The Best Damn Off-Screen Action in the NBA

“Not everything has to mean something. Some things just are.” – Charles de Lint

There are times when I’m writing—and I would guess other people fall into this trap as well—when I feel determined to produce a profound conclusion, that I should unlock an age old mystery. But it’s also cool sometimes to just write for writing’s sake, to share something because we find it interesting, not because it will somehow solve the world’s problems. And so, in the spirit of de Lint’s message, I took on this project.

On Synergy’s excellent scouting platform, they provide the ability to break down plays into different categories, such as “isolation,” “cut,” “pick-and-roll,” etc. For my search,  I decided to explore the “off screen” category. And since I love three-pointers more than about anything in basketball, I focused in on three-point field goals made off screens. I wanted to find the most successful teams in this category and compare and contrast their offenses—not in an effort to come to a conclusion that would change the future of basketball, but rather because I thought it would be interesting. And so away we go.

Using points per possession (PPP) as my criteria, I found the three most potent “off screen” offenses. Coming in at 1.04 PPP were the Portland Trail Blazers, followed closely by the Houston Rockets at 1.03 PPP and the Golden State Warriors at 1.02 PPP.

Going into more detail, here is a chart that explores how often each team used “off screen” plays in their offense.

Portland Houston Golden State
PPP 1.04 1.03 1.02
Percent of offensive plays that were “off screen” 4.7% 3% 6.1%
FG % 172/409 = 42% 78/190 = 41% 232/519 = 44.7%
3P FG% 86/209 = 41.7% 44/114 = 38.6% 87/218 = 39.9%

From there, I watched every three-pointer that each team made off of screens and broke them down into different categories. (Some of the downscreens and curls—curls to the top of the key in particular—were hard to distinguish and could have gone in either category to be honest, but it’s not really a big deal.)

Here you can see the general breakdown of each team’s plays.

Off Screen Shots Combined

As you would expect, there are certain things—downscreens with the shooter popping up to the wing, for example—that are prominent in all three offenses.

Let’s take a look at an example of each team running a down screen for a shooter to pop up on the wing. This is nothing special, just a simple screen and a simple pass that leads to a made three. Every team across the league runs this type of play—these three are just better at it.

Of course the success these teams have comes from having top-shelf shooters like Wes Matthews, Nic Batum, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. But an often-overlooked aspect of freeing up shooters is the guy setting the screens. Portland has Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge. Houston has Dwight Howard. Golden State has Andrew Bogut. It’s a lot easier for Steph Curry to get free off a screen when his opponent has to worry about getting around Bogut.

But while there is a common ground between all three offensive schemes, each team has their specific twists and turns that produce something all their own—whether it’s a unique play like Golden State runs with their elevator screen, or simply different approaches about where and how many screens to have shooters run around.

Let’s have a look at some of the ways each team distinguished themselves with their “off screen” offense.

Portland:

Portland Curls

Portland Flares

The Trail Blazers’ offensive plays were well-balanced, but one area they favored more often than the other teams were flare screens, converting 21 of these plays. The interesting thing about flare screens is how they lull the defense to sleep. Like a magic trick, the offense draws the defense’s attention with screens or other action on one side of the court. Meanwhile, the real show is being set up in silence on the other side, and by the time the defense realizes they’ve been duped, it’s far too late:

Houston:

Houston Downscreens

Houston Flares

Houston Curls

As for Houston, they rely more on the downscreen action with the shooter popping up to the wing. One of the Rockets’ favorite ways to execute this play is to have the shooter start on the baseline and run off of two screens. With Dwight Howard often setting the second screen, it makes the defender’s job almost impossible:

Golden State:

GS Flares GS Curls GS Downscreens GS Elevators

The elevator play has started to seep into other offenses, but it was the Warriors who made it well-known, and it’s the Warriors who run it to perfection. Even if the defense knows it’s coming, there’s little they can do to prevent it turning into a basket for the Warriors. Here’s how Golden State closes the door on defenses:

Well that’s about it. I don’t have time (or skill) to write a dope outro track so I’ll just let Chance handle that for me.

Everything’s good.

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Comments

  1. Awesome work.

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