For much of the 2018 Playoffs, Kyle Korver was the Cleveland Cavaliers’ second-best player. Korver shot 45 percent from behind the arc in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, functioning as the unexpected second fiddle to LeBron James.
But Korver again ended the season like the Cavs — with a mere whimper at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Korver was just 1-16 from the field and 1-11 beyond the arc in Golden States’ four-game sweep on the NBA Finals.
Since joining Cleveland at the 2017 Trade Deadline, Korver is just 8-32 (25 percent) from downtown in 11 games against the Warriors. Not only has Korver’s percentage dramatically declined but his attempt rate has fallen as well — by over two attempts per game.
Korver’s attempts went from clean jumpers off-screens (where he posted a 70.7 effective field goal percentage in the Playoffs):
To difficult self-creation undertakings:
The Warriors are well-suited to take away Korver’s best strength, but are not uniquely positioned in this regard.
As switch-everything defensive schemes infiltrate the highest levels of basketball, even the best one-dimensional shooters on the planet struggle to capitalize on shooting off movement.
Shooting off Movement
Shooting off movement is one of the most tantalizing skills a player can possess in the modern NBA. The ability to run pindowns, flare screens and other similar off-ball actions unlocks numerous other aspects of offense.
Beyond creating offense for themselves, these elite shooters can deploy their gravity as a weapon for their teammates.
It’s what made Kevin Huerter a near-Lottery pick despite his weaknesses elsewhere and Kevin Knox a top-10 pick despite limited production in college.
The Off-Screens points per possession leaderboard reads as a who’s who of the best shooters on the planet — Kyle Korver, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Wayne Ellington, Joe Ingles and JJ Redick just to name a few.
And these players are just that — elite. Of the 45 players with over 100 Off-Screen possessions this season, 30 of them scored at least 1 point per possession. The top-13 players all scored at least 1.1 points per possession.
In that regard, shooting off screens is one of the most efficient ways to score in basketball.
Post-Ups and the Math Revolution
On the other side of the spectrum we find Post-Ups — a dying breed of back-to-the-basket scorers who struggle to find efficiency in the modern game.
Of the 52 players who recorded at least 100 Post-Up possessions this season, only six scored over 1 point per possession. Only one — Taj Gibson — surpassed the 1.1 point per possession threshold.
The median team outcome on Post Ups was 0.88 points per possession whereas the median team outcome shooting Off Screens was 1 point per possession. The difference represents a dip in efficiency from 50 percent shooting to 44 percent.
The smartest teams have built their defense with this efficiency gap in mind.
And the phenomenon is not unique to Korver.
JJ Redick shot just 34 percent from behind the arc when Philadelphia faced Boston in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Joe Ingles went 7-23 from deep in Utah’s four losses to Houston’s switching defense.
Golden State was forced into 23 Isolation possessions per game against Houston. Despite not employing a switch-everything scheme all season, Cleveland still managed to bait the Warriors into 16 Isolations per game in the Finals — well over their 8.1 Isolations per game average in the regular season.
The beautiful brand of basketball is largely nullified by switch-everything defensive schemes. And the limited effectiveness of off-ball actions is a big reason why.
Watch Korver’s possessions again. In the first clip, Tristan Thompson sets the screen to free him against Toronto. In the second clip, the Warriors switch David West off Larry Nance Jr. to deny Korver a free look.
Neither Thompson nor Nance represents a threat to punish smaller players in the post. Even considering the matchup, these players would have to shoot nearly 55 percent on Post Ups to return the same value as the average Korver three-point attempt off a screen.
As the Playoffs wear on, defenses firmly plant their flag on the side of math. The shooting ability and subsequent gravity of these elite marksmen forces opposing teams to switch everything. After all, three is worth more than two.
Toss the ball into these mismatches in height alone and watch as inexperienced post players attempt to dip into their bag of tricks.
Offenses can counter by putting adept Post-Up players in situations designed to force a switch against a smaller player. But telegraph the pass and defenses are prepared to scram the smaller player out of the compromising position (a concept I covered in significant depth here).
Watch as Jayson Tatum abandons Rodney Hood — betting (correctly) that Jordan Clarkson either cannot or will not throw a skip pass to the opposite corner — to come to Terry Rozier’s aid in the mismatch against Kevin Love.
Even in situations specifically engineered to exploit post mismatches, defenses can bet on their ability to counter.
The same cannot be said for shooting off movement.
We often hear how defenses are able to “lock in” on shooters in the playoffs in a manner that negates their largest impact. What this typically means is a commitment to keeping a body on the shooter at all times — regardless of the consequences.
And while the entire league is not and cannot switch everything, the impact of not doing so deep in the playoffs reverberated in Cleveland’s series against Toronto. The Raptors remained committed to dropping the big in ball screen actions and lock-and-trail off the ball.
Kyle Korver and Kevin Love responded by slicing and dicing Toronto’s off-ball defense in a perfectly choreographed screening ballet.
And so, defenses have laid down the gauntlet by switching everything. Houston spent the entire season perfecting this scheme to prepare for its inevitable matchup with Golden State. Shooting — more than anything else — has altered the way basketball is played at its highest level.
Now offenses must find a way to counter. To not only keep players like Korver on the floor at the highest levels, but to make them effective. To scheme for shooting off movement against switching defenses.
Such is the tug-of-war that shapes the direction of basketball. Offenses create initially insurmountable advantages and defenses claw their way back into the picture with inventive schemes.
Redick and Ellington are both free agents this summer. Whether they return to their teams or elect to continue their careers elsewhere, coaches will be faced with the question of how to ensure they can impact the game at its highest levels.
The answer will be one of innovation that will continue to push the limits of basketball as we know it.