In light of the recent blow-up between Rick Carlisle and Rajon Rondo, the topic of play-calling has finally surfaced in the NBA. In a sport like the NFL, play-calling is perhaps one of, if not THE most dissected aspect of the game. Any coach without the proper run-pass balance or innate understanding of how to attack opposing defense is subject to criticism from every Monday morning, arm-chair signal caller.
Yet in the NBA, the plays that are called and when -- unless they are late in games -- aren’t under nearly as much scrutiny. This is probably for a variety of reasons, most notably because basketball, more so than most sports, tends to be primarily viewed through a results-orientated lens. That’s changed slightly in recent years as the accessibility of information and a bevy of smart writers writing more about the nuances of the game has clued more and more of us into the process behind decisions. It’s that (diminishing) obscurity that hides the fact that play-calling in the NBA is underdeveloped process.
Take for example a set that permeates the playbooks of nearly every team in the league: ‘Hawk.’
In NBA lingo, ‘Hawk’ can best be described as a 1-3 pick-and-roll with a double stagger off the weakside. It’s typically called by teams looking to get their 3-man a shot or post-up mismatch after a switch. And if that flew over your head, here’s a visual walkthrough thanks to one of the many teams that utilize the set, the Kings.
The play starts off with Andre Miller bringing the ball up the sideline as the small forward, in this case Rudy Gay, waits to set a ‘UCLA screen’ for shooting guard, Omri Casspi.
The reason for this screen, instead of having Gay just go into pick-and-roll, is to (in theory) force his defender, Jamal Crawford, to protect his teammate J.J. Redick on Casspi’s cut to the basket. That subtle move, should (again, in theory) make Crawford slightly late in hedging on the pick-and-roll between Gay and Miller -- assuming the defense choose a ‘stay attached’ coverage. Once Casspi cuts off him, Gay pivots and moves to set a screen on the ball to Miller while Casspi, curls off and heads off the double screen waiting to be set by Jason Thompson and Derrick Williams on the opposite side of the floor.
As the screen is being set, the point guard (Miller) and the small forward screening for him (Gay), simply read the defense. If the point guard can turn the corner and attack the paint, he does so. If the defense switches assignments on the pick-and-roll, the point guard can pull the ball out and look to enter into the post against the switch, which presumably would be in his team’s favor. And if the wing setting the screen can slip into space near the corner 3 or short corner, the guard can obviously look to make a pass for a shot or quick drive. And if all those options don’t work, the design of the play has a built in safeguard of Casspi coming off the screen on the weakside for a shot (and more options!).
Here’s what happens on the play we used for the screenshots.
The play results in Gay posting Crawford, his original defender -- another benefit of being the screener in pick-and-roll is moving into good post position -- and eventually finding Williams on a kickout for an open 3. That’s a smart play call, right?
Not exactly. A deeper examination of not only the Kings use of the play and the design of the play in general doesn’t paint the picture it’s a killer set, especially given Sacramento’s personnel. For starters, Gay, an excellent post player, didn’t need to set the screen in Hawk to get a built advantage. He was already being guarded by a shorter, smaller player with a reputation as a poor defender. If the goal of running ‘Hawk’ in this situation was to get Gay a deep post touch, there are plenty of other sets, including a straight dive into the post, that can accomplish that better (and given Miler’s dancing around the screen initially, my guess is it wasn’t called strictly to get Gay into the post). In fact, the Clippers could have actually swapped assignments on the pick-and-roll -- putting Miller’s defender, Austin Rivers, on Gay, then immediately fronted Gay’s attempt to post the switch and covered the backside lob threat with the low man guarding the double stagger (in this case, Hedo Turkoglu).
And the ability to send help to a post-front is the biggest problem with the design of ‘Hawk’ itself, the weakside double. Casspi is a lot of very good things as a basketball player, but his strengths don’t lie in being a Kyle Korver-like catch-and-shoot guy. Without a threat like that, the double stagger on the weakside is basically just white noise that perhaps occupies an inattentive defender from paying too much attention to the pick-and-roll on the opposite side of the floor. Ideally, teams would be better off having non-Korver type personnel simply space the floor the 3-point line for easier spot-up opportunities while the worst shooter (in this instance, the Kings’ Thompson), hangs out in short corner (think in-between the lane line and corner 3-point line) with his heels on along the baseline ready to react to dribble penetration.
A team like the Pacers, however, who ran this set quite a bit for Paul George in past seasons, didn’t even have that option. Most times the ran ‘Hawk’, Roy Hibbert and David West were on the floor as well (and even if they weren’t, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi would be). There is no spacing to be had in this play with two non-stretch bigs like that.
To complicate matters further, attacking off the pick-and-roll and reading the player coming off the double stagger on the weakside typically occur at the same time. It’s virtually impossible for a point guard coming off the screen to make a flexible, accurate read of these two situations at once. For the most part, you’ll see the ball handler in ‘Hawk’ either have a pre-mediated mindset to attack to score or just go through the motions on the pick-and-roll looking for the player coming off the weakside double. Ideally in basketball, you want a clean series of “triggers” or movements in a play, that allow players to make just one read off an action. In other words, the play-call ‘Hawk’ should either be designed for the ballhandler to make a read out of the pick-and-roll OR come off specifically just to make the pass to the player curling off the screen -- but again, if the latter is the designed purpose, there are better ways to do it.
And before you chalk that up to the Kings being the Kings, they aren’t alone in making questionable use of this play. For something to be a great play for a particular collection of players, it should called with the idea that everyone on the floor is in a position to be successful. While I haven’t charted every instance of ‘Hawk’ ever ran in NBA history, I have noticed that more often than not, it’s essentially a throw-away play-call that teams seem to run just to utilize because, ya know, they have it in the playbook.
‘Hawk’ isn’t alone in that regard, either. Across the league there are more than a handful of coaches (except Carlisle, who is arguably the smartest player call in the league) who rely on numerous sets that fail to accomplish the primary objective of putting players in spots to be consistently successful when called mid-game. So as the NBA continues to evolve and get smarter, the next thing marked for improvement should be the way players and coaches approach their game-management responsibilities. Like in the case with ‘Hawk’, it’s time for haphazard play-calling to fly away.