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Learning to Cut

The shot clock is under ten seconds. LeBron James has the ball on the right wing. Chris Bosh, playing center, is trying to gain post position, but James’ defender is splitting the distance between the two, hampering the possible entry pass. Mario Chalmers sits at the top of the arc, his man shading towards James, deterring the possible drive. Shane Battier, the power forward in this lineup, waits on a kick out pass on the far side. Dwyane Wade lingers on the baseline.

Two weakside defenders sink into the middle of the floor, cognizant of their responsibility to help, should Bosh or James make a foray into the lane. The painted area is clear.

What happens?

Last November – with this year’s roster – it’s probably a variation on the Pick-and-Three offense. With little time left for a post-up, Bosh sets a pick for James, who gets space for a jumper. Or, James drives and the defense, sitting on that action, collapses into his path. The kick out pass goes to either Bosh for a jumper or out for a three. If the defense was properly spaced for a short shot clock, the resulting three may still be contested.

The Miami HEAT won 12-consecutive games in December playing this way, but they also went 9-8 in November with the results of each set determined by whom had the ball in their hands in the latter half of the shot clock. This scenario was James’ turn. Wade, in effect, was not a participant in the possession.

From about February on, something different, something small, but something incredibly efficient might have happened. When James turns the corner off the Bosh pick and the defensive alignment begins to shift and react, Wade strikes.

With the shot clock about to expire, defenders are only expecting to close out on a shooter one pass away. Wade, in the far corner, isn’t a threat for an efficient, open shot. But Wade in the paint certainly is.

The defense slides toward James, defenders turn their heads for half a second, and Wade flashes into the middle, splitting his man and Battier’s. James finds the target and the HEAT, with seconds to make a play, are left with a 66-percent finisher at the rim and 50-percent shooter in the paint about four-feet from the basket, with forward momentum, and the defense out of position.

That’s the cut, and it may be the most valuable type of possession for the HEAT’s offense.

By the Numbers

Miami scored the fourth-most points per possession in the league last year on cuts, earning 1.304 per cut with 67 percent shooting. That’s more than they scored in transition (1.224) and that’s more than they scored with the ball handler shooting off a pick-and-roll (0.919) and finally that’s more than they scored in isolation, with 0.926 points on average every time they used a one-on-one situation.

In other words, the HEAT scored more off cuts than they did in the three types of possessions they actually led the league in. They also only used cuts (in having the cutter get the pass and shoot, draw a foul or turn the ball over) seven percent of the time. And twenty-three teams used cuts more than Miami.

The trend, however, was most certainly upward.

“We’d like to do more,” Erik Spoelstra said. “Will we be in the top percentile of the league? Probably not, because of the way [Bosh, Wade and James’] games are, but we increased our number of cuts and movement, more importantly movement, on the weak side as the season went on. I look for that to make another significant jump this year.”

Based on last season, a jump in cuts would mean a significant rise in win rate. At the beginning of the season, the HEAT were averaging around five cuts a game, and by the playoffs they were closer to ten. Between the regular season and the playoffs, the HEAT posted a 72-31 record for a .699 winning percentage. When they used less than seven cuts in a game, Miami went 22-14 (.611).

How about when they used seven or more cuts a game? The HEAT won 50 and lost 17, winning 74.6 percent of their games.

It’s clear who the most important offensive players on Miami are, and Chris Bosh was actually the best cutter of them all. In fact, among qualifying players with at least 90 cuts, Bosh had the seventh-highest scoring rate in the league at over 1.4 per cut. But big men tend to dominate this league because, as Synergy Sports logs the possessions, they tend to get credit for simply flashing to the ball and finishing at the rim when their defender helps. As such, it’s not uncommon for bigs to have over 20 percent of their possessions come from cuts, while it’s rare to see a swingman have over 10 percent.

Here’s where things get a little backward.

Of James and Wade, James was actually the more efficient scorer off of cuts, outscoring Wade by about 10 points per 100 possessions with the 13th highest PPP in the league. But Wade was the far more frequent cutter, using cuts 6.5 percent of the time to James’ 4.6 percent. And if you chart out a season trendline for each (click for the charts of WADE and JAMES), James’ per-game average jumps from less than a cut per game to around 1.5, while Wade hit over two cuts per game by the playoffs.

The Catalyst

Wade was the earlier cutter, having his first three-cut game on December 10 – with 18 total games of three-plus -- while James didn’t reach that quota until January 7, totaling 11 three-plus cut games by the end of the Finals.

“[Dwyane] had a better understanding of what our offense was to be able to take the next step,” Spoelstra said. “Cutting is the next layer of the offense, and he was probably able to make the reads [more quickly].”

