The Steph Curry-James Wiseman tandem: ‘Motion Weak’, weak screen-setting, and the importance of weak-side spacing

The Steph Curry-James Wiseman tandem: 'Motion Weak', weak screen-setting, and the importance of weak-side spacing

Ask people what they think the main currency of a basketball offense is, and they’ll provide different answers.

Some might say that it’s simple: Offense is all about getting the ball in the hoop — therefore, the most valuable commodity to have are players who can create shots for themselves and for others. A team that can’t score is listless and inept.

There’s also an argument within that (often false) dichotomy between self-creation and creating for others. Which is more valuable: one who can score in an unlimited amount of ways — or one who has a knack for putting his teammates in the best positions to score? Ideally, it would be a player who flashes both of those traits without tradeoffs and caveats.

Zooming in even further: What are the different ways of putting your teammates in the best positions to score? There’s passing — the speed of the pass, the angle and journey the ball takes throughout a passing lane, and its placement when it gets to its destination (whether it’s perfectly placed within a shooting pocket, or if it’s well within reach of a lob threat’s catch radius).

There’s off-ball movement, especially when it pertains to a movement shooter who presents as a threat in a multitude of ways; Stephen Curry’s legendary gravity is the ultimate example.

It would be correct to say that both passing and off-ball movement — especially within the context of their motion offense — are the Golden State Warriors‘ main currencies. But I would argue that there’s another aspect that acts in equal collaboration: screening.

The art of screening when it comes to specific Warriors players has been explored in the past by this author. Jonathan Kuminga has shown flashes as an effective screener; Kevon Looney’s evergreen nature as a high-level screener was given its deserved flowers.

More recently, James Wiseman’s clear improvement as a screener during his Summer League stint was explored. Curry’s dynamic nature as a pick-and-roll operator — as well as the non-traditional methods of his screen-and-roll possessions — warranted a deep dive.

As stated in the Curry pick-and-roll article, the Warriors ranked second-to-the-last in terms of pick-and-roll frequency last season. But the traditional notion of what a pick-and-roll constitutes — that of a ball screen for a ball handler with a spread floor — is too limited in scope for Curry and the Warriors, and therefore must be expanded to include the various handoffs and off-ball screens that generally produce the same effect, put similar pressure on defenses, and arrive at the same endpoints that a straight-up ball screen for Curry generates.

Even so, the Warriors typically eschew their motion offense during high-leverage situations (such as the NBA Finals) in favor of mashing the pick-and-roll button for Curry. Even during relatively low-stakes possessions, the Warriors attacking in transition and catching a defense backpedaling is ripe for early offense tools such as drag screens.

The Curry-Wiseman pick-and-roll tandem during the 2020-2021 season is one example of the Warriors’ early offense deadlines.

You can debate the intentionality and technique of Wiseman’s screens in the clips above — whether they were screens that failed to make contact, or early slips to punish aggressive coverages (I tend to lean toward the latter). There is value in eschewing contact, rolling to the rim, and striking before the backline defense can properly react with rotations or tags.

Contrast such screens with those that made solid contact, mostly in half-court situations:

And the clear whiffs, where the positioning and timing left a lot to be desired:

Despite the apparent up-and-down nature of the Curry-Wiseman partnership, the numbers show an otherwise potent pairing: 1.30 points per possession (PPP) generated from Curry-Wiseman pick-and-rolls that ended in a Curry shot or free throw , Wiseman shot or free throw, or a shot from a third party.

The caveat to that metric is the relatively low volume of Curry-Wiseman pick-and-rolls that were run: 79 possessions. For reference, most pick-and-roll tandems within offenses built on a foundation of spread ball screens usually delve into the hundreds.

While Steve Kerr may be reluctant to rely on a heavy diet of ball screens, he appreciates its value as an occasional change-of-pace tool to keep defenses guessing. As such, he incorporates ball screens within his offense, given that he has a superstar whose potency in the pick-and-roll makes it too hard to completely shelve.

There are a couple of sets within the Warriors playbook that organically includes ball screens. “HORNS Twist” was the example used in the Curry pick-and-roll item; another pet half-court set will be the focus of this particular discussion.

It would be natural for Steve Kerr to borrow the framework of Gregg Popovich’s motion offense and adapt it to his own scheme — with slight tweaks and modifications — given that Kerr played for Popovich, and in several ways, continues to look to him as his coaching mentor. “Motion Weak“is one such example of a borrowed set, along with its sister action,”MotionStrong” (staggered down screens for a player in the corner, an action that has been adopted leaguewide by several teams and has become a common sight in the modern game).

