The New Way Stephen Curry Defends LeBron James (2017 Finals Preview)

Classic article from the 2017 NBA Finals, archived for your pleasure

This article originally appeared on Bballbreakdown.com during the 2017 NBA Finals. I wrote a series of pretty great articles for BBB, but in March 2018 ClutchPoints took over the web site and since then has allowed ALL of my articles (and everyone else’s at BBB) to fall off the web. So I’m re-publishing them here at LGW slowly over time.

2017 Finals Analysis

This article coined the term “High Tag”. So if you see someone else use that, tell them they owe me $5.

The New Way Stephen Curry Defends LeBron James

By Eric Apricot, May 29th 2017

One of the key ways that the Cleveland Cavaliers attack the Golden State Warriors is by using LeBron James to attack Stephen Curry.  Of course, Curry doesn’t defend James voluntarily, so the Cavs try to force the issue by using Curry’s man to screen for LeBron in the pick and roll. The Warriors and Cavs have played a cat and mouse game around this tactic, and this year the Warriors have rolled out a new coverage that the Cavs have yet to respond to.  The next adjustment will be a key thing to watch for as the Finals begin.

First, a quick word about Stephen Curry’s defense. Careful observers of the game realize Curry’s defense is between above-average and near-elite. No defensive measure is great, but they all point the same direction: ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus rates Curry as a positive defender (+0.46) and #13 out of 91 point guards. NBA.com’s Defensive Hustle stats show out of all 486 NBA players, Curry is #12 in the league at Deflections, #4 at Loose Balls Recovered, #70 in Charges Taken. In fact, NBA.com’s Defensive Win Shares rates Curry as the #4 defender in the entire league! Now nobody believes that, but DWS is overly swayed by Curry’s many steals (his rank over the last five years: #14, #11, #1, #1, #4). 

So, observers can disagree on the degree of defensive excellence (see Coach Nick’s Why Steph Curry is an Elite Defender for one hot take), but he’s definitely a plus. 

Having said that, of course it makes sense for the Cavs to try to attack Curry with LeBron. Curry will usually be the smallest and worst defender on the floor next to the Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green, the declining but still excellent Andre Iguodala, excellent and improving Kevin Durant, and dogged Klay Thompson. And even more importantly, he is the key to the Warriors offense, so when he gets into foul trouble, this is a huge disruption for the team. And Curry’s biggest defensive weakness currently is picking up soft fouls for reaches and bumps. 

In the 2016 Finals, the Cavs started attacking Curry repeatedly with LeBron in the pick and roll. Let’s look at the defenses the Warriors have tried.

Simple Switch

First, the Warriors tried a simple switch. Here’s a typical outcome.

LeBron just invites so much contact that Curry risks collecting fouls. This approach resulted in Curry being plagued with foul trouble all Game 6 and eventually fouling out during the Warriors comeback in the fourth quarter.

Show/Hold and Recover

In Game 7, the Warriors tried switching again, with the flavor of a show/hold and recover.

Curry gets away with a grab and starts to unswitch with Iguodala, but the Cavs spacing is good and (though he almost gets the steal) the Cavs get a dunk.

Here’s another show/hold and recover. This is a tricky scheme, because if the handoff isn’t perfect, LeBron will have lanes to drive.

The New Warriors Coverage: High Tag

So for 2016-2017, the Warriors knew they needed more schemes to try against this action, and they introduced a new default coverage. The scheme is that as soon as Curry’s man sets up to screen LeBron, Curry immediately rushes up to tag LeBron as far from the basket as possible. The other defender cuts of direct passes to the screener and contains LeBron’s straight line drive. Then usually the screener will short roll. At this point, Curry uses his speed to bolt back to his original man, and the original defender comes back on LeBron.

Let’s follow the possible outcomes. Here is the new scheme as unveiled in the Christmas game. (The LeBron pick and roll happens after the play resets.)

So in that play, the switch was effectively undone and LeBron was back in single coverage by Durant, which undoes the benefit of targeting Curry.

So what if LeBron just treats this as going under the screen and fires the open shot? Here’s an example.

Curry tries to tag LeBron so high up that he doesn’t have a good shot.

So what if LeBron uses his excellent passing to hit the open roll man? Watch Curry recover with speed.

Here’s another example of the high tag working despite the pass to the screener.

Again, Curry needs to recover really far back to his man, but he’s fast, and any pass has to get by Curry and also out-race him.

Here’s an example where the Warriors don’t pull off the tag correctly, and LeBron threads a casually awesome pass which is wasted by Richard Jefferson.

For the Warriors, even if the roll man hits a contested jumper, that’s still better than LeBron racking up fouls against Curry. 

Here’s a final variation, where LeBron’s defender doesn’t switch but turns it into a double-team trap.

Next Counter?

This is a clever defensive idea. I’ve never seen the Warriors play this scheme except exactly when Curry is attacked in the pick and roll by LeBron. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this scheme played by anyone. The apparent weakness of the scheme is that Curry has to recover a really long way to the screener. But this maximizes the use of Curry’s main defensive strengths (awareness, quick feet and quick hands) and minimizes the weaknesses (size, sometimes careless off-ball).  

If LeBron attacks from high up, he’s can’t back Curry down, and it’s a long way to pass to a rolling screener. If LeBron attacks from closer in, there is much less space to drive.

One possible Cavs counter would be to have a second screener come to screen Curry as he recovers, in a Spain action (here’s Coach Nick’s primer on this screen-the-screener action).

Another would be to have the screener screen the big defender and have LeBron drive from high up past Curry as soon as he turns to re-switch. 

You can invent your own counters, and you can bet Tyronn Lue is working on his. Let’s see what he comes up with next in the NBA Finals!


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