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When the NBA zigs, the Warriors zag ... off screen after screen

The pick-and-roll is a staple in almost every NBA offense but the Golden State Warriors are not like everyone else. They have had one of the best offenses for the past five years and have done so while slowly moving away from the pick-and-roll. The Warriors are running defenders off screen after screen after screen.

Most NBA offenses are based on pick-and-rolls. They use them to create mismatches and force defenses to rotate into opening areas for clear shots. The challenge with these types of plays is that it requires teams to have to have crafty ballhandlers. The two extra bodies that a pick-and-roll brings creates more margins for error for the ballhandler and they have to work on navigating the new crowd.

Off-screen actions are unique with all of the action happening away from the ball. Defenders are forced to chase players around a screen sometimes several times, while also having to keep an eye on the ball in case they are needed to rotate over to help on drives. The real catch-22 for defenders is if they deny the cut, they open up a new one.

“I’ve always been a big believer in off-ball screens because it occupies the defense,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. The off-screen actions in the hands of the Warriors are extremely difficult to defend.

It’s not that the Warriors are incapable of finding success in the pick-and-roll game; they are just incredibly efficient in it. According to Synergy Sports stats, they are second in points per possession in ballhandlers which translates to 14 points a night but are 28th in using it. They have great ballhandlers in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, as well as Draymond Green, who can make a play for others as soon as he catches the ball on a roll.

With arguably three of the best shooters ever at Kerr’s disposal, he has opted to go with more off-ball actions to power his offense. They lead the league in running off-screen actions by a wide margin. They run it 13.9 percent of the time; the next closest team is the Brooklyn Nets who use it 8.1 percent of the time. Curry has been the engine that really drives the Warriors' off-screen action.

Kerr understands the value of using Curry as a screener having seen the power of John Stockton’s screens during his own playing career.

“When I played, John Stockton was one of the best screen setters in the league. It opened up the Utah’s entire offense when he would set a cross screen for [Karl] Malone or split screens for [Jeff] Hornacek,” Kerr said, praising Curry’s screening skills as “the most underrated aspect of his game.”

Kerr’s predecessor Mark Jackson ran a very heavy pick-and-roll offense despite only producing 0.81 PPP on such plays. Meanwhile, the team had a higher PPP in off-screen actions. Kerr increased the frequency of off-screen actions as soon as he arrived. This season, it is the second-most frequent action in their offense behind transition and accounts for 17.3 points a night. That is nearly double the 9.1 points off off-screen plays they had in their first championship year.

Off Screen Freq
P&R Ball Handler Freq
*Mark Jackson’s last year

The Warriors offense is a series of off-ball screens with Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson either setting them or coming off them which stresses defenses.

Thompson is a master of manipulating defenses with his movement. A big part of the Warriors offense comes from their post split action, when Curry enters the ball into the post then sets a screen for Thompson who comes off it and gets an open look. Then Thompson looks like he is setting a post split screen for Curry but slips it for an and-one layup. Even when the defense wants to deny Thompson from coming off the screen as the Memphis Grizzlies do here, he just cuts backdoor for another layup.

Curry is the living embodiment of a coaching adage: the player who sets the screen is usually the one who gets open. In this Warriors side out-of-bounds play, Curry sets a back screen for Durant, as Durant uses it to get to the rim, Karl Anthony-Towns drops to take that pass while Damian Jones sets a screen for Curry. Durant’s cut takes away any chance Towns has to contest Curry coming off the screen and it is a wide-open look for him. Then he is the first screener in a double stagger action for Thompson, who curls around the first screen and Curry comes off the Jones screen with Tyus Jones trailing him. This forces Towns to have to step up to stop Curry, leaving Jones a wide-open lane to finish a lob coming his way.

The NBA is a copycat league — once a team finds success playing a certain way, you can be sure that in the next few seasons other teams will try to incorporate or fully mimic that action. That has not been the case with the Warriors' off-ball actions despite the enormous success they have with it. The league average for frequency of pick-and-roll with the ballhandler is 17.9 percent to the 5 percent in off-screen actions. The Warriors have flipped that, running off-screen actions 13.9 percent of the time to 12.5 percent spent running pick-and-rolls.

The Warriors have not abandoned the pick-and-roll but they have found an action that works better for them. Kerr and his stable of shooters truly have the Warriors offense light-years ahead of everyone else.