The NBA playoffs often come down to matchups, as the good pundits are typically fond of noting. The Utah Jazz are pretty darn good when they aren’t playing the better spread/shooting teams like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors. The Rockets make life hard for everyone because they force you to deal with James Harden and don’t give you any alternatives. The Warriors of course are just overloaded with top-line talent. Those two approaches are essentially the major division in both basketball and football these days, everyone spreads but to what end? Spread-iso or spread-option?
The Cleveland Cavaliers mastered the modern formula with LeBron James over the last few years and that’s why they were able to make the finals without Kyrie Irving. They’d surround LeBron with a rotating cast of four guys, alternating between maximizing shooting or defense and making every game a contest of whether you could match up with the King. If everyone on the floor can shoot from behind the arc, you can’t leave anyone open, but then how are you going to handle James Harden/LeBron James/Giannis Antetokounmpo when no one can check those guys 1-on-1?
Magic Johnson didn’t get it at all but the principles were really strong. If you can spread the floor with shooters then how do you defend LeBron James? If you put a big man on him he’s blowing by them, if you put a quicker athlete on him then he’s backing them down with his 270 pound frame.
But same principle works for teams that don’t have that impossible matchup. Last year’s Boston Celtics could spread the floor as well and then instead of using screens to try and force a switch on an impossible matchup, they could run offense at the weakest link before the screen. Whoever of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum was drawing the worst perimeter matchup was going to get a lot of shots. Ditto the Golden State Warriors, who have three of the greatest perimeter scorers of the modern era on the same team and they don’t care which one scores 30 on a given night so long as it’s the right one.
The issue for the Warriors this year has been they don’t have the same shooting around their top guys to force teams to have to deal with them in isolation. Draymond Green moves the ball well but can be ignored when he doesn’t have it, ditto Andrew Iguodala, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston. None of them are terribly dangerous unless near the rim, which doesn’t prevent teams from loading the paint to close drives and then running the big three off the perimeter.
Spread-iso vs spread-option
You see the same strategies at play in college football. The Cavs with LeBron would run high screens until they had switched an opponent’s worst defender on the King and then everyone would clear out and he’d iso up on an overmatched opponent. This culminated in the legendary game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals in which he scored 51 points on 19 of 32 shooting with eight rebounds and eight assists.
Check him out here iso’ing up Nick Young while the Warriors watch helplessly as far off the the Cav shooters as they dare get before one slips away for a point blank jumper.
If JR Smith had looked at the scoreboard they probably win game one and then there’s no telling what happens next. Instead LeBron seemed to deflate after that and it was all she wrote.
It’s possible that James Harden has perfected this art to an even greater degree under the guidance and support of Mike D’Antoni and Darryl Morey (and his own obvious work ethic and insane coordination). The stepback three essentially accomplishes for him what being impossibly big, powerful, and athletic does for LeBron. Having to respect that shot makes his dribble drive game impossible to stop.
This is spread-iso ball, using the tactic of spacing to limit the degree to which an opponent can concentrate on your star player. In football this is what Art Briles’ offense was groundbreaking in achieving. With the ultra wide splits and emphasis on downhill run game or vertical/choice passing game the Bears were constantly either creating space to force the ball either to a top WR or the RB.
Spread-option ball is where you focus less on creating space for the stars and more on just letting the ball go where there’s space. Instead of trying to move the star player around to find angles for him, you just give the ball to the guy who has the angles.
When the Warriors have been really on, like in their 73-win season, they were really good at moving the ball until it found the best shot. Draymond Green thrives here because he has great vision and passing and he’d use the attention that Steph Curry could command with his shooting to execute in 4-on-3 settings. That’s still their DNA but now they also have Kevin Durant, one of the most gifted scorers in NBA history.
Spread-iso vs spread-option roster construction
This is where things get really interesting both in the NBA and in college football. You’d think that spread-option would be the way to go for the blue bloods and spread-iso the best path for smaller programs. Shouldn’t blue bloods try to get as many star players as they can and just crush opponents with the weight of stardom?
The problem with that approach, detailed in an examination of the legendary Nebraska dynasty of the 90s, is that it’s much easier to develop role players. It’s really hard to get multiple good players clicking and excelling in versatile roles at the same time and it’s also hard to get consistent distribution. To truly be able to attack matchups all over the defense without bending things towards the isolation of your star you need a truly talented and well developed collection of players. Clemson has arrived here at times, they have a truly outstanding WR development track and also benefitted from multiple years of eligibility for Hunter Renfrow who seemed to come to school with a pretty well developed skillset. Deshaun Watson helped here because he had a mental command of literal spread-option strategies and drop back concepts. Now they have Trevor Lawrence, who’s an exceptional pocket passer.
For everyone else it’s easier to get guys up to speed in limited roles while the superstars do the heavy lifting, like in the spread-iso tactics.
In the NBA, things are almost flipped. The big time teams all want the spread-iso stars because it’s rare for teams to win without one. The nature of the salary cap and professionalism is such that it’s really hard to keep multiple championship-caliber players on the same squad for any sustained period of time. As soon as you taste success someone is going to be eligible for a max contract with another team and your ability to fill out the roster with high level quality is harshly diminished. Rookie scale contracts make it easier to assemble talent if you lean on them, and it’s why Boston was able to assemble the team they have, but then they’ve run into the problem of being too young to work it all out.
