TrueHoop: Killer Lineup

Killer Lineup: The Warriors' #FullSquad

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Golden State Warriors' starters.

Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
Minutes Played: 612
Offensive Rating: 113.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.0 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

This is the league’s most prolific five-man unit offensively (among the top 30 in minutes played), but the Warriors’ starting lineup doesn't seem like a natural offensive machine when examined on the surface.

Andre Iguodala hasn't historically stretched the floor, though he’s shooting the 3 at a 42.9 percent clip this season. David Lee will launch out to the arc, but is a 36.7 percent shooter from midrange. And Andrew Bogut has taken fewer than two dozen shots outside the restricted area this season. Meanwhile, both Iguodala and his counterpart on the wing, Klay Thompson, sport a player efficiency rating below the league average. Thompson shoots well from beyond the arc and is a decent finisher, but he misses a lot of midrange shots and isn't inclined to move the ball all that often.

Yet, here’s the Warriors’ primary unit racking up 113.5 points for every 100 possessions.

This is a testimony to a few things. First, to Stephen Curry and Lee, both of whom can manufacture a shot out of table scraps. Has there ever been a shooter with a better nose than Curry for finding space along the arc in transition or getting a shot off against a tight close-out?

Curry is also among the league’s master hiders on the pick-and-roll. He doesn't require a whole lot of room to cross over and then step back into an open spot behind Bogut or Lee, and the bigs do a nice job of putting the down payment on that space with crafty picks and drag screens. The Curry-Lee drag screen is a linchpin of Golden State's offense. It’s both the simplest and most reliable way for the Warriors to get an early look.

Curry almost always prefers firing a 3-pointer to putting the ball on the floor. He doesn't take it to the cup all that often, and isn't especially efficient when he does. He’ll hit Lee on the roll if the path is there, but the bomb still takes precedent, and you can’t fault him for it.
[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesSteph Curry's sharp stroke opens up a lot for the Warriors' starters.

Lee is one of the best catch-and-go big men in the league, and in set situations, the Warriors orchestrate a few different ways to get Lee the ball close to the hoop. There’s a fun high-low in which Bogut flashes high and Lee dives low after setting a side pick for Curry. The ball goes from Curry to Bogut at the foul line, where Bogut instantly hits Lee at the rim.

The ball often ultimately lands in Lee’s hands on the left block late in the clock. He can spin into that lefty hook beautifully, or just bully his way into the paint with some space. He’s also a heady decision-maker who can find shooters and cutters.

Then there’s the playmaking. Counting Lee, there are four guys who move the ball exceptionally well. The fifth, Thompson, isn't someone you want making plays off the dribble (though he’s better than he was a year ago). To capitalize, the Warriors run the Spurs’ classic "motion weak" stuff, wherein the ball pings around the court with Curry on the move and can end up in any number of places off the read -- often Curry up top after curling around a couple of baseline screens, or Lee in the Duncan spot or in a two-man game left side as a second-side action.

Iguodala is a calming force on what can be a frenetic offense. He commandeers many of the sets from the left wing or up top. This is a primary portal of entry into Lee on the left block. All the while, Curry will hold down the weak side, which pretty much hamstrings any defensive rotation because the help can’t come from the strong side (Lee can find Bogut with a blindfold on) and it can’t come from the top (Thompson). Sometimes, Curry will shuttle the ball to Iguodala, then curl around a single-single for the catch. If Curry is denied, Iguodala quickly delivers the ball to Lee in the post. This is another place where Iguodala lubricates the offense, and he's also a master of the advance pass in transition -- and almost guides the leakers to the optimal spot.

When five guys on the floor can execute properly, they can run clever stuff. The Warriors’ playbook works because the unit has smarts. The term “high IQ” is always a little problematic because there’s many different kinds of intelligence on the basketball court. Let’s just call it wherewithal. Either way, you can see the long menu in action on a set called “52”:

Curry dribbles from the wing to the top of the floor past a screen from Bogut, who dives off the screen. Meanwhile, Thompson vacates the left side and runs around a stagger screen along the right side of the lane, then curls to the top of the floor on the far side. So Curry has three very nice options:

  • Shoot from the top of the arc.
  • Pass off to Thompson, if he gets separation.
  • Hit a diving Bogut with an alley-oop.

