It’s hard to fully appreciate the evolution of the game until you’ve watched it change right in front of you multiple times. Sometimes it’s a sudden shift like the 3 point revolution and others are more subtle; like the death of iso-ball in the early 2000s. But the latest shift has been hiding in plain sight as the basketball world has been recovering from the 3 point frenzy. And now, playmaking is the oxygen of the modern NBA offense.
What makes a successful NBA offense? That question has never had more answers than it does today thanks to the rule changes to open up that end of the floor. Whether it’s a motion offense like Golden State, a pick and roll offense with multiple creators in Utah or a heliocentric approach like in Dallas, playmaking ability is the essential ingredient in making those systems function.
As the game has grown up and aged into what it is today, everything from maximizing the efficiency of your highest usage players to putting role players in better positions to succeed has led to a game that values an open shot more than ever. The days of throwing the ball to an isolation player and having them handle the scoring load have been replaced by creation artists painting playmaking pictures that Manu would be proud to watch.
There have been teams that have resisted having multiple playmakers on the court in their optimal lineups of course. Intertwined as always, Luka and Trae and their respective teams are prime examples.
Rick Carlisle refused to surround Luka with anything but shooters; ignoring the lack of defense and playmaking ability in favor of giving Luka the spacing needed to get an open look. But the mistake was made in the idea that shooting is the only way to stretch a defense.
Jason Kidd deserves credit for finally getting Jalen Brunson, the team’s best playmaker behind their star, in the starting lineup with Luka to help alleviate the offensive load. The offense is significantly more efficient when the two share the court compared to when Luka is out there without Brunson and that extra playmaking is the key to unlocking those more efficient shots. Brunson doesn’t shoot as many threes as Carlisle might have liked but Kidd understands the value of being able to set teammates up with quality looks better than most.
Not only does it help make the offense more efficient for the analytics-driven crowd but it also helps the old-school thought process of getting guys in a rhythm. Whether it is Isiah Thomas getting all of his teammates involved before taking over in the fourth or teams making sure the first possession goes to their big man doing the dirty work like, with Ben Wallace or Kendrick Perkins, there is a history of valuing keeping everyone engaged by giving them offensive opportunities. Just look at the situation in Atlanta for a real-time example.
Trae Young is one of the best offensive players in the NBA. Combining him with a lob threat like Capela makes for an efficient offense all on its own and the Hawks have done an excellent job of surrounding Young with talent. But because of the style Trae prefers to play (his usage is 39% is near tops in the league and no other creator is above 20%) the team is not engaged and defenses are able to load up because they know what is coming.
This predictability about their offense combined with their playoff success putting the rest of the league on notice was a recipe for a step back for this Hawks this season. But even those most pessimistic about the Hawks this year wouldn’t have them 4 games out of 10th place halfway through the regular season. But with the amped-up effort from opposing teams thanks to last year’s success and their best player admitting he’s had trouble getting up for regular-season games after the playoffs, things are going from shining bright to cloudy very quickly.
Of course, if the Hawks can turn things around and start getting so wins things can turn around just as fast. It’s like John Collins admitted, winning covers up for a lot. But right now his frustration is growing without those wins and without the ball movement that I’ve been preaching as successful for other teams. Between Collins’s recent comments and Reddish looking to leave as soon as he got there, it’s clear that the lack of playmaking in Atlanta is causing some chemistry issues.
Keeping players active and engaged on the offensive end not only helps them stay motivated on the defensive end but also helps keep the offense from stagnating in creativity. When a defense can settle in and get comfortable because they know what is coming it makes it that much more difficult to execute.
Forcing defenses instead to react to the randomness and giving your players that edge is more important than ever as the talent floor has raised and it becomes harder to exploit matchups. To see the value of having an offense that flows rather than stagnates and embraces the chaos look no further than Golden State.
No team lives inside the controlled chaos better than the Golden State Warriors. Keeping teams guessing better than any other team in the league, the Warriors finish at least 5% of their possessions in 7 different categories. In those 7 categories, they manage to rate out from good to very good with the “off-screen” category getting an excellent rating.
With the pick and roll action becoming so dominant across the league, there have been calls for years for Steph Curry to embrace that aspect more on the offensive end. Those calls grew significantly louder after the struggles last season as Kelly Oubre and Kent Bazemore attempted to fill player archetypes they simply don’t have the skillset for.
Replacing those two with players like Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica that fit the motion offense better shows just how vital having above-average playmaking across the court breathes life into an offense that involves everyone. The Warriors currently have 4 players (Poole, Wiggins, Bjelica, and Kuminga) other than Curry with a usage rate higher than 20%, keeping them from being a spectator for repeated Curry/Green pick and rolls.
Could the offense be even better if Curry ran closer to 40% of his plays as the pick and roll like many other playmakers in the league? I think so, but if that was the case would the rest of the team buy-in on the defensive end to the degree that the team is consistently one of the best defensive units?
The second question I’m much more skeptical of and I think is the biggest key to the success Stever Kerr, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green have had running this team. Instead, the Warriors have an offense that is near the top in assists, pace, turnovers, and points per possession because of that controlled chaos.
It isn’t just the Warriors that are finding success with having extra playmaking on the court. The strides in Giannis’s ability to make championship-level differences in Milwaukee or the teams of good passers getting each other quality looks for the Clippers and Grizzlies are other examples of teams using playmaking to take leaps in talent. In the case of the Bucks, the playmaking jump from Giannis along with Holiday’s talents there helped the Bucks get over the hump and win a championship last year.
Come playoff time when things slow down and possessions are that much more valuable, getting quality looks matters more than ever. Teams that have talented playmakers will thrive in the postseason and the ones that don’t will get suffocated by modern defenses. Like it or not, playmaking is the lifeblood of the modern NBA offense.