The Philadelphia 76ers have spread-option talent levels but without the spread element. Joel Embiid isn’t an Al Horford who can partner with a wide variety of ball handlers to create offense for the whole team on pick’n’roll. He should really be isolated regularly and surrounded by shooters so that opponents have no choice but to either double him or hope that their big won’t let him go 35-20. Ditto Ben Simmons, who’s great attacking the rim and a downright liability if he isn’t involved, arguably Jimmy Butler as well. None of the Sixer stars thrive off the ball save for maybe Tobias Harris and JJ Reddick, neither of whom get the shots they should because Philly is busy trying to keep the big three involved.
The problem with chasing the spread-iso strategy in the NBA is that your superstar really needs to be something special. If you have a guy that is going to be a matchup problem for most anyone AND can be a distributor when he has the ball then it behooves you to force teams to have to deal with that dimension. If you don’t then your team isn’t all that scary.
In the college basketball game, things are flipped. The vast majority of the championship teams were defined by having three different perimeter options that were good. Virginia had Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome and chances were that your second or third best perimeter defender was going to be in trouble. In college basketball you can arrive at this strategy by just recruiting tons of guards and wings, playing as many of them at the same time as you can, and opting for the developmental path rather than trying to get tons of one and done players. Big men with NBA talent in particular are almost a waste of time in college basketball, savvy guards win tournaments and you need as many of them as you can get. Super star players that can be isolated and will then go dominate games only tend to stick for one year and if you don’t have shooting around them then your window is impossibly tight.
In the NBA there may be a similar path if teams were willing to put their major salary emphasis on finding a big man that could play as a small ball center and defend on the perimeter while being a good pick’n’roll or pick’n’pop partner for the guards. Then to be willing to watch guards leave in free agency and believe that spacing and having tons of quality guards all running screens on weak spots could pay off. Boston got here by accident with Al Horford, who’s the true star of their team, now they have Kyrie Irving healthy who happens to be the kind of offensive player that you can go spread-iso with and win. Sorting out that dynamic has been pretty tricky for them.
It seems that Boston and Golden State both will have to sort through whether to stay on that path or try something different pending on the offseason decisions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile there’s a few teams that have young big men that could fit this role, making a team resistant to spread-iso and spread-option tactics with their ability to be a perimeter defender and pick partner. It’s not all that glorious a role though even though it can produce big time results and young bigs often struggle to accept it.
Making spread-option ball work in college football
Over at Football Study Hall I had a piece yesterday on how Alabama’s style in 2018 worked against them when they played defenses of a certain caliber that could hold up to all of their options.
Alabama was a sort of spread-option offense, they distributed the ball pretty evenly across a large collection of talented wideouts, tight ends, and running backs. They even involved Jalen Hurts from time to time on gadget plays.
They leaned really heavily on RPOs and play-action, presenting enough of a threat on those actions to either badly punish teams for overplaying the run or force opponents to concede honest boxes. Their problem came when Clemson and Mississippi State said, “okay, here’s the honest box. We’re betting you can’t score enough points to kill us by working your way down the field and if Tua has to make lots of good reads and decisions with the ball.” Both were basically right, although Mississippi State didn’t have any offense so it didn’t matter.
The San Antonio Spurs were surprisingly good this season by adapting a defensive strategy that would run opponents off the perimeter while dropping their bigs to the rim and encouraging mid-range shots. Their own offense was astoundingly mid-range heavy since their best players LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan both depend on mid-range shooting. Consequently their goal on defense had to be to force opponents into a rock throwing contest in which the most efficient mid-range shooting offense would win. Greg Poppovich’s understanding of strategy exceeds that of the vast majority of professional coaches, he’s like Belichik in that his mastery isn’t over a particular system or style but over the big picture strategies of the game itself.
The Crimson Tide haven’t figured out how to play defense in a way that forces opponents to run the ball, or really even that this is what they should be doing. Saban’s big breakthroughs have always been “how do we play good run defense against the spread?” not “how do we encourage our opponent’s running game?”
The other solution for Alabama would have been to have more in the playbook to allow them to isolate key targets in the passing game so they could fling the ball around and try to outscore Clemson. That would require savvier play from Tua Tagovailoa and then a WR that could consistently get open without the benefit of play-action or RPOs to create space for him. That’s not a question of speed, which Alabama didn’t lack, but well-honed skill. Maybe next year, Bammer.
Developing a working spread-option approach is just plain hard. You need to have an evaluation and developmental track that produces multiple worth skill players every year and to consistently have a QB that can read defenses and get the ball to the right places every week. This is the style that Mike Leach plays and the reason his teams often have a ceiling, besides their struggles to play consistently great defense, is that the only way to arrive at this level is with a practice style that tries to overload opponents with options without involving the run game heavily. Many of the other Air Raid guys opt for more spread-iso strategies.
While recruiting massive amounts of talent is everyone’s favorite play these days, at the end of the day egalitarian strategies are much harder to implement and sustain. The surest path is to subordinate most players’ roles into doing what it takes to support the best player. When push came to shove even Hickory high had to default to that sort of hierarchy:
Coach: “What’s the matter with you guys???”
Jimmy: “I’ll make it.”
Coach: “Alright…Buddy, get the ball to Jimmy top of the key. The rest of you spread the floor.”