Beautiful ball movement makes us happy. The way the San Antonio Spurs played in the 2014 Finals may have been the most enjoyable performance from a single team in a series that we've ever seen. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts and the Spurs' passing chewed up the Miami Heat's aggressive pick-and-roll defense.
But these days, few teams defend pick-and-rolls like those Heat did. And while ball movement remains aesthetically pleasing, it doesn't necessarily lead to consistently good offense.
Players generally shoot better off the catch than they do off the dribble, but the correlation between assist percentage (the percentage of a team's field goals that are assisted) and offensive efficiency is actually negative. Same with the correlation between overall ball movement (passes per 24 minutes of possession) and offensive efficiency.
This season, only one top-10 offense (that of the Denver Nuggets) ranks in the top 10 in ball movement, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The league's three most efficient offenses - those of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and LA Clippers - rank 20th (322), 29th (293) and 26th (315) in passes per 24 minutes of possession, respectively. The league's 30th ranked offense - that of the Golden State Warriors - ranks first (389).
Talent obviously matters. Last season's Warriors ranked first in both ball movement and offensive efficiency. But even then, with the pass-happy Warriors fully loaded, there was no correlation between ball movement and efficiency.
Last season, the Boston Celtics ranked seventh in ball movement (354). This season, they rank 18th (325), having seen the league's seventh biggest drop in passes per 24 minutes of possession. The Celtics have seen the league's second biggest drop in assist percentage, from 62.4% (eighth) last season to 55.4% (25th) this season. The last time Boston ranked in the bottom 10 in assist percentage was 20 years ago.
But entering the league's hiatus, the Celtics were fifth in offensive efficiency, their highest ranking in seven seasons under head coach Brad Stevens. Improvement has come on the glass - the Celtics have seen the league's second biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage, from 25.7% (24th) last season to 28.4% (eighth) this season - and in their ability to get to the line.
And when you don't move the ball that much, it helps to shoot well off the dribble. The Celtics lead the league in pull-up effective field goal percentage (49.0%), with four of the 25 players that have an effective field goal percentage of 50% or better on at least 100 pull-up jumpers.
Marcus Smart, who had an effective field goal percentage of 39% on pull-up jumpers over the previous three seasons, may be the most surprising name on that list of 25 players, especially considering that he ranks fourth (!) in pull-up effective field goal percentage at 53.8%.
Smart remains a wildcard in the Celtics' offense, sometimes a little too eager to let it fly. But the Celtics have two more consistent vets, as well as a young star who has obviously taken a big step forward. And if Smart's improvement can be sustained, the Celtics have a lot of weapons off the dribble.
Two Screens For Walker
Kemba Walker has an effective field goal percentage of 51.5% on pull-up jumpers, 12th among the 139 players who have attempted at least 100 and up from 50.4% over his previous three seasons. He's been remarkably consistent in that regard (49.9%, 50.5%, 50.8%, 51.5%).
According to Synergy, Walker ranks ninth in the league with 10.1 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. One of the actions the Celtics run for him several times a game is a double-drag screen, where Walker brings the ball up one side of the floor (usually the left side, so he can attack with his right-hand dribble) and two teammates set staggered screens to free him for a shot or a drive.
The first screen, set further from the basket, is usually set by a wing. The second, closer to the 3-point line, is usually set by a big. That puts two different kinds of defenders in a switch, hedge or drop situation. Defending it well requires good communication from all three defenders involved. Both screens are typically set at a 45-degree angle.
Play 1. Gordon Hayward sets the initial screen 35 feet from the basket, but Fred VanVleet (bringer of pressure) goes over the screen and doesn't even get to Daniel Theis' second screen by the time Walker is rising for a pull-up 3-pointer with Serge Ibaka in no position to contest.
Number to know: Walker has scored 1.08 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the third best mark among 49 players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game.
Play 2. Utah's Tony Bradley comes up to meet Walker after the second screen, with Joe Ingles trailing. Walker stumbles a little, but still gets by Bradley for a tough layup.
Number to know: Walker has shot 55.8% in the restricted area, a mark which ranks 126th among 145 players with at least 150 restricted-area attempts.