Motion Weak is simple enough to identify. It begins with a quick ball reversal in the form of a “shallow” cut; watch Curry in the clip below perform the cut:

Kerr uses a specific variant of Motion Weak called “Fist”, in which a “ram” screen — otherwise known as screen-the-screener action — is used to get the ball handler a side ball screen with an empty corner.

In this particular instance, Kelly Oubre sets the ram screen for Wiseman, who then sets the ball screen for Curry:

The purpose of the ram screen action is to force the ball-screener’s defender — Serge Ibaka in the instance above — into a position of disadvantage, whether it’s being delayed just enough for Curry to have the airspace he needs for a jumper, or to compel him to scramble in a panic, which sets Wiseman free to roll to the rim (as was the case above).

Since there’s a lack of a tagger due to the empty corner, help must then come from the weak-side low man — Nicolas Batum, in this case. But since Curry threatens to turn the corner on Ibaka, Batum is preoccupied with helping on the drive, leaving Wiseman wide open for the dunk, courtesy of a nifty pocket pass by Curry.

Timing is an important factor in Motion Weak. While some of Wiseman’s subpar screening can be attributed to his own lack of technique, other instances are a function of the possession being thrown off due to a late — or altogether non-existent — ram screen.

Out of the 79 possessions of Curry and Wiseman being involved in ball-screen action, 8 were Motion Weak possessions that generated 12 points — 1.50 PPP. When you consider the less-than-ideal spacing surrounding Curry and Wiseman during the 2020-21 season, it’s somewhat of a miracle that they managed to make it work in a highly efficient manner — a testament to Curry’s elite shot-making chops and Wiseman’s potential as an effective roll-man.

Consider this possession:

Because Curry is Curry, he manages to score on this possession despite the circumstances. By principle, the Milwaukee Bucks defense is geared toward limiting paint touches and rim attempts, while sacrificing attempts from beyond the arc—which is why in the clip above, the weak-side defenders (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donte DiVincenzo) are pinched in toward the nail and the paint.

Motion Weak spacing

What gives the Bucks even more license to help away from the perimeter is the Warriors personnel spacing the floor: Eric Paschall on the slot, Oubre on the wing, and Andrew Wiggins in the corner — certainly not a trio that induces extreme shooting fear.

Paschall and Oubre are no longer on the roster; replacing them are Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, DiVincenzo, and JaMychal Green, a group that constitutes much better shooting and spacing potential. Wiseman will make his return to active status, but will not supplant Looney in the depth chart.

Per Kerr, courtesy of The Athletic’s Anthony Slater (behind a paywall):

“Loon will come back as the starter,” Kerr said. “He has earned that and then some. We’re all thrilled that he’s back. There was a real fear that we’d lose him. To get him back is massive for our team. It sets up well for Loon to continue what he did for us last year. In doing so, he’s really a good mentor for James.”

With Wiseman penciled in as Looney’s immediate backup, it gives him less time on the floor spent with Curry, which may mean a decreased number of pick-and-roll possessions for the tandem. On the other hand, with better spacing personnel on the periphery, a general increase in the amount of Wiseman-centered ball-screen actions whenever he’s on the floor — something that Kerr previously had to adjust to mid-season — should be in order.

Kerr has admitted in the past to some missteps with Wiseman in his rookie season, overcomplicating his responsibilities and juggling around his role for a team that failed to form its identity for several months. It’s clear Kerr wants to simplify Wiseman’s duties — rim run, pick-and-roll screen, run the floor, protect the rim — as he steps into the fold again, backing up Looney.

With Jordan Poole as the projected 6th-man going into next season, it’s more likely that Wiseman will spend more pick-and-roll possessions with Poole as his partner in second-unit lineups.

The Poole-Wiseman pairing during the 2020-21 season was even rarer (27 possessions) than the Curry version. But there was virtually no drop off in terms of potency: 1.33 PPP in Poole-Wiseman ball-screen possessions where Poole took a shot or free throw, Wiseman took a shot or free throw, or a third party took the shot.

The evolution of Poole into a Curry doppelganger provides a seamless plug-and-play element. Running Motion Weak with Poole in Curry’s place assures that the efficiency will be maintained:

(That is, given that Poole will hopefully make better decisions and take better shots than the one above. The strides he made as a playmaker and decision-maker last season are bullish indicators.)

It may be a stretch to expect Wiseman to become a dominant or elite dive man in the pick-and-roll next season, but there’s reason to believe he’ll be monumentally better in that regard. Pairing him with Curry has already proven to be a no-brainer tandem; coupled with a simplified role right out of the gates, the hope is that not only will next season serve as a platform for development, but also as a path toward tangible impact and contribution to winning basketball.

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