The Dynamics of Ray Allen

The name Ray Allen conjures up different memories depending on who you ask. For some, he is one of the University of Connecticut’s star-lumni. To others, he is Jesus Shuttlesworth. Depending on your allegiances, Allen could be part of that Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell triumvirate that almost took the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals or he could be the go-to scorer on the last Seattle Supersonics team to make the playoffs. Among the internet generation, he is a Boston Celtic and NBA Champion.

But to most everyone that watches basketball, Allen is one of a handful of players that can realistically be considered for the title of Greatest Shooter Ever. This alone makes it easy to explain why he’s an added-value addition to the Miami HEAT. Few teams offer the opportunities for shooters that Miami can, and few shooters can shoot like Ray Allen.

Numbers may be somewhat superfluous with Allen, but he is coming off the two best shooting seasons of his career (by percentage). Shooting 45.3 percent from three in 46 regular season games last year, Allen was one of the ten most efficient players, per possession, in the NBA. He was one of the ten best spot-up shooters, he was one of the five best shooters off sideline out-of-bounds plays and he scored a ridiculous 14.6 points for every 10 jumpers he took without a dribble.

We have to mention, also, that over the past three seasons, Allen has shot almost 10 percent better (46.2) from the left corner than the HEAT did as a team last year (36.3). Over that same span, he shot 41.3 percent from the right corner, and 39.8 percent on longer threes above the break in the arc.

So, yeah, the guy can shoot. Any time LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh draws the attention of an extra defender or causes a defensive shift, whatever spot Allen is standing on might as well have a flashing neon sign reading Efficiency over the top of it.

That’s the common sense of it. Only two teams (Denver and San Antonio) generated a higher percentage of open looks last season, and those looks just became more deadly.

But there’s more to Allen, even as he is about to turn 37 years old, than just spot-up shooting.

Of the many specific topics we discuss in this space, there are few addressed as often as floor spacing and off-ball movement. Spacing is the lubrication of any NBA offense. The oil to the engine, if you will. Without space in which dynamic players can operate, those players are no longer dynamic. With space, and the cutting lanes that result, you get players moving off the ball, forcing the defense to react. As we have tracked in the past, the more cuts used in Miami’s offense, the more likely they are to win.

And it just so happens that there may be no better floor spacer, nor a better mover without the ball, than Allen.

First up: spacing. While it has always been a confusing habit of many NBA defenders – though more understandable with regards to the players Miami tends to have attacking the rim – defenses often play off even the best spot-up shooters. If the shooter is on the weakside corner, away from the ball, many defenders will sag into the middle of the floor and plant one foot in the paint to be in the best legal position to provide help. If the defense gets burned a couple of times it will adjust and the floor will open up, but if you are a believer in percentages and probabilities, it doesn’t make much sense why a defense would wait for a shooter to “prove it” before making more of a defensive commitment.

(As an aside, defenses sometimes shrink the lane waiting for the offense to show enough ball movement to find those open shooters, but some defenders won’t change their positioning as long as the shots are missing, no matter how open the opportunities are.)

You may have guessed where we are going with this, but few living souls wait for Ray Allen to prove anything about his shot. Not all of this effect is entirely schematic, either. Nobody wants to be the guy answering to, ‘How could you leave one of the greatest shooters of all time open?’

Whatever the reasons, Allen’s defenders typically play a step out of the paint and a step away from helping their teammates.

As far as spacing goes, the images tell the story. Enjoy those spread lineups with Chris Bosh at center.

What Allen does when he isn’t standing still, however, adds a completely new dynamic. Erik Spoelstra has experimented at times with screen and movement heavy sets over the past two seasons, adopting a few plays from Doc Rivers’ book in the process, but only a few of those actions – high slip screens for James, simple pin downs and curls for shooters – have ever stuck. With Allen, possibilities that never existed in Miami’s domain will come to be.

Before we get to the video, quickly note that Allen will be asked to do less work off screens in Miami than he was in Boston, where the Celtics were sometimes starved for efficient looks at the rim. As the season progresses, the playoffs approach and Spoelstra does his annual playbook expansion, be surprised if you don’t see Allen running circles around picks, especially in bench units.

You’ve seen this all before. You’ve heard Wade respond to questions about chasing Allen around the court and seen Kevin Garnett set crushing screens as Allen set his feet, caught and released the ball, measured in time only as the bullet flies. Now defenses have to deal with this while, say, James and Wade run a pick and roll on the opposite side of the court.

Part of what makes Allen so good running off screens (1.08 points per possession, the top mark in the league) is how he reads the defense. If the defender is chasing, he runs right off the screen and uses his teammate to create the (very little) space he requires to catch and shoot. If the defender cheats of the top, as in the possession shown against Portland, Allen flares out to the wing and takes the space afforded to him.

As you saw against Miami and Sacramento in those videos (one of the plays Spoelstra uses, with Bosh in the role of Garnett), Allen can be used as a screener on the ball. As you saw in the possession against Atlanta, Allen can bail out a broken set by simply running around one teammate.

It’s worth noting that even though Allen is losing Garnett as a screener, Bosh is a good screener in his own right, and if Bosh sets a high screen for Allen off the ball – as with that two-man game between Allen and Garnett shown against Philadelphia – Bosh’s defender can’t cheat over the top and into the passing lane because Bosh is one of the league’s best at slipping the pick and diving to the rim.

Allen doesn’t always have to be moving fast, either. He can keep up with fast breaks, but few players are better at finding the open spots in the secondary break, once the defense has retreated into the paint. Time and time again in Boston, Rajon Rondo would speed up the floor with the ball, draw the defense to the middle of the floor and, hey, there’s Ray Allen wide open on the wing.

Whether it’s in a structured set, a broken half-court possession or on the break, Allen not only gives Miami new options, but he gives them options most other teams just don’t have. The more options a team has to generate efficient offense, the better that team can be.

Can be, because the shots still have to go in. But from three-point range, there aren’t many better at making that happen than Ray Allen.

Statistical support for this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.