The pick-and-roll is afoot! Evolving Warriors face restructured Heat
Two playoff hopeful teams in the midst of a rebrand while chasing playoffs
After dropping a season-worst four games in a row, the Golden State Warriors have Stephen Curry back and the sky is suddenly clearer after a timely win over the Chicago Bulls. Next up: the Miami Heat: first place loserts in the Orlando Bubble last year.
Still working with a core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, Miami just did a fairly major mid-season retool by sending out Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk for Victor Oladipo. Oladipo shot a measly 40% from the field while with the Houston Rockets, but both he and the Heat are hoping for a return to stardom for a player that was one of the league’s most exciting young players just two seasons ago. Rumors are that this could be Oladipo’s first game in a Heat jersey.
The Warriors’ injury front is status quo from last time. Stephen Curry is going to gut it out through a tailbone injury that is clearly painful, and it sounds like Eric Paschall will miss his second straight game.
WHO: Golden State Warriors (23-24) at Miami Heat (24-24)
WHEN: Thursday, April 1st, 2021 // 5:00pm PST
Supple like the reed: Kerr bends his philosophy with a nod towards the pick and roll
It’s been a good couple of weeks for noisy Warriors twitter, and our agenda is nearly complete. In case you missed it, a day after posting my d̶i̶a̶t̶r̶i̶b̶e̶ well-reasoned article making the case for more pick-and-rolls (PnR), the Warriors dipped deep into it in their win over the Bulls.
Despite the consensus views online, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has a demonstrated history of flexibly - we just hardly notice it. As detailed by Eric Apricot yesterday, Kerr’s already running a simplified modified playbook this season, and the new emphasis on the PnR - now - is actually very much in character for one of the league’s winningest coaches.
So Kerr stuck with Kelly Oubre through a historic slump and it paid off. He tried Wanamaker and finally moved on. He tried Eric Paschall in a number of different lineups and has temporarily put him on the shelf. He’s tried James Wiseman in many lineups and has doubled down on his development.
The last game looked and felt different. Could this be a fundamental shift? The reality is that these decisions have been a long time coming, and the coaching staff has a history of being willing to change when it makes sense.
It pretty clearly makes sense to rebrand a little bit and slip in as many chances for the Wiseman/Curry PnR as possible.
On Twitter, I was working out some of the PnR numbers, but because this image only includes possession totals, we needed to dig a bit deeper in order to understand what’s happening.
I had to work through it a bit, because the information available only shows total possessions. So what initially looked like a big dip, was just Curry being hurt. Instead, I parsed the data to show the total possessions as a function of total minutes played. So here you can see that the Warriors are indeed having Curry spend more of his time as the ballhandler in the PnR - about 20% more frequently this season, as compared to the three years with Durant.
[Author's note: seriously, even for a nerd like me, this gets nerdy below - please feel free to scroll to the next section and read up a few paragraphs if you want to skip a deep spreadsheet dive]
Curry is finishing these plays as well as he ever has (1.13 points per 100 possessions), but you can see the variance.
The lower line is the ratio of PnR possessions against Curry’s total minutes. The higher values represent more frequent utilization of PnR plays with Curry. During Durant’s tenure, Curry averaged 17% of his possessions devoted to being the ball handler out of PnRs; so the current 20% is a pretty huge spike (we’re just throwing out last year because of Curry’s limited time).
An increase in Curry pick and roll frequency is nice against a soft frontcourt like the Bulls, but are the Warriors really shifting?
It sounds plausible! Remember that the values in the table above are for the entire season, so Curry has already been running more PnR than at any other time during Kerr’s tenure. And most of those games came before the team was wildly successful running the attack against the Bulls.
But to really understand the changes afoot, we’ve got to go deeper. Like a spreadsheet nerd submarine. Strap in (or skip this part) it’s about to get real nerdy in here!
According to Synergy (which is where I get all my play data from), the Warriors have run 755 PnR possessions this season, good for 0.964 points per attempt. That’s an excellent value. The 4th best in the league as a team.
And that’s a major point here. The Warriors’ offense is bad this season. It’s been really bad ever since Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant (plus other assorted players) left the court. But the PnR has been the reliable source.
In fact, if there’s one thing I learned from this deep dive, it’s that the PnR may secretly be the mechanism keeping this fancy Kerr offense afloat until Klay Thompson returns with a splash.
As we’ve pointed out before in this space, it has seemed weird that the PnR wasn’t utilized more frequently, it’s by far James Wiseman’s best play type - and also one of the least utilized.
Stephen Curry runs 7.1 possessions per game as the PnR ball handler - and the Warriors as a whole run the PnR about 14% of the time. Here it is in graphic format. Notice here, the Warriors just flat out don’t run the PnR a whole lot (the blue bar).
To provide context, I looked at the top three players in the league: Atlanta’s Trae Young (14 PnR possessions per game), Dallas’ Luka Doncic (13.7), and Portland’s Dame Lillard (13.1). Those players all play for teams that run the PnR significantly more frequently than Golden State.
Where the Warriors employ the PnR 14% of the time, the top three teams all use it closer to 21% of the time.
But when they do run it (scale changed to emphasize difference), look how much Curry stands out. Not only is Curry blasting the other players out of the water in his own efficiency, you can see how much of those other team’s offense is being carried by their main guys. This is the Harden Concern that Kerr and many others are worried about. Like Apricot was saying earlier, you have too many guys standing around and watching, it kills the vibe. And it’s all about the vibes with Kerr and the Warriors offense. There’s a strategic component to how a Kerr team operates that is reflected in all of this:
So, Curry is the one of the most effective players in the league to come out of a PnR as the ball handler (93rd percentile), and he’s also on a team that doesn’t emphasize that part of the game…hmmm. Or at least not until now.
It’s hard to say how much of it is all related, because when I looked up the three most used players in PnRs, I also noticed that none of them sniffed the efficiency of the Warriors’ seldom deployed secret weapon.
For anyone keeping track at home, on a points per possession basis: Trae Young is 79th percentile (0.989 points per possessions (PPP)), Luka Doncic is 86th percentile (1.039 PPP), and Damian Lillard is 89th percentile (1.073) - and they all get put into the PnR significantly more often than Curry (but Curry is 93rd percentile in efficiency).
There is very likely some sort of strategic argument supporting the Warriors not running the PnR as often as other teams do, but as a weapon, the Curry-Wiseman tandem is definitely something I’d put into the secret weapon category come playoff time - assuming people sat in my nerdery and listened. But one way or another, it makes too much sense as an offensive priority to avoid it, Kerr ball is evolving.
The Miami Heat will be coming into this game on the tail end of a back-to-back, and this game could get ugly. Much like the Warriors, the Heat are winning because of their defense. As much as we’d love to advertise this game as some sort of shoot out, it’s much more likely to look like a Knicks game from the 90’s.
All that said though, you have to like the Warriors chances here against a tired Miami team. Warriors pull away late with some hot shooting, 119-104.