Steph Curry and the unconventional beauty of inverted ball screens

Steph Curry and the unconventional beauty of inverted ball screens

Few things in basketball gets this author more excited than whenever conventional thinking is challenged.

Opening quarter possessions and possessions after a timeout (ATO) are arguably the most fascinating to watch, due to the anticipation of seeing what the head coach has cooked up. Steve Kerr has been lauded for many things as a coach, but ATO play design hasn’t been one of them — not because he isn’t good at them, but because several other aspects of his coaching have been more pronounced (for better or worse).

Kerr’s play calling should deserve more limelight; one reason why is because he takes stock of the personnel he has to play around with, is well aware of their skill set, and places them in spots where their individual excellence contributes to the excellence of the collective.

Another reason: Kerr isn’t afraid to flip conventionality around on its head.

To present such an example, let’s take a time machine to April 7, 2021, when the Golden State Warriors faced the Milwaukee Bucks at Chase Center. James Wiseman wins the opening tip, and the ball finds its way to Stephen Curry, who initiates the Warriors’ opening chess move.

Upon initial examination, it’s a run-of-the-mill Warriors set: “head-tap”, referring to the motion that serves as its play call. It involves Curry setting a “cross screen” underneath the rim for Draymond Green, who has two choices: use Curry’s cross screen to get deep position on the left block, or use Wiseman’s screen to go on a “Zipper” cut, which places him at the top of the arc.

Green chooses the latter — most likely by design — and what immediately comes after takes the Bucks by surprise:

Curry — using all of his 6’2” frame — sets a solid screen for the 6’6” Green, which drives all the way to the rim for the layup . Their respective defenders aren’t used to this setup at all; Bobby Portis, a power forward by nature, isn’t built for navigating around screens, while Jrue Holiday — one of the league’s premier guard defenders — doesn’t expect his man to be setting the screens because he’s used to navigating around them.

Furthermore, Holiday isn’t keen on detaching himself from Curry. Holiday knows that to lose track of Curry is to lose a defensive possession. This is where Kerr uses the conventional mindset of defenses against them as a quick-hitting counterpunch of sorts: If defenders won’t let Curry get away from them, we will use that to our advantage.

Fast forward seven months — on November 21, 2021, the Warriors faced the Toronto Raptors at Chase Center. Instead of running Head Tap, they go straight to a Green-Curry pick-and-roll, with Curry setting the screen. As expected, Fred VanVleet refuses to detach himself from Curry, while Scottie Barnes finds himself having to (unsuccessfully) navigate the Curry screen.

The Raptors sell out on Green’s drive to the rim by having Pascal Siakam rotate over to “trap the box” — at the cost of giving up something else:

Siakam rotating toward the paint opens the left corner, where Wiggins — a 48.3% shoot from the left corner during the regular season — drills the three, with help from a pin-in screen by Kevon Looney.

Curry has defied convention throughout his career. A guard of his physical stature and build wasn’t supposed to dominate and succeed on basketball’s grandest stage, let alone be part of discussions surrounding his place within the pantheon of all-time greats. His success has come not only through a pure diet of conventional dominance, but by mixing in displays of his desire to do the dirty work for the benefit of the greater good — a rare trait among superstars of his caliber.

On the court, he defies convention just by being an eager screen-setter for his teammates. He’s well aware of just how much defenders overplay/top-lock him; he uses his reputation and the fear that he sows as a weapon. But that weapon has mostly manifested itself through off-ball screens.

There’s no better example of Curry setting perfect off-ball screens than through this classic Warriors ATO set:

The play known as “Cyclone” (because Kerr “stole” it from Fred Hoiberg, a former head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones) is the quintessential example of Curry’s screening potency. But Kerr has reduced its usage drastically over the years, since opponents have scouted it to oblivion and are more prepared to counter it.

The Raptors, the Phoenix Sunsand the Boston Celticsin particular, are three intelligent defensive teams who have rendered Cyclone ineffective by switching the backscreen, fighting over the backscreen, or applying heavy ball pressure on the passer:

Kerr had to find creative and novel ways of using Curry’s pull — and how defenses reacted to it — in order to generate scoring opportunities for his other players. The solution to that problem turned out to be quite simple: have Curry be a direct ball-screener.

Pairing Curry up with someone who otherwise had a difficult time with self creation (such as Green), or pairing him with someone who is an extremely potent downhill force (such as Jonathan Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins) proved to be low-hanging fruit:

If opponents choose to switch the action, it’s a mismatch either way — Curry with a big man on an island, or his big-man partner against a smaller defender trying to hang on for dear life:

Should defenses show even a sliver of commitment toward the drive, Curry can act as the ultimate pick-and-pop weapon:

Jordan Poole—a renowned understudy of Curry’s—has developed the requisite skill set and reputation to act as a capable substitute for his stylistic mentor in sets that rely on Curry’s pull.

That includes setting inverted screens for Kuminga:

Among 109 guards who played at least 62 games during the 2021-22 regular season, Curry’s 1.1 screen-assists per game and 2.5 screen-assist points per game topped the league. While Curry and the Warriors didn’t invent the concept of inverted screening — nor are they the only ones who make use of it in the modern game (eg, the Bucks and the Denver Nuggets regularly set inverted screens for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić, respectively) — Curry may be the only superstar guard who is willing to make use of his stature and body in such a manner.

Rarely do we see the tables being flipped — and in such a way that compels opponents to flip the table in frustration.

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