What’s most impressive when the starters run this kind of set is that most of the options are available. Other teams run the famed “elevator doors,” but few as flawlessly as Bogut and Lee for Curry and Thompson. The corner splits -- with Iguodala cutting back door -- are nifty. This group plays well with pace, because it has two big men who can ignite the break and everyone has confidence in what the unit is doing.

Because Curry and Thompson can screen competently for the bigs, this lineup will frequently draw mismatches. Because it has so many effective pick-and-roll combinations, it can scramble a defense with multiple actions. And because Curry can shoot the lights out and draws the Prussian army, the other four guys on the floor -- all with multiple offensive skills -- get the chance to work in advantageous situations.

That’s how you count to 113.5 in more than 600 minutes together.

How it works defensively

Not unlike the offense, the Warriors’ defensive personnel doesn't necessarily look like a standout unit. Iguodala and Bogut are elite defenders at their respective positions, and there’s no doubt a lockdown wing and an interior rim protector who can handle both the pick-and-roll and help responsibilities provide a bedrock foundation for a defense. But Lee, Curry and Thompson have all carried a reputation as sieves at one time or another (in Lee’s case, the past, present and future). Defensive stoppers are indispensable, but it’s challenging for a five-man unit to post a decent defensive rating if there are liabilities all over the floor.

It’s no longer useful to identify a team’s overriding defensive strategy as forcing long 2s because every coach in the league, whether he’s steeped in analytics or an old-timey ball coach, has bought into this as an organizing principle. The Warriors’ starters certainly do. This group gives up shots in the restricted area at well below the league average rate, and opponents are finishing those shots at a below-average clip. This holds true across the board: The starters surrender fewer 3-point attempts and those they do are converted at a lousy rate. Opponents are more likely to take a midrange shot against this group, and fewer than 38 percent of those shots fall.

It starts with Bogut, who is a vigilante, both in temperament and in practice. He commits early to the attacker on the pick-and-roll, but he’s a big defender who seems to devote as much attention on establishing the demarcation line between ball and paint as he is on the guy who’s actually handling the ball.

The schemes usually call for Bogut to fall back into the lane against the pick-and-roll, but he’s not exclusively a drop guy. Bogut will get out on big men, especially those who can shoot, and coach Mark Jackson trusts Bogut with defensive audibles. If he sees an opportunity to disrupt without giving away too much behind him, by all means. Bogut is well aware that he’s the rim protector, but he’s deft at balancing out his responsibilities.

When the action is on the strong side -- and it frequently is because teams don’t want any part of trying to ram the ball inside against a 7-foot Australian underneath -- Bogut is deceptive. He likes to stay in the paint for virtually the entire three seconds allotted, but he’s just as likely to stick close to his man on the weakside baseline then dart into the path of the attacker to meet him vertically. Bogut's the thinking man’s gambler, a center who will account for risk on the weak side and the glass before committing. Yet despite the careful calculation, he rarely seems to be late on help.

The pick-and-roll coverage up top makes things easier for Curry in particular. By playing it “weak” -- influencing the ball handler to his weak hand -- the Warriors turn the task of guarding against the screen into something other than a test of physical strength. It’s no longer about fighting through the pick; it’s about anticipating the action before it happens. Curry may not have raw muscle, but he does have sharp instincts. So with a quick reaction, he can be in a position to reroute the ball handler irrespective of where and how the screen will be set. Credit Curry for catching on quickly and credit the staff for its creative thinking.

Curry has grown into a better defender than he was largely projected to be. He’s not easily tempted to leave his guy up top to lurch at the ball. When guarding a shooter, he’s a disciplined homebody. Bigger guards in the league still love to go at Curry -- posting up at the elbow, power dribbles with the intent of contact, etc. But he knows how Bogut likes to operate and can redirect his attacker, even if he can’t stop him.
[+] EnlargeArron Afflalo
AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.Andre Iguodala's tight D helps cover up the mistakes from some of his teammates.

Thompson has improved in this capacity, too, though he’s still prone to distraction off the ball. Still, there’s measurable growth there, the kind of improvement that accompanies big guards who realize that their size can bother, especially if they move their feet.

