"We finally have our 20 and 10 guy we can run the offense through!"- Every Sixers fan, Summer 2008.
In today's NBA, a big man who is adept at scoring one-on-one with his back to the basket is a good thing, maybe the finest of things. In acquiring Andrew Bynum over the summer, the Sixers have one of the rarest commodities in the league, a center that can carry the offensive load from the block area. There’s something to be said for having, with apologies to Dorell Wright, the second-best center in the league.
In one sense, having a big man like Bynum is awesome because, with only a couple of supreme talents as exceptions, he theoretically needs less help from his teammates than players of similar skill level at any other position. While the elite point guard often benefits from shooters and a decent pick and roll partner, or the shooter needs solid screeners and a decent passer, and so on, the traditional back to the basket big needs a decent entry pass, and then he’ll take it from there.
All that said, Bynum’s transition into the Sixers’ offense is going to be much more complex than "throw the ball onto the block and let him go to work" or one of my favorites, "feed the beast." Yes, Bynum’s skillset is a rare and valuable commodity. But it is up to Doug Collins and the coaching staff to maximize that commodity, by putting Bynum in positions to succeed, and at the same time placing everyone else in positions where the team’s offensive output can be maximized around Bynum. That is basically my mission statement for the "So, You Have A Big Man" series I am going to do over here at Liberty Ballers.
So how do the Sixers accomplish building a successful offense around Bynum? They look at how other teams have used their big men, that’s how. For some reason, the term "copycat league" is usually only used by football announcers when basketball is the really the exact same. My goal is to look at recent examples of how teams have integrated elite big men into their offensive scheme and then suggest how the Sixers can take a page out of their books.
The first team we’ll look at is the Orlando Magic and the "4-out/1-in" scheme that they used to run around that other guy in the "Andrew Bynum Trade."
Why It Was Successful? The goal of all NBA teams is to get the best shots on the court available (shot selection and its effect on NBA offenses is explained here in detail by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller). As an offense, the best shots on the floor are at the rim (Duh! It’s easier to shoot from really close) and three-pointers (because they are worth an extra point, after all). The great resource Hoop Data has a statistic called expected field goal percentage, which basically determines the quality of a team’s shots. This is done by taking the team’s shot distribution and estimating their effective field goal percentage if the team shot league average at each range. The Orlando Magic have ranked 4th, 2nd, 2nd, and 2nd in XeFG% since the 08-09 season. In the last two years under Doug Collins, the Sixers’ long two happy, turnover preventing, "Don’t you dare go to the foul line!" offense was 28th and (gulp) 30th. That’s right, the Sixers had the worst shot selection in the NBA last year.
Then, look at both teams’ finishes in offensive rating those years: 14/15 for Orlando and 17/20 for the Sixers. Now the fact that the teams were also at polar opposite ends of the spectrum in turnovers, in the Sixers’ favor, plays a part in determining offensive ratings, but a team’s ability to get to the line also does. Think about this: Besides the three point line (ORL was 4th, PHI was 8th), last year the Sixers shot a higher percentage at the rim, from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet, sometimes considerably so. You can really make the argument that Orlando was a better offensive team than the Sixers by simply working smarter on offense.
What Can the Sixers Steal? One word: Spacing. One of my biggest pet peeves in following the Sixers the past few years is the popular notion that playing Spencer Hawes at center "spaces" or "stretches" the floor. When all five of your players are out of the paint and at least as close to the three-point line as the basket, the offense is clogged. Also, there’s nothing to stretch if nobody is close to the basket. With the 4-out/1-in system, one big man is placed on the block with pretty much the whole painted area serving as his domain. The offense is very popular at the college level and has many different variations, with my two personal favorites run by Villanova from a few years ago (around Dante Cunningham) and last year’s Missouri team (Ricardo Ratliffe).
With regards to the NBA though, when I think about the traditional 4-out/1-in, with a back to the basket big man surrounded by four shooters, the Magic are the first team that comes to mind. Here is a video of a bunch of Dwight Howard’s assists, which I wouldn’t recommend watching until the end.
In today’s post, I don’t want to focus on what the Magic did to get Howard into the post (a screen and roll most of the time, that subject is for the next installment), but how they played off him once he got down there. One of the basic motion sets Orlando ran with Dwight is shown in the play below. The entry pass is made and the player who makes it cuts to the weak-side corner, with the rest of the shooters rotating to fill in the original spots.
Here’s an example of the Magic running this continuity (Starts at 53 seconds on the YouTube video if you want to see it in real time):
On this play Orlando initiates into their offense by having Rashard Lewis set a high ball screen for Jameer Nelson. Nelson quickly swings the ball to Vince Carter, while Lewis and Matt Barnes exchange positions in the corner and on the wing.
This is where the Magic’s "4-Out 1-In" offense comes together (as soon as Lewis makes it all the way out into the corner). Vince Carter is going to pass to Howard and cut through the lane out to the other corner. This will set the continuity of the offense in motion.
As soon as he has the ball, Howard is simply reading the defense. His first read is Carter’s man, who could choose to double as Carter takes him through the lane. Howard smartly holds the ball for a second to make that option seem much less appealing. Carter also cuts wide to make it a difficult double, and his defender stays with him and goes through.
With his first read done, Howard puts the ball on the floor while Nelson, Barnes and Lewis simply rotate from the weak-side. He has to read the defense like a (very tall, maybe Joe Flacco?) quarterback now, looking for whose man comes to double team him. If someone doubles, then he looks for the open man, starting with the person who the doubler was guarding and looking left to right (in Howard’s vision).
