficiency. Off-screen possessions made up just 5.6 percent of Towns’ offensive possessions last season.
While opponents won’t take away too much from his dominance in the pick-and-roll and the post, doubling up the frequency of Towns coming off screens could lead to a lot of success. It also creates a great distraction for a defense trying to guard Jimmy Butler and keep Andrew Wiggins in check as a third option.
How do they do it?
Sometimes, the Wolves use Towns like an overgrown Rip Hamilton. They’ll run him off screens along the baseline for a mid-range jumper. They use him coming across the lane off a cross-screen to free him up for a catch-and-fire attempt. Towns is so good at setting up his steps to square up on the jumper as he corrals the pass. It’s tough enough for guards to pull this off, let alone someone setting up the steps of a size 20 Nike on these attempts. A lot of the stuff for Towns on mid-range attempts can extend to the 3-point line.
Tom Thibodeau will start Towns at the top of the arc. The Wolves then have him run down the middle of the lane, and veer off to the right. He comes around a pindown screen designed to get him a corner 3-point shot. KAT will fake coming around a cross-screen set for him, then pop to the weak-side perimeter to fire off a 3-pointer. Gorgui Dieng will set pindown screens for him to get to the wing for a 3-point attempt. Not many big men get utilized in this way. It just scratches the surface of what Minnesota and Towns can do with his 3-point shot.
The key for Towns is making sure it’s consistent. He can’t have these dramatic swings in accuracy throughout the season. In his rookie campaign, Towns had the inverse of his shooting splits in Year 2. He shot 39 percent from deep through January. Then the rest of the season, he managed to make just 29.7 percent of those 3-pointers. Towns also shot a much lower volume his rookie season. Maybe it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the frequency of these shots.
Not many big men in NBA history have had the potential versatility Towns possesses. In order to unlock that and maximize it, the Wolves should find creative ways to get him open. Not a lot of big men run off screens for 3-point shots. If this becomes a consistent part of the Wolves’ offense, it might just be weird enough that opposing defenses have to scramble to stop it. That will open up the world to the rest of the team.