There isn’t a defensive task Iguodala hasn't mastered as a perimeter stopper. We generally see defenders work when they’re matched up in isolation against the big dog. When eyes aren't on Iguodala and he’s chasing a guy around a couple of screens or playing for the angle, the list of offensive options evaporates with the clock.

Nobody denies like Iguodala, and scorers who have Iguodala’s attention can go possessions without seeing the ball. When Iguodala does relent, it’s only after the timing of the offense has been disrupted and the offense has stopped and can’t figure out its next move. The offensive players are no longer synced to the primary action -- thanks to Iguodala, nobody could get the damn ball to the guy who needed it. Iguodala’s size and reach also allow for a switch on any action (high ball screens, curls, pindowns), a luxury the Warriors exploit.

Any discussion of the Warriors’ defense inevitably leads to Lee, often to the point of ridicule. Whether Lee was tired of hoop junkies cutting his defensive lowlights to a laugh track or if this unit started to understand its collective strengths and weaknesses, his performance this season has been markedly better; there are far fewer cringe moments. For the first time since he arrived in Oakland, Lee’s individual defensive rating is lower than the team’s overall number.

While Lee’s deficiencies are very much present, so is the help from Bogut and Iguodala. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to assemble a blooper reel with Lee as the foil. In this respect, Lee is the embodiment of the starters’ defensive approach: high-quality workarounds for problems that once seemed unsolvable.

Killer Lineup: OKC's Jackson Five

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Oklahoma City Thunder's starters without Russell Westbrook.

Oklahoma City ThunderLineup: Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 100.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 92.0 points per 100 possessions

How it works defensively

Incredibly well when we consider this starting lineup performs 11.2 points better defensively this season with Jackson at the point than the same unit with Westbrook. This prompts the question: How can Jackson, who is no faster or longer than Westbrook and is accountable to the same schemes, possibly be this much of an upgrade?

The riddle is especially confounding after the 2013 postseason debacle. Jackson put up some solid offensive numbers, but the Thunder’s starting unit with Jackson got annihilated against the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies. The grouping was minus-31.4 per 100 possessions in 10 games and hemorrhaged defensively to the tune of a 116.0 mark.

Reports that a secretly healthy Rajon Rondo has been suiting up for the Thunder in a prosthetic Reggie Jackson suit this season are unfounded. Jackson’s improvement is his own, born out of increased familiarity with his teammates, coverages and expectations.

Jackson is a lower-stake gambler than Westbrook, who perpetually has one eye on the passing lane. While Westbrook rolls the dice, Jackson makes the sure bet. He’s able to squeeze his way above screens like someone trying to dash into an elevator before the doors close. This allows Ibaka to drop and contest after a short show. When the small defender isn’t playing catch-up and the big guy has the ball handler in front of him, it's advantage: defense.
[+] EnlargeJackson
Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty ImagesMr. January? Reggie Jackson's heady approach has taken the Thunder's defense to a whole new level.

Another theory for the better defensive numbers resides in the notion that Westbrook’s quick shots are more likely to result in run-outs for the opponent. The Jackson Five gives up almost 30 percent fewer fast-break points adjusted to pace. The Westbrook lineup also coughs it up more. Then there’s the defensive glass: This lineup has a better rebounding rate and gives up 30 percent fewer second-chance points. Add up these ancillaries and we start to account for that 11.2-point differential.

The results since Westbrook’s most recent absence confirm the eye test. In the 10 games since Jackson assumed starting duties, not one of his 10 matchups has shot better than 50 percent from the field -- and only one (the man of the hour, Jordan Crawford) shot better than 40 percent.

The schemes don’t differ with Jackson in the lineup. The Thunder have more or less been running the same pick-and-roll coverages for a while -- though Ibaka’s development has enabled him to approach ball screens more situationally. In the parlance of X’s and O’s, the Thunder generally "weak" a high pick-and-roll with the intention of sending the ball handler to his weak hand. Ibaka will still toy with a long show on a high screen, but the hulking Perkins stays put. On side pick-and-rolls, the Thunder push baseline, and Perkins and Ibaka will exert varying levels of pressure on the ball handler.

Durant, Ibaka and, to a lesser extent, Sefolosha give the Thunder uncommon versatility. Durant and Ibaka will switch liberally, and Sefolosha has license to use his instincts as well in tandem with Ibaka, depending on the matchup.

