Intellectual Theft: Jeff Hornacek

13 NBA teams will be entering the 2013-2014 season with a new head coach. Each of those coaches will face unique challenges, but should be able to draw on a pool of experience from their previous jobs. Intellectual Theft is a series looking at some specific elements that each coach can bring from their last job to their new team. Today’s focus is former Jazz assistant, and new head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Jeff Hornacek.

Last season the Suns finished 28th in the league in three-point percentage, making just 33.0%. This inability to pull points from the perimeter and space the floor really dragged on their overall effectiveness, and they finished the season ranked 29th in offensive efficiency. Returning a healthy Channing Frye to the rotation will make a big difference this year, as will replacing Wesley Johnson with Eric Bledsoe. But their problems last season had as much to do with system and execution as they did with personnel.

For example, take the case of Goran Dragic. He finished the year having made 31.9% of his three-pointers, significantly less than his career high of 39.4%, or even his career average of 35.0%. But of the 277 three-pointers Dragic attempted last season, 135 came from possessions where he was either isolating, getting a hand-off from a big or handling the ball in the pick-and-roll. Those attempts are all essentially off-the-dribble shots that he was creating for himself. If we isolate just the three-pointers he attempted as a spot-up shooter, we find he made 38 of 96, or 39.6%. That’s a fantastic percentage but the Suns simply weren’t able to utilize that much as an offensive weapon last season because they were so short on shot-creators and needed the ball in Dragic’s hands to make other parts of their system function.

But a shortage of shot-creation is a less pressing concern this season with the acquisition of Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers. Being able to play Dragic and Bledsoe, both together and separately, gives the Suns’ all sorts of offensive options that weren’t possible last year. Bledsoe shot 39.7% on three-pointers last season but, like Dragic, was much more efficient spotting-up where he pushed his three-point percentage all the way up to 44.0%. Playing the two alongside creates opportunities to mix and match, utilizing both player’s abilities as shot-creators and as spot-up shooters.

That brings us to Hornacek and the Jazz offense. Last season the Jazz finished the season with the ninth best 3PT% in the league, at 36.6%. This was a pretty impressive feat since their wing rotation included several players with less than consistent track records as outside shooters. Having powerful post players who can command a double-team, like Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, gave them a way to bend the defense and kick the ball out to shooters as the defense scrambled to rotate and recover. But they also ran some really nice action forcing the defense to over-rotate and expose the weakside. In this first example the Jazz have cleared one side of the floor, running a pick-and-roll with Mo Williams and Millsap. Gordon Hayward is spotting-up on the weak side. As Williams curls around Millsap slips through to the free throw line.

Screen Shot 2013-08-31 at 3.41.00 PM

As Millsap slips through and receives the ball, Hayward’s defender has to come down to discourage a drive and help close off a passing lane to Jefferson in case Robin Lopez has to rotate over. This leaves Hayward wide-open on the wing and it’s a simple pass for Millsap.

Screen Shot 2013-08-31 at 3.41.19 PM

Here’s the play in real time.

This sort of action, having a big man sliding to the free throw line, not just to spot-up, but to act as a pressure relief valve, swinging the ball to weak side shooters, was something the Jazz used frequently and to great success. They also used several variations on the initial action to set it up.

In this example they are running a pick-and-roll at the right elbow. The other big man, Jefferson in this case, is hovering near the opposite elbow and Hayward is spotting up in the weakside corner. The screener, Derrick Favors, dives to the rim pulling Jefferson’s defender down in rotation. As the ball gets swung to Jefferson, Hayward’s man has to rotate over leaving the corner wide open.

In this set it looks like the Jazz are setting up for a side pick-and-roll with Favors popping out from the baseline to set the screen. However, Williams attacks his man, driving baseline, before Favors gets there. Williams’ penetration pulls Favors’ defender and we end up with the same cascade of rotations leading to an open three at the top of the key for Hayward.

This last example looks a lot like the first. The screener from a high pick-and-roll simply slides to the free throw line and swings the ball to the weakside.

Installing these sorts of sets in Phoenix will require some fundamental shifts for success. Players like Michael Beasley, Markieff and Marcus Morris and Marcin Gortat will need to be those pressure relief valves at the free throw line and none are really accustomed to being anything but an offensive endpoint. But all are threats to shoot and drive which will help distort the defense.

Ultimately, incorporating these kind of structured ball-reversals are not going to make or break an efficient offense in Phoenix. But with two aggressive ball-handlers like Bledsoe and Dragic there will be plenty of temptation to devolve into a “my-turn, your-turn” offensive rhythm. The standard by-products of that approach are standing around and the under-utilization of talent. By finding ways to balance and overlap the skills and abilities of his two most talented players, both on and off the ball, Hornacek can make sure that nothing is wasted this season.


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