Play 3. Once again, Walker's defender (Aaron Holiday) goes over the first screen, despite how far it's set from the basket. Instead of using the second screen, Walker steps into another pull-up 3-pointer, with neither Hayward's defender (Victor Oladipo) nor Theis' defender (Myles Turner) alert enough to step up and contest it.
Number to know: 69% of Walker's pull-up jumpers have been 3-point attempts. That's the eighth highest rate among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 pull-up jumpers total.
Play 4. Jeff Teague "ices" the double-drag, meaning that he gets between the ball-handler and the screener to force the ball in the other direction. So Grant Williams flips his screen and Walker goes left. John Collins is more alert than some of the previous defenders, but Walker is able to launch from a few feet beyond the 3-point line.
Number to know: Walker has shot 36.4% on pull-up 3-pointers, the fourth best mark among 18 players who have attempted at least 200.
Play 5. Like Teague, Ja Morant ices the first screen. This time, Walker doesn't wait for Hayward to flip it. Instead, he quickly rejects the screen and draws help from Hayward's man (Jaren Jackson Jr.), leaving Hayward open for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
Number to know: The Celtics have scored 116.0 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor. That's the sixth highest on-court OffRtg mark among 265 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 40 games or more.
Jayson Tatum ranks eighth in the league with 3.5 isolation possessions per game, according to Synergy. And often, he gets to those isolations via a ball screen.
Play 1. Smart sets a screen along the right sideline and the Jazz switch it without a fight. Smart clears out so Tatum can go one-on-one against Jordan Clarkson. Donovan Mitchell leaves Smart and hangs out on the strong side of the floor, but Tatum gets into the paint and lofts a floater over both defenders.
Number to know: Tatum has scored 0.99 points per possession on isolations, the eighth best mark among 22 players who have averaged at least 2.5 isolation possessions per game.
Play 2. Tatum catches at the left elbow and gets a screen from Theis. Anthony Davis switches onto Tatum and Tatum goes to a side-step to his right, draining a 3-pointer over one of the league's rangiest defenders.
Number to know: Tatum has shot 39.9% on pull-up 3-pointers, the second best mark among 18 players who have attempted at least 200.
Play 3. Walker sets an early ball screen for Tatum, so that Tatum is now defended by Landry Shamet instead of Kawhi Leonard (a little bit of a difference there). Tatum backs Shamet down to the block and squeezes around Montrezl Harrell's double-team. Tatum would treat Shamet a little more harshly in isolation (via a transition mismatch) later in the same game.
Number to know: Tatum has shot just 59.3% in the restricted area, down from 63.1% last season and the 20th worst mark among 89 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts.
Play 4. Another early screen (from Brad Wanamaker) gets Tatum matched up with Trae Young. He eventually gets triple-teamed and hits Wanamaker for an open 3-pointer.
Number to know: Tatum has recorded assists on just 11.3% of his possessions, the third lowest rate among 40 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher.
Hayward ranks third in the Celtics with 4.3 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. He hasn't been as efficient as Walker or Tatum (or even Smart) as a ball-handler, because most of his shots off the dribble have come from inside the arc. While 3-pointers account for 69% and 55% of Walker's and Tatum's pull-up jumpers respectively, only 26% of Hayward's pull-up jumpers have been 3-pointers.
But, given how most defenses defend pick-and-rolls, there are times when mid-range proficiency is needed. And Hayward has been one of the best mid-range shooters in the league.
Play 1. Theis sets a transition drag screen for Hayward and the Pacers' two bigs aren't really used to defending pick-and-rolls together. Domantas Sabonis initially stays with Theis, Turner doesn't know what to do, and Hayward takes advantage.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum, Hayward has shot 82-for-153 (53.6%) on pull-up 2-pointers, the third best mark among 95 players who have attempted at least 100. The only players with better marks are Chris Paul (54.9%) and Khris Middleton (53.8%).
Play 2. On a sideline out of bounds play, Smart sets a pin-down for Hayward out of the left corner and into a dribble-handoff from Theis. The Pacers now have a more capable perimeter defender on Hayward, but after Victor Oladipo goes under the second screen, Hayward puts on the breaks and Oladipo flies by, unable to contest the jumper.
Number to know: Hayward's effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers (51.7%) ranks ninth among the 139 players who have attempted at least 100 and is up from 45.0% over his last three full seasons.