Every coach will tell you he wants to keep his team out of defensive rotations, but some teams treat it as an article of faith, while others regard it more as a general guideline. The Thunder with Westbrook certainly fall into the latter because Westbrook loves to gamble and apply pressure. With Jackson, the Thunder play it more conservatively -- again, more an expression of Westbrook’s temerity than anything Jackson is or isn’t doing.

When the Thunder do get caught in a rotation, Ibaka’s heightened understanding of team defense often saves the day. It’s difficult to overstate Ibaka’s all-around growth on the defensive end. Not long ago, he was a weakside defender more interested in swatting a shot into the fifth row than timing his rotations with precision. In two seasons, his block rate has plummeted from 9.8 to 5.8, and his foul rate has taken a similar dive, but he’s a far better vertical defender than in past seasons.

Amazing to get this far and not address both Sefolosha and Durant. There’s no mystery to Sefolosha. His wingspan puts playmakers in a stranglehold, and he’s still one of the toughest guards in the league to screen.

Durant’s defensive improvement that started in earnest two seasons ago continues its upward trajectory. The light bulb turned on a while back when he realized that while his physical strength is no longer a liability, his length and awareness will always carry him as a defender. Synergy has him ranked third as a pick-and-roll defender among players who’ve guarded more than 50 plays. Against isolation? No. 1, thank you.

Perkins is still wily defensively -- you’ll see him try to jam a screen or buy time for Jackson with all sorts of grabby shenanigans. When Perkins fails, it’s generally a lack of speed that does him in. He doesn’t blow any help situations and the post defense remains steady.

The Jacksonians are due to return to planet earth, but in the Thunder’s ongoing campaign to endow their young backup point guard with confidence, OKC couldn’t ask for better results on the defensive end.

How it works offensively

Only marginally better than the Westbrook crew, which has struggled all season, but is still far too reliant on Durant to create shots out of nothing.

Let’s rewind to last spring. The 2013 playoffs against Houston and Memphis were every bit the nightmare for the Jackson-helmed offense as they were for the defense. In 107 minutes, they scored only 84.7 points per 100 possessions. The starters couldn’t establish any pace, plodding at an 85.8 possessions per game. Things are clearly better in Oklahoma City this season for the Jackson-led squad, but the offense still drags for long stretches.

The primary objective in the half court for any Russell-less Thunder unit is to get the ball into the hands of Durant. Achieving this goal is easier if Durant doesn’t spend all his time on the strong side of the court, because the defense can key in on the ball or Durant, but it’s hard to do both. With that in mind, the wide pin-down for Durant on the weak side has been the prototype in the Thunder’s offense, and the Thunder have installed countless wrinkles and reinterpretations.

This is top-grade offense because, whether he’s catching the ball on the move toward the hole or just getting it for an open shot in space, Durant is the most dangerous shot-maker in the league. Under the Jackson administration, the Thunder are still oriented toward this brand of offense. For example, Ibaka will set the down screen for Durant on the right side, off which Durant zips to the perimeter for the catch. Durant can shoot, drive or play a two-man game with Ibaka off the action.
[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Bart Young/Getty ImagesWithout Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's offense has become more reliant on Kevin Durant than ever.

When healthy, Westbrook is a frequent screener for Durant in these situations, and Jackson has assumed that task on many a set. The Thunder will run Sefolosha up from the baseline around a Perkins-Ibaka stack to receive the ball from Jackson. After delivering the pass to Sefolosha, Jackson will cut to the far side to set the screen for Durant. When Westbrook and Durant run this action (any action) together, it’s a matter for the State Guard, but Jackson can make it work.

Most of the well-worn pages in the Thunder playbook are sets designed to get Durant the ball in position to shoot in the half court. OKC relies on the aforementioned pin-downs. They still love good ol’ floppy action, in which a big man sets a low screen off which Durant flashes to the foul line. They like to post Durant up on the weak side, where he either catches the entry pass after the ball is swung or, if the defender is denying that pass, slips out the back door.

All this is great stuff, but it must be balanced with some other flavors, and, right now, Durant is too self-sufficient when playing with this lineup. Historically, the Thunder’s offense has been at its most efficient when Durant (and Westbrook) share the load with the supporting cast. Last weekend, Durant conceded as much, saying that he needed to take fewer shots.

