The Pelicans Hug Play

Anthony Morrow is one of the most exciting players across the NBA. The teams that Morrow has played for — the Warriors, Nets (New Jersey iteration), Hawks, Mavericks, Pelicans — were going through down cycles when Morrow was a member of their roster. Now, having signed a 3-year/$10M contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency, Morrow will finally be both nationally televised with regularity, and also involved in meaningful games in March, April, and beyond.

Morrow is perhaps the league’s most dangerous 3-point specialist this side of Kyle Korver. Their career 3-point percentages are essentially the same: 42.5% for Korver and 42.8% for Morrow. But what makes Morrow such a thrill is that he thrives in an up-tempo offense. With a quick and fearless trigger, Morrow is an expert at navigating the fast-break, whether keeping stride with the ballhandler or by trailing the play, and finding himself openings for 3-point shots. In 2008-09, Morrow’s rookie year, he played for Don Nelson’s Warriors, which was the fastest team in the league: Morrow shot a league-leading 46.7% from deep. In 2011-12 in New Jersey, the Nets played with the 23rd-fastest pace in the league, and Morrow shot a comparably low 37.1% on 3-point attempts. Even though Morrow’s team last year, the Pelicans, played with the league’s 22nd-fastest pace, they were still two possessions a game faster than that Nets team. In New Orleans, Morrow got off 57 of his 196 3-point attempts in transition (via Synergy Sports) and hit 45.1% of his long attempts.

The struggle with Morrow, then, is how to create plays for him in the half-court set. Since it’s common knowledge that Morrow must be tightly patrolled on the 3-point line, and since he has few playmaking abilities on his own — 76% of his field goals were assisted last year ( — coaches must use increasingly creative ways to free him for a shot. Morrow only needs a glimmer of an opening to release one of his uncannily accurate attempts. But how to achieve that opening?

What made matters more complicated for Pelicans coach Monty Williams was the fact that, by appearing in 76 games last year, Morrow was second on the Pelicans in games played. Practically an entire starting lineup of Pelicans was sidelined for at least half of the year — Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith — and important centerpieces like Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon also missed about a quarter of the season.

When the whole gang was healthy, the Pelicans would run plays for Morrow that are common enough, such as running him off of a set of screens. In the image below, Morrow has cut from the corner up to the top of the key (dotted arrow), using the adjacent screens set by Smith (#14) and Jeff Whithey (#5). As Morrow receives the pass (solid arrow) from teammate Austin Rivers, his defender, Kawhi Leonard (#2) is on Morrow’s back, delayed by the traffic of the screens. This is all the opening that Morrow needs to get a shot off.


Towards the end of the season, though, and with so many players injured, Williams began to use increasingly complicated — or, depending on how you see it, gimmicky — ways of freeing Morrow for shots. It eventually evolved into what I’ll call The Hug Play. It’s one of the more unusual premeditated actions I’ve ever seen on an NBA floor.

It looks to me like the full-fledged Hug Play evolved from the following set. After cutting along the baseline to meet Davis at the weak-side block, Morrow doesn’t use Davis as a screener but instead runs all the way around Davis, a full 360. Once the circle is completed, Morrow springs to the elbow off of a Greg Steimsma (#34) screen, and Davis springs to the opposite block, two simultaneous options for the ballhandler.

Morrow’s path is obviously a very inefficient way to get from A to B, but of course that’s not the point. As Morrow first nears Davis, you can see his defender, Marco Belinelli, correctly anticipating the direction Morrow will cut to. When Morrow then travels in the entire circle around Davis, Belinelli is momentarily confused — and that’s the whole point of the play. Having gained a step on Belinelli, Morrow is open when he receives the pass, and he gets a good look at the basket.

This evolved into The Hug Play, which turned the asymmetrical action of the play above into a symmetrical action. Instead of the rotation taking place on one of the blocks, it now takes place directly under the basket, in the middle of the floor. There are now screeners at both elbows, waiting for the cuts from beneath the basket.

And, most dramatically, instead of Morrow simply running in a loop around a stationary player, Morrow and his partner literally embrace one another and swing each other around before going on their cut. The main purpose, it seems, is to confuse.

Sometimes Morrow goes to the opposite end of the floor from where he started, other times he returns right back to where it came from. It looks like the directionality of the cuts is a decision that is left up to Morrow: he is definitely swinging his teammate around, instead of vice-versa, and appears to be entrusted to make the right read based on the reactions of the defenders.

In most ways the play is successful: Morrow has an open shot at the basket. That’s a high-percentage proposition that any NBA team would be happy to execute. But, bizarrely, Morrow misses almost all of his shots executed from this play. Perhaps the disorientating action of the play also throws off Morrow’s equilibrium? Even though it seems like a good process, the poor results may have relegated this play to mostly being used at the sorry end of large blowouts.

With preparation and communication, this play would be really easy to defend. When the defending players recognize that the Pelicans are launching into the Hug Play, they could simply follow Morrow and his partner down below and then simply stick to the same side, prepared to meet whichever cutter comes back in their direction.

The Utah Jazz — unwittingly, it seems — managed to totally foil this play. Richard Jefferson (#24) is guarding Al-Farouq Aminu (#0) and Trey Burke (#3) is guarding Morrow. When Aminu and Morrow go into the Hug action, Jefferson follows Aminu through the full 360, while Burke remains stationary. This prevents the defenders from getting crossed-up in traffic, and they are able to easily keep pace with their men on the cuts, doing so without switching. When Morrow receives the pass, there is no opening for a shot, and the Pelicans are forced to scramble and improvise.

So: is this a good play? Or is it a gimmick? Or can it be both of those things at once?

If this play were run with regularity, it sure does seem like it would be foiled a lot more often than not. The play seems to work only because it’s bizarre enough to slow the defenders down for that important split-second. There is sub-optimal spacing here, what with the teammates hugging and all, and also Morrow and his partner never seem to look for potential passes when they are in the high-percentage area right under the hoop. If it were a common play, would its bizarre-ness — and thus its effectiveness — disappear?

It reminds me of the Elevator Doors set, which is run by many teams across the league, including the Pelicans.

This is a hugely effective play that is also run very sparingly — and perhaps that rarity and the inherent surprise within is essential to its effectiveness. What would a team’s offensive rating be if they ran Elevator Doors for half of their possessions, or, just for giggles, all of them?

There seems to be something about clustering players together — whether in the side-by-side screens of Elevator Doors, or the literal physical contact of the Hug Play — that sparks creativity and surprise. The next coach to draw up an unexpected play, perhaps using multiple players clustered together, probably won’t be contributing anything to the all-time pantheon of classic plays. But that coach could wring a few extra successful possessions from his team, maybe an injury-ravaged team like last year’s Pelicans, and that certainly is a sweet reward.


  1. caffeinedisaster says:

    This play is genius!

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