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Defending hero ball: why it isn’t the ball-stopping monstrosity you think it is

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2016 NBA Finals - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the NBA, few pieces of jargon have a more negative connotation or spark or a stronger visceral reaction than the words “hero ball”. It was allowed for Michael Jordan, it was allowed by some for Kobe Bryant, and people seem to wish LeBron James did it more often, sometimes. Outside of that, hero ball is lazy, it lacks creativity, it is easy to defend, and perhaps worst of all, it’s selfish.

Sometimes, it is those things. It could also be a signal that you’re all out of ideas. You ran your set play, and couldn’t get much out of it, and now you’re stuck. Add to the above list: “it’s a sign of offensive failure”.

But I think the distaste goes too far, and I think the bias against it colors our basketball analysis. Before we look at why hero ball might not be so bad, let’s make a few things clear. Ball movement is great. No one is disputing this. It makes defenses work, and move, and rotate, and those things are difficult to do, and difficult to sustain. The Golden State Warriors had the NBA’s most efficient offense this season, and blew the league away with 9.7 secondary assists per game.

I’d caution though, against simply looking at the Spurs (who ran less isolation plays than anyone in the NBA last season), or the Warriors when pointing out the problems with hero ball. Those are two teams who put together historic seasons. If ball movement was a secret to basketball success, everyone would do it. It also doesn’t seem to be the only way to a great offense. The Oklahoma City Thunder attempted less passes than any team in the NBA and still put together the second most efficient offense in the league.

Ball movement is really difficult

NBA defenses, despite what your uncle might tell you around the Thanksgiving table, are very good. Passing the ball can increase the risk of a turnover and waste seconds of a short shot clock. The Utah Jazz, New York Knicks, and Philadelphia 76ers led the NBA in passes last season, and their offenses ranked 17th, 26th and 30th in the league in terms of efficiency. The ball can move, but it needs to move with purpose.

For that to happen, you need timely and good screening, intelligent players who can deliver a ball on time after getting to spots on the floor where passes can be distributed effectively, and players receiving passes must read where the collapsing defender is rotating from and move the ball in that direction away from said defender.

And then a player has to make the shot, hopefully from the corner because three points are more valuable than two, or off the dribble after attacking a closeout.

It’s great stuff and it can lead to fantastic looks. A lot can also go wrong, and it can cost a lot of energy. If players are being run off screens, if bigs are consistently being ran into while setting screens, they are expending lots of energy. NBA players are in shape, so you could be tempted to say they should be able to handle it.

What happens when you get deep in playoff runs, though? Teams know and understand and have seen your offensive sets many times. In the case of the most recent NBA Finals, both the Cavs and the Warriors were switching nearly everything, leading both teams to work try and exploit mismatches. Being able to isolate LeBron James or Kyrie Irving on Stephen Curry paid off for the Cavs. Conversely, there were times the Warriors attacked Irving with Draymond Green off switches, with positive results. It wasn’t a consistent part of their offensive game plan, though.

A lot of hero ball isn’t simply hero ball

Oftentimes, we label things iso ball or hero ball that don’t really meet the nebulous concept. Oftentimes an isolation comes after a failed pick and roll action, and the player is forced to create with limited time on the shot clock. Other times, defenses will simply switch a pick and roll. If Steph Curry tries to take Kevin Love off the dribble after a switch, is it hero ball? Or is he exploiting a mismatch. I’d argue that he’s attempting to exploit what you’d assume would be a mismatch.

On the other hand, isolation basketball doesn’t preclude ball movement. Look what happens below, courtesy of Carter Rodriguez. LeBron James does all of the things that cause you to literally groan as he backs up dribbling to the three point line. And then, because defenses must respect his playmaking ability, he gets the defense to collapse and makes a great read.

Ball movement can have diminishing returns

Early on in the Finals, the Warriors ball movement went through periods where they would slice and dice the Cavs defense. In Games 1 and 2, the Cavs would put together stretches where they defended with discipline and rotated effectively, but weren’t able to sustain it.

As the Cavs began to switch more and more screens however, the game got easier, particularly for the Cavs guards and wings. Iman Shumpert spent much of the series completely lost when asked to defend according to a scheme. The entire team struggled. Switching didn’t solve all the Cavs problems. Klay Thompson could shoot over Irving, and Green could bully him. Kevin Love was left to fend for himself on Curry.

In the last half of the last quarter of the last game of the NBA Finals, no one could score. Screens were set, switches happened, and it was the Warriors best creators vs. the Cavs best creators. Both teams abandoned five and six pass possessions. It’s likely both were exhausted. There even seems to be footage of an exhausted James telling coach Tyronn Lue to let Irving do the work on what became the late game possession.

It could be irresponsible to simply assume these players are tired. And perhaps there are ways to attack the switching that don’t involve trying to pick on mismatches. But it also seems irresponsible to assume that isolation basketball is, on its own, selfish or lazy. Having players who can create their own shot, and create shots for others is extremely valuable. Perhaps there is value in LeBron James being able to take offensive possessions off while Kyrie Irving creates. Perhaps the lure of the mismatch is fool’s gold that takes teams that move the ball beautifully out of what they do best.

These are good and fun discussions that can move basketball forward. Writing off pick and rolls that produce mismatches as “hero ball” seems less productive. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing as the hockey assist, but that shouldn’t be a substitute for analysis.

Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats