Prized Possession: The Return of the Cut

LeBron James
LeBron James reaping the rewards of a well-timed cut to the rim.
Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox

If there is one thing we have consistently stressed in this space over the course of the last two seasons, it is the importance of off-ball movement to the Miami HEAT offense. Not only do possessions involving a cutting player receiving a pass represent a more efficient offensive play-type for Miami than even fast-breaks (according to points-per-possession and Synergy Sports), but the gradual increase in such possessions has provided an easy-to-follow marker for the improvements made by the team’s high-usage All-Stars.

The more comfortable LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh grew in an offense where they wouldn’t have the ball in their hands the majority of the time, the more cuts we saw. Between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the HEAT jumped from 7.1 cuts per game to 9.9, with each of Miami’s leading scorers using at least 0.3 more per game. The team’s efficiency may have dropped off as offense fell around the league in a lockout-shortened season, but shots in the restricted area rose from 22.85 to 27.25 per game.

That might not seem like much, but between James, Wade and Bosh, the HEAT now had three players combining for nearly six possessions a night paying dividends of at least 1.3 points per. Depending on how you classify players like Thaddeus Young and Shawn Marion – not to mention James – by position, James and Wade were either two of the top four, or the top two perimeter players in the game at cutting to the rim. Certainly, nobody that dribbled as often as James and Wade did as primary playmakers used cuts nearly as much.

With cutting coming more naturally to Wade and Bosh, with one having spent time around a true pivot in Shaquille O’Neal and the other as adept as any big man in finding seams after years of rolling to the rim, James stood to gain the most in learning to play off the ball. And so he did, enjoying the largest jump in cuts, from 1.2 to 1.9 between seasons.

James may have only used one cut in 23 minutes of play against the Atlanta Hawks, and it was a simple one at that, but in an otherwise meaningless preseason game with Dwyane Wade sitting on the sidelines, it was about as good a sign as you could hope to see in anticipation of Miami’s continued offensive evolution.

The early part of this possession is the type of quick-hitter you’ll see often from the HEAT. With the floor spaced on the strong side, the ballhandler – Norris Cole here, but it can be anyone – uses a quick backscreen from Bosh to try and catch the defense off guard before bodies begin collapsing into the paint.

Upon Cole turning the corner and darting toward the rim, this is what the court looks like, with Mike Miller in the far corner, Shane Battier filling the left wing and James lurking on the right.

Two years ago, James may have elected to wait outside the arc and see what developed, but then again, two years ago the HEAT may have had a bigger, slower body on the floor.

Now, just look at all that space.

You have Bosh pulling out Al Horford and James, the power forward here, pulling Josh Smith above the free-throw line, leaving Kyle Korver as the sole defender in position to provide help at the rim.

Instead of sliding over to Cole, who was caught behind the rim, Korver sticks with Miller, not wanting to give up a corner three. James catches Smith ball-watching, takes off and less than ten seconds into the shot-clock, there’s a dunk derived from half-court offense.

Granted, Atlanta’s defense will be better prepared during the regular season – and Smith won’t be standing as flat-footed – but this is the conundrum teams will be presented with all season. When Miami spreads the floor and the ballhandler gets a step on his defender, what do you do? What do you do if that’s Wade driving baseline? Who do you leave knowing that not only are there multiple shooters on the floor, but some of the best finishers in the league are about to split any seam your decisions leave open?

How teams choose to answer those questions will be something we follow all season, but for Miami’s part, the cutting – filling and using the earned spacing – will always be just as important as the passing, shooting and dribbling to unlocking the potential of the HEAT’s myriad of lineup options. And this may seem like a small, innocuous example from an already forgotten game, but big things tend to have small beginnings.