Reading the defense is what off-ball movement is all about. It’s nice to think that basketball players can be directed like actors. That a coach can put them in their spots on stage, hand them a script and get exactly what was written down. But if it was so predictable, defenses would be able to stop anything.

Cuts are improvisations. They are so successful because, by design, they catch the defense off guard, taking advantage of any and all mistakes. Coaches can simply put capable players in dynamic positions; put running backs in places where they can read their blocks, put quarterbacks in dropbacks with passing options and put perimeter players in space. From there, it takes skill to score off the cut, but it takes instinct to find the right seam.

And for Wade, that’s part of his DNA.

“It’s natural for him,” assistant coach David Fizdale said. “Probably, for him, because he’s such a greedy scorer, he’s never going to stand around and watch. No matter what people are doing, if his man turns his head for one second, Dwyane is going to figure out a way to take advantage of that to score.”

And because Wade’s style makes him such a natural saboteur of defense, it was just easier for him to set the example.

“LeBron is more straight line and physical. Dwyane is more sneaky and snakey,” Fizdale said. “LeBron’s cuts are more forceful, it’s ‘Either foul me on my cut, or get out of my way and let me get where I’m going to be.’

“That’s where we’re trying to get to with him. But the number one thing is just getting him cutting. Getting him moving without the ball, getting him easy baskets off the ball when people aren’t necessarily focused on him.”

A little direction, however, was still necessary for each.

“It’s built-in for them to move and cut and read screens since both of them are big pick-and-roll players,” Spoelstra said. “You want to have them not necessarily standing and spotting up on the weak side and finding open gaps to cut into. And then, when either one of them is in the post, it’s not to be a stationary target.”

“You had to almost teach them how to play without the ball, so you had to build in more movement,” Fizdale said. “We couldn’t let them stand around. When Dwyane had the ball, LeBron’s natural tendency is to say, ‘Alright, let me just watch him do his thing,’ instead of saying, ‘OK, everyone is watching Dwyane, let me just sneak in here and get a cheap basket.’ LeBron is used to having the ball 100 percent of the time. How to you teach a guy that unless you build it right into the offense and make it that that’s what he has to do?”

This isn’t a form of coaching trickery, like putting a player in motion towards the basket for the sole purpose of getting him to be a more active rebounder. This was a staff that was putting players in initially uncomfortable situations, but, at the same time, handing them the responsibility of thought.

“They like the challenge of learning something new and trying to conquer that,” Spoelstra said.

The responsibility of learning and then acting on what they decide is the best course of action.

“We dealt with the offense that was in and we tried to make it work to our games,” Wade said. “I think one thing coach is doing this year is trying to find a way to make the offense help us more so than anything.

“Coach has done a great job of looking at film and trying to see opportunities where he can open things up a little bit. Just trying to find ways to open it up a little bit to give us opportunities to use our ability of attacking, ability of play making, decision making.”

The Ball is Rolling

We could go on about the winning potential of a HEAT team, one that didn’t see a true uptick in cut possessions until mid-February, entering a full season with a greater understanding of how to take advantage of the defensive attention drawn by teammates, but that’s not the point. Wins are fickle, and most analytical predictions based on just one season’s worth of data are going to be anecdotal at best. That would be equivalent to taking the beginning of this article and changing it to future tense. Imagine this cut, imagine that.

Off-ball movement is merely one facet of Miami’s offense, one that trailed only Denver and San Antonio in offensive efficiency last season. And, as effective as cuts are, they rely on the whole functioning as it is intended. If the team is shooting poorly, the spacing will be messed up and the lanes will be claustrophobic. After all, the HEAT’s only three-game stretch hitting double digits in cuts – they were 21-5 when hitting that mark – were games 4, 5 and 6 of the NBA Finals.

“In the Finals, sometimes we were out of rhythm,” Wade said. “We didn’t master it last year.”

Even if they do master the art of moving off the ball, cuts are no Skeleton Key. They alone won’t unlock a team’s offensive potential. But they can elevate an offense to the realm of greater-than-the-sum that every team strives for. And they’re something Miami has that was absent a year ago.

“It’s already much better in camp,” Spoelstra said. “Fans will see a different team offensively.”

“We’ll be way further ahead than we were last year,” Fizdale said. “Now we got a feel for each other, it’s in the system, it’s in their personal makeup. It’s already happening in [camp]. We’re going to hit the ground running.”

If that’s the difference between a few contested fourth-quarter jumpers and the best athletes in the world catching the ball in the paint, a few more specific situations loaded in Miami’s favor, then the HEAT are one however-sized step closer to their ceiling. And making yourself a small percentage more likely to win at a time is sometimes all the difference you need. Eventually, the wins will take care of themselves.

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