Endless Runner

Practice is over, media is filing out, the gym is mostly empty save for a couple lingering coaches and Wayne Ellington is still shooting.

With an assistant feeding him, Ellington dashes along the baseline as he navigates ghost screens and curls along the wing for a three off the catch. Make. He runs back to position under the rim and runs the opposite side of the floor. Make. Pump fake. Make. Hesitation. Make. One dribble step back. Make. All at a dead sprint, or as much of a sprint as you can reach while essentially running in giant circles.

This goes on for a while. Long enough that those left watching have run out of things to talk about, leaving only the watching. Eventually Ellington finishes up, drenched in sweat, and settles into a chair on the sideline for an interview.

Erik Spoelstra, eyes wide and a wide grin spread across his face, promptly interrupts.

“That’s one of the best post-practice workouts, seriously, that I’ve ever seen,” he says.

“Including that one guy…” he’s asked.

“Including the Hall of Famer.”

Ray Allen was borderline obsessive in his workout routine. He had a separate bus scheduled to take him to arenas early. He was in freakishly good shape. He once made the media wait for nearly an hour after practice just because he happened to miss a couple free throws the night before and he needed to make 100. Comparing any workout to a Ray Allen workout is not something to be done lightly. Spoelstra was serious.

“That’s one of the highest respects that I can get paid,” Ellington said. “But I have to understand that it’s a workout. I know that my workout is good, now I just have to be effective.”

Consider him two-for-two.

In today’s pick-and-roll league, floppy offense – the art of running one or two players off multiple screens to free them for jumpers – always seems to be simultaneously going away and coming back. It’s largely personnel based in that you have to have the right shooters to even think of running it, so when the league is full of strong shooters as it currently is you’ll feel like you’re seeing floppy every night only for it to go away completely when those players aren’t on the floor. According to Second Spectrum’s player tracking data, 36 players have used at least 200 off-ball screen possessions leading to a shot this season. But some of those are of the curling off a single screen variety. Fewer still are given the complete freedom to navigate the maze.

It takes a lot of trust for a coach to instruct the ball to stay, unmoving, at the top of the floor while one player tries to free himself. It’s trust Ellington has earned with game after game of nights like Wednesday, when he shot 5-of-8 from three and effectively threw New Orleans’ defensive principles out the window for half of the fourth quarter.

“It’s something that now is a huge part of my game,” Ellington said. “I used to always watch guys like Ray, of course, Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller, guys like that come off screens able to knock it down. That’s an aspect I always wanted to add to my game.”

When a player is making shots like that, when the degree of difficulty makes the shots seem well defended, it can tend to make a defense freak out a little. Every team knows what floppy is and every team can see it coming. But when Ellington is catching and releasing before he even appears squared to the rim and that high-arcing shot drops through, proceedings can go from, “Oh, they’re running floppy now” to “Man the battle stations, we’ve got a floppy incoming.”

It’s then, when the defense overreacts, and only then when Ellington has truly won. Overreaction spawns opportunities.

“I get underneath the rim and I’m trying to make the defense make a mistake,” Ellington said. “That’s basically what I’m trying to do. Make you make a decision, and whatever decision you make is going to be wrong.”

After Ellington hit his third floppy three of the evening midway through the final period, the Pelicans started making decisions on the fly.

They decided to help off the ball at the top of the key.

They decided to hedge off the post screen to deny the passing lane.

They also decided to try switching away from the ball to prevent any one defender from getting hung up.

“I get more out of that than when I come off and hit a shot,” Ellington said. “Just because I know that now I’m helping my teammates get open. When I come off, it’s not just about me. Everybody is realizing that floppy is not just Wayne’s play. You can get a lot of options out of that. I was enjoying that tonight. That’s gratifying for me when I see that.”

This is pure floor gravity, the impact all the league’s best and most mobile shooters have on opposing defenses. It’s also different. Spoelstra’s common refrain regarding Ellington all season is that he expands and diversifies their offensive diet. As good a pick-and-roll team as Miami has become with Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters playing off Hassan Whiteside, even if you’re the best at one thing that one thing becomes easier to defend the more opportunities you allow an opponent to practice against it. Without the threat of something, anything, else creeping into those five other minds on the floor, you risk predictability.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning of the season that we have a lot of weapons on this team,” Ellington said. “We just have to figure out how to use it all.”

His three-point percentage of 38.4 percent may not seem particularly impressive on a team with Luke Babbitt, Dragic and Waiters all shooting at or above 45 percent since this recent run of success began on January 17, but all threes are not made equal. Ellington is at 42.8 percent himself during this stretch, he’s leading the team in per-possession volume by a good margin and a chunk of his attempts are nearly of the circus variety. Of the 231 off-screen possessions leading to a shot that he’s used, Ellington has produced 1.17 points for every opportunity. That’s seventh among those 36 aforementioned players, with Steph Curry sitting just two spots ahead of him at 1.21.

All from a player who had never before taken more than four threes a game in a season.

There’s some risk involved, should the team make the playoffs. The farther you advance, the more sophisticated and disciplined defenses become. Open shots dry up with the mistakes and time spent running floppy can kill valuable seconds off the clock if nothing is created. But you know what happens if that happens? You stop running it. At the very least you gave the defense something to think about, and Ellington is shooting 54 percent on wide-open threes if the pick-and-roll game can create those.

It’s always better to have the option. Right now that option is swinging games – Ellington has five or more threes in seven games and six wins – and it all comes back to those hours in an empty gym, running around ghosts.

There’s an art to it, but Ellington isn’t giving up the tricks of the trade.

“Honestly, there’s no secret,” Ellington said. “I work on [floppy]. I work on that every single day. I drill it like it’s a game. I take all game shots. I don’t take half, slow shots. I take the same shots I’m going to get in a game. It’s been paying off for me big time.”

No kidding.