Jackson’s knowledge of the pro game has grown exponentially, and he understands that his job is to make the game easier for Durant, but he’s not yet at the point where he can ignite the offense on the attack in the manner Westbrook does -- and the Thunder need that spark for a fluid offense.

The Thunder derive a good deal of their offense from early midrange jumpers because they can drain them with proficiency. That doesn’t change in Westbrook’s absence. Jackson, Durant, Ibaka and Sefolosha all hit better than 40 percent from midrange. Finding those shots early is more challenging with Jackson than Westbrook because he’s less lethal on the push, but the Thunder starters with Jackson have had success.

We rarely think of Kevin Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league.

A drag screen from Ibaka on the secondary break is the mainstay of the Thunder’s early attack, and it does so many things for OKC. Ibaka gives a path to the rim for Jackson, space for Durant, a potential face-up jumper for Ibaka once he pops or a kickout to Sefolosha in the corner against a panicked defense.

The same is true of Durant, who loves to push the ball. We rarely think of Durant first as an open-court player, but he’s as good at initiating early offense as anyone in the league. When he rushes the ball up, he and Ibaka routinely look for optimal conditions to run that quick drag screen against a backpedaling defense. Jackson and Sefolosha will stake out a spot along the arc, and Perkins will roost on the weakside baseline (Durant almost always veers right in this situation).

Pace is so vital for the Thunder’s starters, especially since they’re saddled with Perkins. He can’t run the floor, but his presence in the half court presents a dilemma for the Thunder. Situate him along the baseline on the strong side, and he clogs up the driving lane. Place him away from the action, and his defender accepts it as an invitation to play free safety. This is particularly problematic for Jackson, who relies far more on dribble penetration -- and needs more space to do it -- than Westbrook does.

For all the pressure on Jackson, the foundation of the Thunder’s offense is Durant’s ability to make decisions. It’s not as if he’s failing. During the Thunder’s current stint without Westbrook, Durant is logging an assist rate of 29.6 percent -- there’s one non-point guard in the league who’s better (take a wild guess).

When Durant started to put up big assist numbers last winter, Scott Brooks would say that the idea that Durant wasn’t a willing passer early in his career didn’t accommodate for the reality of a young player. Durant wasn’t a point guard growing up, and for the first 15 years of his basketball life, he didn’t have much need or occasion to pass. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but confidence fathered it.

Killer Lineup: Portland's offensive machine

December, 26, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Portland Trail BlazersLineup: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
Minutes Played: 556
Offensive Rating: 115.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 101.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

Order and improvisation are two great competing principles in an NBA offense. On one end of the continuum, we have strict offenses in which every half-court possession comes with a road map; on the opposite end live the improv troops who believe that pace wins possessions.

Teams have won at either extreme of the spectrum, but a clear majority of successful offenses in the past 10 to 15 years reside somewhere in the middle. For these hybrids, clear-cut principles govern strategy and specific actions are called for, but, once a possession is set into motion, it’s guided by the instinct of players, not preordained sets.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ top-ranked offense has achieved that balance beautifully, specifically the starting unit, which is five points better per 100 possessions than the team’s league-leading mark. Portland’s half-court game is fundamentally read-and-react.

Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge embody the midpoint between script and ad-libbing. Both are temperamentally half-court players. Lillard is more powerful than explosive, and much of his game is predicated upon working off the jumper. He gets a fair number of those shots off drag screens or pull-ups on the secondary break, but Lillard is happiest working in the pick-and-roll and coming off flare screens.

Aldridge is mobile, but doesn't run the open court like Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis. Aldridge is an exceptional left block-right elbow player who likes a half court with an orderly flow. By no means does he need the game to screech to a halt, and he can bury a quick-hitter off an advance pass. But he’s a man who works in a corner office, so spare him the cute open floor plan with the foosball tables.

A player such as Aldridge doesn't want to be predictable, but there’s something to be said for the four other guys knowing precisely where, when and how their power forward likes the ball. Until someone can stop Aldridge when he dribbles middle into his right-handed hook, or spins baseline for a turnaround, repetition has its virtue.
[+] EnlargeLaMarcus Aldridge
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsLaMarcus Aldridge has looked better than ever thanks to a little movement on the offensive end.

