When breaking down this wonderful game of basketball we all know and love, we typically start with general assessments: is this guy a good rebounder? How well does he understand the system and work with his teammates? Is he a good jump shooter? The list goes on.
Of course, rudimentary analysis like this is just a base for far more detailed examinations of player and team games. Teams and coaches delve into a variety of much more specific and detailed forms of evaluation, and by extension, those of us charged with examining these teams for the benefit of the fans try to do the same.
One of the very best at this, Grantland’s Zach Lowe, recently gave Jazz fans a great example of this sort of team-level analysis in a short blurb on Alec Burks, subject of much recent adulation from yours truly. In his 10 Things section of this early-February piece, Lowe talked about how the Jazz had begun to notice Burks’ tendency to reject screens on the pick-and-roll in an attempt to throw defenses off balance. While also mentioning a pre-season piece with a more detailed breakdown of Burks’ game, he lauded the Jazz for their recent attempts to disguise and vary the direction of their picks when Burks handles the ball. But because he only had a small section with which to detail this process, he wasn’t able to delve into a full explanation of the method and the results. No worries, Zach, Salt City Hoops has your back. Let’s have a look at the specifics and see just what he was talking about:
As Lowe mentioned in the longer pre-season piece on the subject, the general reason for Utah’s evolving screen setup speaks to a fundamental defensive concept against the pick-and-roll, particularly those initiated from either wing rather than the top of the key: if the defense can force the ball-handler away from the middle and closer to the baseline corners, said ball-handler will likely find himself in a trap of sorts – the baseline and sideline on one side, and the defending big man on the other. This is nearly always a win for the defense, as the big can cut off passing lanes to the middle and good strong-side help can force either a mid-range jumper or a turnover, both positive defensive outcomes.
But like many ultra-specific situations, there’s some particular context that goes into this process when Burks is the ball-handler. For one, as Lowe mentions, Burks is a very strong penetration dribbler with either hand – if defenses are going to shade him in one direction or the other, they better make sure they get it right, because this is what happens when they don’t:
Alan Anderson, guarding Burks on this play, sees the pick coming and positions himself with his back to screener Jeremy Evans:
This is a common league-wide tactic against side pick-and-rolls; if Burks tries to get around the pick to his right and toward the middle of the floor, Anderson will simply slide over top of Evans and remain in good position barring any slips. But the big defending the screener, Mirza Teletovic, is a step or two out of position as Evans plants for his screen, and Burks doesn’t need a written invitation:
Plays like this are a major part of the reason Burks is so frequently happy to reject his screens1 – even the slightest step out of position for a defending big has dire consequences given Burks’ lightning quick first step and finishing ability at the rim.
Of course, trying to fool defenses like this over a third of the time is never going to work in the long term. When teams see the play coming and have a competent, well-positioned big in place to guard against the screen rejection, Burks finds life significantly more difficult:
Portland defends this side pick-and-roll the same way Brooklyn did in the clip above, positioning Lillard with his back to the screening Kanter and inviting Burks to reject the screen and go to his left hand. Given Utah’s slow approach to setting up the play, Brook Lopez has ample time to direct Lillard’s positioning for the pick coming up behind him, as well as to correctly position himself to cut off Burks’ path to the hoop. Lillard is perhaps a half-step behind here actually, but his good initial positioning still allows him to recover in front of Kanter’s roll to the hoop, leaving Lopez to deal with Burks and the other three Portland defenders free to continue their off-ball marking:
Burks could possibly have threaded a pass to Richard Jefferson on the outside, as Portland is slightly sagged toward the paint and might not recover in time. He instead tries a contested floater, one the Blazers will happily give up all day with Lopez getting up to challenge. This is Portland’s calculated gamble: that Burks will make the wrong decision or fail to convert more frequently than he would against alternative forms of defense that might allow him easier access to the middle.
Seeing this type of defense more frequently, the Jazz have started mixing up their looks when Burks runs the pick-and-roll, particularly from either side. The simplest way they do this, as noted by Lowe, is by having the big reverse the direction of his pick:
The key to this sort of variation actually isn’t forcing any change in the way the defending big man reacts, but rather making things more difficult for the ball-handling defender in his recovery. Where in our earlier clips the on-ball defender was able to recover in front of the rolling big man to prevent him being an option, having the big (Rudy Gobert in this case) switch directions allows him to block off the on-ball man with his roll provided his footwork is solid:
Switching things up like this not only frees up openings like these for other guys, it keeps defenses on their toes. But the sharpest of my readers are already asking themselves a big question: how does this affect Burks’ propensity to launch dreaded mid-range jumpers when he finds himself pushed toward the sideline? As it turns out, the answer might surprise some; look at Burks’ shooting chart for this season, courtesy of NBA.com:
If that’s too small a sample for your liking, here’s last year’s chart as well:
Notice anything? I’m sure you did. While the total number of shots remains a tad low even over both seasons, evidence continues to mount that Burks is a far superior shooter from the right side than from the left. In fact, while Burks is much-maligned as a mid-range shooter, nearly all of this is due to incredibly poor percentages from the left side of the floor – from the right side only, Burks is a competent and maybe even slightly above-average mid-range shooter.
The Jazz have noticed, and this plays into their thinking as they mix up their screen looks for him. The potential for increased mid-range looks, especially from the right side, are something the Jazz are content to live with if they come with other benefits – namely, getting Burks more speed in his preferred direction and leaving him the extra option of the rolling big man. It may not be their preferred set (with Burks, anything involving getting him as close to the hoop as possible with as much speed as possible is always the first choice), but it stops defenses from bottling up Burks’ creativity off the bounce by keeping them off balance.
But this is far from the only bit of moxie the Jazz are throwing into their sets. Burks and Enes Kanter, in particular, have developed a fun rapport lately as a pick-and-roll tandem, with Kanter showing some heady screen disguises. Watch the young Turk throw a pseudo-stutter-step and confuse Lopez for an extra half-beat, allowing Burks his preferred route to the middle:
Alec misses the bunny here, but it’s one he’ll convert a high percentage of the time. This opening is possible as a result of the first level of complexity the Jazz insert – without the change of direction we noted above, defenses would have nothing to keep them honest and would simply continue to keep Burks away from the middle. This layering and next-level improvisation is smart NBA offense at work, and real credit to Kanter for his ability to add this subtle complexity on the fly.
The two combine for other bits of creativity, as well. Kanter is mixing in more of these screen disguises with top-of-the-key sets, as well, with some good results:
Furthermore, while the Jazz can’t simply remove all sets that might lead Burks to the dreaded left mid-range area (again, this would be too predictable against good defense), but knowing Burks’ shooting issues from that end, they’ll run quick-hitting Kanter screens directly out of a post set:
Plays like these may not be ideal in every sense, and this particular one certainly doesn’t end well after Burks is too slow with his first step (he probably travels, too, as the commentators note). But at the very least, they once again put defenses on their toes and are always a threat to force a simple mistake. And as we saw above, Burks needs very little space to make a defense pay for errors – the Jazz are putting him in a position to make things happen.
For younger players, developing little tweaks to their preferred playing styles can be paramount to their overall progression. The NBA is a smart league with gobs of data available for scouting, and players who hang their hat on one particular skill alone will be left out to dry. Seeing this type of heady experimenting pay some dividends is another positive sign for a player in Burks who has been impressing all season long. With this same sort of diversity applied to his overall game, we could be seeing the makings of a franchise player in Salt Lake City.