Lob City Redux

Over and over again it happened. Bam Adebayo set a screen on the perimeter, turned toward the rim at his own pace, made sure the pathway was clear and made his dive. The ball went up. The ball nestled into his hands. The ball was violently introduced to the twine, and the hardwood beneath it. Five times Adebayo finished an oop that early-January night as the courtside cameras captured image after image of defenders looking up in helpless awe.

“It was Lob City today,” he said afterwards.

He wasn’t that far off.

There’s a very specific connotation with the term Lob City. In December of 2011, the still-early days of social media, members of the Los Angeles Clippers were caught getting the news of a trade for Chris Paul in real time (note the cameo from HEAT assistant coach Caron Butler). DeAndre Jordan gets the news over the phone and as he informs Blake Griffin, Griffin jumps up and pantomimes a windmill-dunk as he says, ‘It’s going to be Lob City.’ Thus a team was branded, that specific Clippers iteration forever known as the Lob City Clippers. They didn’t invent alley-oops any more than The Matrix invented slow-motion, but it stuck just the same as Bullet Time the moment Neo did a rooftop limbo.

We don’t have tracking data from those first two seasons, but we do have the year J.J. Redick was acquired and the team vaulted to the No. 1 Offensive Rating in the league. In that season, 2013-14, the Clippers converted 182 lobs, or 2.3 per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum data.

It took five years for another team to top that 2.0 per 100 possessions mark, when the HEAT, Jazz and Mavericks all did it in 2018-19. And now the HEAT are doing it again with 47 alley-oops in 24 games.

‘Great,’ I can hear you thinking, ‘they’re still 26th in Offensive Rating a year after finishing 7th.’ Fair point, and kudos on the research. The HEAT underperforming on that end of the floor relative to their talent level is a major reason behind their 10-14 record – far more so than a defense that’s maintained a relatively consistent profile year-over-year but has been the victim of three-point variance. Cool dunks don’t mean your offense is good. But cool dunks can mean your offense is healthy.

With a short offseason and an even shorter training camp, rookies have never had less time to get adjusted to the pro game. So when No. 20 pick Precious Achiuwa reported to the HEAT’s practice court, veterans like Goran Dragic had to get right to the point.

“[Dragic] was one of the first guys to say something to me,” Achiuwa said. “The first thing he said was, ‘Hey, I need to work out with you. We need to work on that pick-and-roll lob.’ That was the first conversation he ever had with me.”

Dragic himself wasn’t always the most prolific lob thrower. Better known for his chemistry with pick-and-pop big men, Dragic threw four total lobs in 2014-15 and just 17 in his first full season with Miami. By last season, with Adebayo starting full-time, he threw 40. Despite having missed six games this year he’s fourth in the league with 15 successful lobs.

“Some guys pick up [touch for lobs] quicker than others,” Erik Spoelstra said. That’s something very natural for Goran, particularly with the personnel that we’ve had over the years. Everybody develops a pretty quick chemistry with Goran. He can deliver a lot of different kinds of passes for those guys, the vertical lob threats, he can make that play. He just has the instincts for it.”

As Spoelstra referenced, the personnel is key. Dating back to when the HEAT signed Chris Andersen midseason and Spoelstra immediately spoke of the many benefits of vertical spacing, Miami has always had use for the select few who can catch-and-shoot from above the rest. Two years ago the oops flowed from the cornucopia that was Dwyane Wade’s creativity, with Hassan Whiteside and Adebayo running the lanes. Now Dragic leads the way with an added target in Achiuwa, but he’s not the only one – even Jimmy Butler, despite missed time, has already connected on six lobs after throwing four in all of his 2018-19 season.

Duncan Robinson came into the season expecting defenses to play him differently. They were going to play up on him, they were going to be physical, and they were going to give up anything other than one of the deadliest shots in the game. In the limited time he had, then, he focused on his counter. What can he do in two-point range? So far he’s not just made good with the occasional layup or pull-up jumper, but a developed passing touch. He, too, has thrown six lobs, almost matching his total of seven all of last year.

“It’s definitely been a point of focus,” Robinson said. “I feel like I’ve definitely learned and developed it here, but I always feel like I’ve had a pretty good feel for those sorts of things. Last year, that wasn’t really a priority of mine. It was more so just to fly off of screens and shoot. And now, with the way defenses are playing, I’m kind of learning how to become a little bit opportunistic in those moments where I can kind of get downhill and create for somebody else.”

Now the vaunted Robinson-Adebayo handoff game has an added dimension.

Notice anything about that play? Watch it again and take a look at the strong-side corner. Nobody’s home. Everyone clears out.

That empty corner a big part of why the HEAT are scoring 1.11 points per any Adebayo screen they use to attack. Bigs get caught in no-man’s land trying to balance the attacker and the finisher they’re tasked with stopping. Depending on which direction he flips the screen, a help defender either has to come across the paint from the baseline or off the nearest shooter at the top of the floor. And you have to do it before Adebayo, third in the league with 27 lobs, gets airborne.

“When you have a lot of shooting out there, and guys don’t come off shooters, that’s the play that’s there,” Kelly Olynyk said. “We have to complete those if that’s what the defense is giving us. It’s extremely hard to guard unless you bring another person in, and if you do that’s when you open up the three-point line and drive-and-kicks and that kind of stuff.”

That’s why the shooters play, even when the shots aren’t falling. As long as the defense plays them like the shots should eventually fall, the wheels remain sufficiently greased.

Miami is only third in lobs per 100 this season. Both Atlanta and New York have more, but where the Hawks and Knicks get a fair amount of their lobs out of having long, bouncy centers hang around the paint as semi-stationary targets, the HEAT take a different approach. Adebayo and Achiuwa are in constant motion, asked to make plays before the processor ever considers the vertical option. Lobs are not the ecosystem. They are merely the byproduct. The result of a functional machine, the same as any opportunities from beyond the arc.

Miami’s shooting hasn’t always been there this season. It will be, eventually. It might already be, now. Gravity is the constant, now that nobody is a surprise. Does that mean they will get back into the Top 10 offensively? That’s no guarantee in a season with no guarantees, but it can be done if principle actors are healthy and available. When Butler, Adebayo and Robinson, the three starting-lineup holdovers from last year, are on the court together they’re scoring 116 points per 100 possessions. When Dragic and Adebayo run pick-and-roll together, that’s 1.22 points per possession right there. Everyone still does what they do. And when they do it together? Shazam.

It may not be Lob City, but all the pieces are there for it to feel like it.