This season, Lillard is finding more shot attempts off second actions. When the Trail Blazers acquired Eric Maynor in February, they got a chance to see what Lillard could look like off the ball in a half-court offense. Maynor didn't perform well individually, but the Blazers decimated defenses when he and Lillard coinhabited the backcourt, often with Lillard as the effective shooting guard.

Aldridge is getting a greater rate of his touches -- and a better quality of touch -- this season down on the left block. And the Blazers aren't content to feed Aldridge five feet off the lane in a stationary half court. Instead, they’ll put the defense into motion and run some misdirection before they deliver him the ball.

For example, while Nicolas Batum sweeps up from the weakside corner to collect a handoff from Robin Lopez, Aldridge will use a cross-screen from Wes Matthews to stake out his territory deep on the left block. In three seconds, the Blazers have completely flipped the court as Batum and Aldridge have morphed from weakside observers to strongside actors. Defenses much prefer to guard an offense that stands still to one that transforms like Portland’s.

Sounds like a pretty formal half-court offense, right? Kinda, sorta. The actions are tight and familiar, thanks to Batum’s vision, Matthews’ improved reliability as a passer, Lopez’s selflessness and the willingness of the two scorers to trust that the ball will find them. But the vast majority of what the Blazers get is the product of smart reads.

Every team aspires to play read-oriented basketball, but to rely on playmaking instinct, a team has to have personnel who can make plays. Batum can orchestrate an offense as well as any forward in the league not named James, and he’s also the place Portland goes when it wants to run an advanced action, or get into its corner split with Lillard and Aldridge. And if Lillard and Aldridge are covered late in the shot clock, Batum can almost always create some kind of opportunity.

All of these pieces fit, and here’s one of the Blazers’ favorite actions that demonstrates how: It begins with the ball in Batum’s hands on the wing. He feeds Lopez at the opposite elbow, then dives to the rim, rubbing his man off Aldridge at the near elbow. Lopez isn't a pure playmaking big man, but he’s a capable passer who can hit a moving target if he knows the option is going to materialize. If the play to Batum isn't there, Lillard promptly curls up past a stagger screen from Aldridge to pick up the handoff from Lopez. Lillard can stop on a dime and shoot, drive if he sees daylight, or hit Aldridge on a dive.

And watch out for Matthews in the corner on this and other actions. He’s third in the league on successful corner 3s this season and is hitting them at a 47.6 percent clip. Matthews has also become a wily, backdoor threat from that spot. With the Trail Blazers moving side to side so fluidly, help decisions become infinitely more difficult because, if you’re a defender, it’s hard to know if you’re leaving the weakside corner when the weak side keeps shifting.

Matthews can’t dominate every defender, but he has gotten pretty adept at sniffing out where he might have an edge. He loves to post smaller defenders, and, against a defender who’s a pick magnet, Matthews will move to an open spot on the weak side. That’s the nice thing about Matthews -- he’s always been aware that caginess would have to be a strong attribute because there probably wasn't enough raw talent most nights.

The Blazers’ starters have all kinds of counters in the half court -- wide pin-downs on the weak side, flare screens all over the board, dribble handoffs to Batum if the ball gets stuck at the top of the floor. This is not a stubborn, strongside offense unless Aldridge is eating his matchup alive, and, when that’s the case, who cares about a little stagnation over a four-minute stretch?

The starters in Portland have constructed an offense against which it’s impossible to load up. It’s a testament to careful roster construction and to a mindfulness that, to be maximized, diverse skill sets need to complement one another on the basketball court.

How it works defensively

When Lopez was acquired this summer from New Orleans, the Trail Blazers were out to address a couple of very targeted needs. For one, Aldridge's on-court quality of life was suffering playing next to a power forward disguised as a center in J.J. Hickson. With some rare exceptions (see: Bosh, Chris) a grade-A power forward isn't generally expected to casually slide over to the 5 spot, and the management wanted to make a demonstration it appreciated that.

But beyond the roster dynamics, the starting unit was pretty dreadful last season defensively, giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that will lose an NBA team a lot of basketball games. With an undersized center and a rookie point guard, the starting lineup began each game at a disadvantage.

Because Hickson’s best attribute is his speed, not his size, the Blazers were a “show team” that jumped out high on pick-and-roll actions. They had started the season determined to take away the 3-pointer and had performed reasonably well in that regard but had unfurled the red carpet in the lane for opponents.