Play 3. Luguentz Dort appears to blow up the intended action for Walker. So Hayward comes out of the corner for another handoff from Theis, who then flips the screen. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing and Steven Adams wary of Theis' roll to the rim, Hayward is able to get to an open spot and drain another mid-range jumper.
Number to know: Hayward has shot 64-for-130 (49.2%) between the paint and the 3-point line, the seventh best mark among 79 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts.
Play 4. Enes Kanter enters to Hayward at the left elbow, sets a ball screen, and quickly rolls to the rim, keeping Davis occupied. Hayward gets a half step on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and again displays his ability to put on the breaks and rise up for a comfortable jumper before KCP can gather himself.
Number to know: As a team, the Celtics have scored 0.98 points per possession, the league's second best mark, on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions.
Play 5. Hayward doesn't always settle for the mid-range. Here he rejects Tatum's screen, catches Kelan Martin leaning, and gets to the basket
Number to know: Hayward has shot 68.9% in the restricted area, the best mark of his career and up from 60.4% through his first nine seasons in the league.
The Theis "Gortat"
Theis has averaged 6.2 screen assists per 36 minutes, the seventh highest mark among 228 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes total. But Theis' most effective screens aren't the ones he sets 25 feet from the basket.
The third-year big is a master of screening his own man, allowing his teammate to get to the rim untouched. In some circles, this type of screen is called a "Gortat," with John Wall having been the beneficiary of countless own-man screens from Wizards teammate and one-time screen-assist leader Marcin Gortat.
Tatum has been the been the biggest beneficiary of Theis' Gortats. He's figured out how to come off Theis' initial screen, "snake" in the other direction to keep his own defender behind him, and hesitate just enough to allow Theis to roll to the rim and set another screen on the defender protecting the rim.
Play 1. Theis swings the ball to Tatum and follows it to set a screen for Tatum, going left. CJ McCollum goes over the screen and Tatum keeps him on his hip, crossing over to his right. Theis rolls down the right side of the lane and holds off Hassan Whiteside, allowing Tatum to get all the way to the rim.
Number to know: Tatum has taken 68% of his shots, the highest rate in his three seasons, from the restricted area or 3-point range. But that's mostly about exchanging some mid-range shots (27% of his shots last season, 16% this season) for 3-point attempts (30%, 38%).
Play 2. This time, they're going in the other direction. Tatum gets Trevor Ariza on his hip and Theis rolls down the middle of the lane as Tatum crosses from right to left. Another screen on Whiteside gets Tatum to the cup.
Number to know: The Celtics rank 19th offensively in the first half of games (108.9 points scored per 100 possessions), but first in the second half (116.2). That's the biggest jump in offensive efficiency from the first half to the second half this season.
Play 3. Again, it's right to left, though this time, the victims are two Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and Tatum puts the ball back in his right hand for the finish.
Number to know: The Celtics have seen the league's third biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from the restricted area, from 28.7% (27th) last season to 32.5% (15th) this season.
Play 4. Smart is the ball-handler, but the Gortat doesn't produce a layup, because Oladipo anticipates Theis' second screen and leaves his man to protect the rim. Smart sees the late help and finds Hayward for the wide-open corner 3-pointer.
Number to know: Only 56% of the Celtics' 3-point attempts, the league's lowest rate, have been catch-and-shoot attempts.
Play 5. We've come full circle, back to the double-drag for Walker. With Rodney McGruder caught in Wanamaker's initial screen and Lou Williams way out of position, Walker turns the corner and Kanter rolls to the rim, getting in the way of Harrell, who still fouls Walker as he scores at the rim.
A Sleeping Giant?
Likely to remain the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics may be a sleeping giant. They're currently the only East team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they're tied with the Lakers for the fewest losses (five) that weren't within five points in the last five minutes.
In 22 games against the league's top 10 defenses, the Celtics have scored 111.4 points scored per 100 possessions. Only Portland has been more efficient against that group, and just by a hair: 111.38 vs. 111.37 per 100. The Celtics are 11-11 in those games and have had the best defense (106.0 points allowed per 100 possessions in 17 games) against the league's top 10 offenses.
Against the best defenses and in the playoffs, you need guys that can get you buckets off the dribble. The Celtics' offense isn't complicated, but it's effective, and it can come from several different places.
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