On this play, it’s an easy read. Nelson’s man shows hard enough to where he’s in "no man’s land." When Howard sees Wade is still guarding Barnes, he has an easy pass and Nelson has an open three pointer
The goal is to also get layups and dunks in addition to threes. In another "pick your poison" type of scenario, adding a cutter into the mix helps generate either kind of shot (1st one on the YouTube clip).
In this set Nelson doesn’t cut through after entering the ball on the low-block to Howard. While this doesn’t lead to the motion shown before, the Magic are still in their "4-Out/1-In" look. The spacing is still good enough and what they have is basically a two-man game between Nelson and Howard on the right side.
Just like earlier, Howard is reading from his left to right. As soon as he puts the ball on the floor, Nelson’s man comes with a hard double. At the same time, Danny Granger rotates to Nelson, which Howard sees. All he does is keep turning his head to the right.
Howard doesn’t have to make all of the reads either. With Granger on Nelson, the next person who has to make a decision is Carter’s man. Logically, he should rotate onto Barnes, but he doesn’t do it quickly. Barnes sees this and decides to cut to the rim. The defender is flat-footed and Howard hits Barnes for a layup.
As you can see, Carter and Lewis’ men have to guard three people, and the way you beat that is with spacing. Even if Barnes is beat to the spot, Howard then has a skip pass to a wide-open Carter on the left wing (In this shot, he had already filled back in defensive transition responsibility).
How can this help Andrew Bynum? It’s no secret that Andrew Bynum struggles with double teams. And as Derek pointed out soon after the trade was made, Bynum’s struggles with double teams in Los Angeles can be looked at in a positive or negative light. On one hand, he is going to be double teamed much more in Philadelphia now that Kobe Bryant on Pau Gasol aren’t on his team.
How poorly the Lakers spaced the floor can’t be overstated though. After looking through a fair share of Bynum’s turnovers from last season, his teammates oftentimes didn’t help: Not always, but more than a few times, two or even three players were standing in the same general area on a Bynum post-up. Playing with another post player in Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help things on the spacing front, either. And even when the floor was spaced properly, the Lakers shot 32.6 percent from behind the arc. They weren’t exactly great spotting up.
This is not to say Bynum needs to get much better handling double teams, because he does. One reason I’m optimistic though is weirdly enough, because I watched Dwight. The Orlando clips above were from the 09-10 season and the reasoning was two-fold: One, because I wanted Howard video at the same age as Bynum last year (Dwight was 24 in ’09, Bynum was 24 last year) and the Magic had a top four offense that year. After watching both of them in post-up situations, Bynum has some things going for him. For one, he doesn’t nearly have the problems Howard had with offensive fouls and three second violations. While Howard was more comfortable handling double teams, it was much more of adventure for him in getting post position. For reference, Bynum turned the ball over approximately once every 15 minutes he was on the floor last year. Howard did it once every 10 minutes in ’09-10.
The final reason I (a total homer, mind you) like Bynum’s chances to succeed after watching Dwight is tied more to their mindsets, or how their mindset is seemingly portrayed in their playing style. When Bynum gets the ball on the block, he wants to score. And while he holds the ball too long, with proper spacing, he could also adjust to double teams by simply making a move too quickly for the defense to rotate. He could develop the mindset that "You better double me, or I’m going to score every time." With Dwight, it’s different. Despite him putting up ridiculous numbers, you felt like he wanted the defense to double team so he wouldn’t have to get fouled and go to the free-throw line.
Can the Sixers use the offense? Yes and no. This system is predicated on having four three-point shooters around the big man, like Howard had in Orlando. Even though I’d say catch and shoot three point shooting is one area they have upgraded this Summer, the Sixers don’t have the prototypical "stretch four" the Magic had with Rashard Lewis and later, Ryan Anderson. The Sixers don’t have anybody who can make threes and cover power forwards on the other end.
They could use it situationally though. In a late-game situation when the team has the ability to go offense/defense, the Sixers could throw out a Holiday, Nick Young, Richardson, Wright, and Bynum lineup and make the defense pick it’s poison.
They could also use a lineup with Thaddeus Young at the 4 and have him as a dive cutter like Matt Barnes (only a 31 3P% in 09-10) was in Orlando. When you think about it, as soon as the defense double-teams, a dive cutter has to be picked up by either his defender or someone else in rotation, which will theoretically lead to open shot somewhere if Bynum reads the defense correctly.
The problem comes when the Sixers’ other big men play with Bynum, specifically Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes. Needless to say, neither of these guys have consistent three point range. The place Collins would stick both of them is the weak-side corner, where the Magic often situated Lewis, their 4 man. But if I were coaching against that lineup, I’d leave both players open and tell the rest of my team to rotate towards everyone else. You’d much rather have Allen’s 36% or Hawes’ 42% on spot-ups (mostly twos) than Nick Young’s 41% on spot up threes. Or more importantly, Bynum in the post.
And then there’s the other major worry, Evan Turner. Now with Andrew Bynum in a 76ers uniform, there is no more argument (foolish as it may have been) for suiting the offense to Turner. The Villain has to learn how to play off Bynum and get "his" in spurts when the big man is not on the floor, or he probably won’t be a Sixer for very much longer.
The Verdict: Who knows how it will work out? Maybe Andrew Bynum won’t ever to be able to figure out how to read a rotating defense like Howard has. Maybe he won’t be able to handle the pressure of being "the guy." He certainly has had some um, interesting, moments out in L.A. But he needs to be given all the tools to succeed before any definitive statements are made.
And whenever the Sixers throw the ball to Bynum in the post? They have to give him the proper space.