Showing high made already challenging rotations even more difficult, as Aldridge and Hickson frequently found themselves behind the play, racing from the perimeter to the paint in search of their assignment. Matthews can run over a pick, but he’s not particularly quick or long. Meanwhile, Lillard was navigating the learning curve between checking Big Sky point guards and All-NBA talents.

Swapping Lopez for Hickson has allowed the Blazers’ starters to move from performing triage on every defensive possession to developing more honest defensive schemes. They've been able to follow the league’s prevailing trend toward dropping their big men into the paint against most pick-and-rolls. They’re not as radically conservative as a San Antonio, but Lopez and Aldridge rarely venture too far out.
[+] EnlargeRobin Lopez
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPortland is more structured on D with Robin Lopez on the back line.

With the big guys committed to an attacking ball handler, Lillard and Matthews look to fight over every high pick, even against non-shooters such as Ricky Rubio. Lillard’s improvement on the defensive end is measurable. He clearly has a better grasp of how to distribute his attention between the oncoming pick and the ball. This might be the toughest task for first- and second-year NBA guards. Even if they have strength, length and speed (Lillard has a good amount of all three), they’re rarely certain when and to what extent to reach for each tool.

Batum is the best overall defender in the unit, and there are contingencies available when he’s on the strong side of the play. The Trail Blazers will switch most 1-3 and 2-3 pick-and-rolls with Batum picking up the ball handler off the action. When it comes to issuing defensive assignments on the perimeter in critical situations, Terry Stotts will often turn to Batum against a powerhouse point guard. Truth be told, Batum is a decent, but occasionally unfocused, defender off the ball, so having him on a ball-dominant point or wing is usually the best use of his strength.

The Trail Blazers ask a lot of Lopez in the interior, with mixed results. They place him on an island against even the most prolific offensive centers. There’s virtually no help coming low because, after watching a season of constant scrambling, Stotts and the staff decided structural integrity was the best course to pursue defensively -- take away the 3-point shot and deter point guards from the paint. No double-teams and no weakside fire alarms. If that means Lopez gets worked down on the block a couple of nights a week, so be it.

The cool thing about Lopez from the Blazers’ perspective is that he’s a trouper. Many bigs bristle at being forced to go at it alone, but Lopez bought in from the outset. The effect has been compounded because the perimeter defenders know they can be singularly focused on their man. This also allows Aldridge to exercise his best judgment; if he feels he has to show against a slick-shooting big man, he knows nobody will be hung out to dry if the ball moves inside because Lopez is there, rather than a 6-foot-9 forward.

This is far from an elite NBA defense -- 44.8 percent of their opponents’ shots originate in the basket area, and, although that’s considerably better than the brutal 48 percent mark for the starters in 2012-13, it’s certainly not airtight. There are nights when guards destroy this unit off the bounce, and teams with two backcourt playmakers give it particular trouble. There’s a fair amount of rearview mirror defense with contests from behind. Because the Blazers don’t place a priority on the gaps this season, this unit doesn't force turnovers. Batum has traditionally held his own as an isolation defender, but there isn't anyone else in the unit who excels in that capacity.

Yet, this five-man grouping is four points better than its predecessor per 100 possessions at a respectable 101.8. That’s far better than the team’s overall number and would be good for ninth overall in the league. The aforementioned opponents’ rim numbers speak to that general improvement. All the while, they've locked down the arc, giving up fewer 3-point attempts than last season and at a stingy 31 percent success rate. Whereas last season’s starting lineup allowed the opposing offense to recover 28.5 percent of its misses, that has dropped to less than a quarter this season.

Where you come down on the Trail Blazers’ chances to contend corresponds directly with how confident you are that a four-point improvement can become six.

Killer Lineup: Houston's rim squad

December, 13, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Memphis GrizzliesLineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.

The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.

James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”

Yes and no.

Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.

All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.

A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
[+] EnlargeHarden
Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames Harden thrives in the chaos created by the Rockets' offense.

Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.

But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.

This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.

Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.

The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.

Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.

This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.

That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.


How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.

Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.

The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.

At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
[+] EnlargeDwight Howard and Raymond Felton
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard isn't as spry as he once was, but he still must be reckoned with on defense.

Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.

Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.

One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.

The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.

Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.

Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.