Wake Up Call: Is Floor Spacing Overrated?

What is the purpose of having a big three?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as have most Thunder fans. What are the most important functions? Is it so that on any given night one of the three can go off for 40+ points? Is it so that you can stagger their minutes and have at least one elite scorer on the court at all times? Is it so that when they’re all on the court together you have an unstoppable offensive juggernaut?

The hope is for all three of those things, obviously. If you have all three, you have a championship-caliber offense.

Last night was the first time the Thunder proved they are capable of that first function, as Paul George poured in 42 points in a much-needed win over the Clippers. The second function has a lot of work to do, but with further tinkering there’s no reason to doubt that it won’t be a strength by season’s end. Now that third function? Well, that’s a different story.

And don’t think that Friday night’s win ends all nervousness about the offense. Some less-than-complimentary statistics: Thunder rank 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency, 25th in true shooting percentage, and tied for 19th in assist ratio. Whatever the numbers say, the eye test is much worse. When the big three are all on the court together, it’s too often one holding onto the ball for several seconds in isolation before firing a shot, while the other two stars stand and watch. No ball movement, no flow, no spacing.

Ah yes, spacing. Wasn’t that the whole charm of this new team? Ample room to operate and wide open driving lanes to the hoop was OKC’s manifest destiny this season.

Let’s talk about floor spacing.

Floor spacing comes from the movement of defensive players away from the rim. Duh. But there’s a misconception that a team can put four competent shooters around one dribble penetrator and then step back and say “ta da!” That’s not how the floor gets spaced.

Below are two different offensive sets. The first play is from last season, where Russell Westbrook receives a high ball screen and kamikazes his way right into the clogged toilet bowl that is the lane for a layup. The second is from this season, where Westbrook does the same play surrounded by much better shooters.

While the defenders are technically more spaced out, it has zero effect the outcome of the play. Lesson learned: kamikazes never make it out alive (that’s deep).

The correct way to move defensive players away from the basket, to space the floor, is by moving your offensive chess pieces around such that defenders have to follow. When you think about the most successful “big threes” in recent NBA history, it’s the teams that were constantly moving around, like last year’s Warriors or the “summertime” Spurs. They were known for their passing, sure, but it’s the off-ball movement that led to passing lanes and eventually easy buckets.

Let’s be honest. This year’s Thunder squad is never going to play like those teams. It’s a pipe dream. A more appropriate analog would be the Cavaliers big three of Lebron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Their skillsets and preferences are roughly equivalent to OKC’s stars (I think Melo as KLove is spot on, and Russ as Kyrie is pretty good, while PG as Lebron is a little tougher), and they weren’t exactly known for their “summertime” passing either. So how did that team rank top four in offensive efficiency every season they were together?

One solution they came up with was running a lot of contracting and expanding offensive sets, playing the defense like an accordion. It’s a simple theory. Performing actions with several offensive players close to each other, requiring multiple defensive decisions within milliseconds of each other, and upon expansion there are cracks in the defense that can be exposed. When done with three superstars on the floor, the impact is magnified exponentially.

It seems pretty counterintuitive, but the solution to OKC’s offensive woes could be bringing their stars closer together on offense, instead of further apart. Here are three of those Cavs teams’ signature actions at work.

The Kevin Love Pick n’ Roll

Something I’ve been talking about practically every time I guest on the Down to Dunk podcast is the star-to-star pick and roll. A star-star pick and roll makes it impossible to “cheat” the screen. The help defender can’t hedge and recover to his own man, he can’t “ice” the ball-handler or any other technique used to neutralize the action, because he can’t afford to leave his man. This reduces the pick and roll to basically like 3rd grade YMCA level: if the defenders don’t switch there’s a wide open lane to the rim, if they do the picker can seal out for layup or pop to the three point line for an open shot.

Kevin Love feasted on these in Cleveland. For even further contraction, the Cavs would sometimes add their traditional big man on to the action, creating a staggered ball screen that was impossible to switch. The result? Wide open looks.

The problem in the Thunder’s case is that Carmelo Anthony doesn’t set screens. Literally. Per Synergy Sports, he’s credited for setting a grand total of seven on-ball screens this season, and after watching all of them I can promise you, PROMISE YOU, that he hasn’t made contact with a defender on a single one of them.

Called “slipping the pick,” this eliminates the ability for the ball handler to take advantage of the pick, since there isn’t one. So his only option is to pass to the picker. It’s a selfish play, which is why it’s one of my biggest basketball pet peeves. But aside from preference, setting a real screen and forcing both defenders to suck towards the ball handler leaves the picker more open anyways, so it’s just counterproductive.

If Anthony can display the ability to set actual ball screens, then this could turn into a deadly weapon for the Thunder.

The Double Star Pick n’ Roll

If one star-to-star pick and roll is good, what about doubling up?

There are instances where the Cavs would have two of their stars set high screens on either side of the third star, who was handling the ball. This is commonly called the “horns” set. With a screen on each side, the on-ball defender can’t attempt to steer the ball handler one direction or another. He’s guessing, which is exactly what you want.

The defense may attempt to negate the advantage created by the original star-to-star PnR by using that third defender to guard the roll to the basket. But what does that leave? You guessed it. More wide open looks.

Pick the Picker

Finally, building off of the last entry, there’s the “pick the picker” action. The name really says it all. As a plain and simple high pick and roll is happening, another offensive player sneaks a back screen on the man defending the screener, who slips out for an open shot or drive.

The most basic version of this is from the horns set, where the weak-side screener just runs across and sets the screen. But why make it so boring? So I found a couple of example of pick the picker that get the whole team involved in some contraction/expansion action.

In each case you can see the defense get fooled by the sheer number of bodies in the tight space. The use of the big three was more indirect, but nonetheless important. The key on all of these is having star players with a magnetic pull on the defense, and then actually moving them around so that they do some pulling.

The reason why I chose Kevin Love for all of these clips is threefold: 1) he was the one most marginalized in the run of play, but the Cavs could run a set to get him going, 2) so that no one could make the “well he’s just good at creating for himself” excuse, and 3) I just like Kevin Love. Sue me.

And the reason why I pointed these out in the first place? To prove that there are ways to make the big three work, they just haven’t been utilized by the Thunder to this point. The hope is that with time and experimentation, the Thunder will have a playbook full of sets that work for them come April. To make my second crappy pop culture reference in as many columns … “the truth is out there.”