The NBA is full of who is better than who debates. Best player, best scorer, best passer, the list goes on and on. Those debates will always rage on twitter. To find out who is the best you need to break it down. You have to look at the numbers. The numbers can combine with the eye test to tell the real story. They can also disagree with the eye test. That’s where it gets fun. Today the NBA is all about pick and rolls and pace and space. 3 point shooting is at a premium. That doesn’t mean post play is dead like many think. It still has its value, like cutting and putbacks do. Players just do it less than twenty years ago.
Synergy Sports is where I got my data for this article, breaks down nine main play types in the NBA. Cutting, Iso, post, transition, spotting up, pick and roll both as a handler and a screener, putbacks, and off ball screens. These are the ways players and teams generate points. To find out who is the best at each you must dig deep into the numbers. For the article, I also added who has the best runner or floater in the game. It is not a play type, but I was curious as it not talked about much these days. Before we start let me break down the statistics I will be using and what they mean and why they are important.
Possessions a number of times a player ran a particular play per game
Points per possession(PPP)- Takes into account turnovers, made field goals, and free throws
Adjusted field goal percentage(AFG%)- (Total points-free throws made)/field goal attempts/2 (Basically takes into account the value of three-point shooting.
Turnover percentage(TO%)- Amount of time a player turns it over per possessions
Score percentage- Is the percentage of possessions where the player scores at least one point
Let’s break down what each play type means, the player that is best at it and why!
Isolation scoring is simply a player going one and one against a defender with the ball in his hands without a screen. Its saves for the best scorers, and many times for when the offense is bogged down at the end of the shot clock. Today you see less of it, but it still has its value especially int he playoffs. To be a great iso scorer, you must have a lot of moves. You need a handle, you need a shot, finish with either hand and hit tough shots with a hand in your face. Very few players can do all of those things consistently.
That is why there were only 17 players in the NBA last season that averaged three or more isolation possessions per game. The leader was James Harden with 6.8 isolation possessions per game. Now just because he has the most possessions doesn’t make him the best. Of the 17 players, Harden was only sixth in points per possession with the winner going to Kyrie Irving at 1.123 points per possession.
Kyrie was also the leader in adjusted field goal percentage at 53.2%. The turnover percentage went to Chris Paul with a ridiculously low 3.3%, but Kyrie Irving was right behind him at 4.6%. Score percentage went to Demar DeRozan at 50.7%. This is no surprise due to his incredible ability to draw fouls consistently. Guess who was second? Kyrie Irving at 49.6%.
So since Demar DeRozan had the best score percentage does that make him the best iso player? He has a case, he is fifth in turnover percentage, and fifth AFG%. Both very good marks overall, but the winner here goes to Kyrie Irving. He is second in score percentage, TO% and first in AFG% and PPP. You add that all up and you have the best isolation scorer in the NBA. Kyrie has a lot of tricks that make him the best iso scorer. He’s got a face-up jumper that sets all his moves up, plus a midrange jumper off the bounce, and when he drives especially to the right he is unstoppable. Here is a clip that shows how great of an iso scorer he is.
This is a classic Iso situation at the end of the quarter with the shot clock less than ten seconds. Cleveland isolates Irving on the right side of the floor, his favorite. Then Kyrie goes to work on poor J.J Barea. He brings it up with his left, then goes to his left to right crossover and then hits Barea with a quick right to left crossover. Once J.J reaches in, Irving blows by him, Once Stoudemire comes to help, Irving finishes over him with a beautiful right-handed runner. Irving makes it look so easy, which is why he is the best isolation scorer in the league. He may have flaws in defense and in playmaking, but the Cavs will miss his scoring especially in the playoffs. Boston fans get pumped up, you have the best one and one scorer in the league.
Once J.J reaches in, Irving blows by him, Once Stoudemire comes to help, Irving finishes over him with a beautiful right-handed runner. Irving makes it look so easy, which is why he is the best isolation scorer in the league. He may have flaws in defense and playmaking, but the Cavs will miss his scoring especially in the playoffs. Boston fans get pumped up; you have the best one and one scorer in the league.
Good post play is dying in basketball. Honestly, there are not too many great post players in the NBA today. Therefore those who have one have a great advantage. Post scoring is a good way to attack switches and in the playoffs when the game slows down it is a weapon. This year in the NBA only 27 players averaged 3 or more post possessions a game. The leader was Joel Embiid with 6.8 post possessions per game.
However, the leader in PPP was Nikola Jokic. What is interesting about that is Jokic was only 26th out of 27th in attempts. Look further and Jokic was also the lieder in scorer percentage and AFG%. The only category Jokic didn’t win was TO%. That belonged to the ageless wonder Al Jefferson at 3.6%. Jokic was in the middle of the pack finishing 11th out of 27. Adding it all up though and I am giving the award to Nikola Jokic. No one scored more often and more efficient than him. His passing is so dangerous that is hard to double him, and when he goes one and one he is a beast.
Like Irving, Jokic has all the tricks on the block. Left block Jokic goes to the hook, the right block he goes tot he drop step. His face-up game is beautiful to watch. Defenders respect his jump shot so he unleashes a series of pump fakes and then dribbles right to the lane and finishes. Very impressive for a player who was in only in his second season. I am very excited to see him play with Paul Millsap. Both can play out fo the low and high post and can pass. They will be a handful for opposing frontcourts next season. Here is a clip of Jokic going to his dominant right hook, and it’s against LEBRON.
Jokic starts the play on the left side and faces up because he is not deep enough in the paint yet. Jokic then pivots and sticks his leg in between Lebron’s to create some space. That allows him to turn his back to LeBron and go to work. Immediately he hits Lebron with a half spin. Lebron goes for the spin and Jokic capitalizes. He just overpowers LeBron with three hard dribbles into the paint. One more little quarter turn and Jokic simply elevates over Lebron for the right hook. His right hook is MONEY. Plus Lebron fouled him it just wasn’t called. This play shows just how strong Jokic is in getting to his spots and once he’s there you see the skill he has to finish. The Joker is only going to get better. Get excited Nuggets fans.
The simplest play in all of basketball, run at all levels. A basket cut. While it’s a simple concept it takes skill. It takes timing, a level of unpredictably and understanding of the play and of course talent. With an emphasis on three-point shooting your also seeing a decrease in cutting. Only 31 players average two cuts a game or more. The leader was Rudy Gobert. Cuts these days are usually saved for athletic bigs to finish off of guards or wings drives. However lots of wings who can’t shoot have adapted to become great cutters.
The leader in PPP went to Jokic. God, he is awesome, can he win two categories? Well the AFG% went to Deandre Jordan. No shock there because he dunks everything. So far it’s all bigs, but the leader in score percentage and TO% is Giannis Antetokumpo. That’s right the Greek Freak coming off his first all-star appearance scored the most often off cuts in the NBA. Giannis only cuts 2.2 times a game, but when he does he only turns it over 3% of the time while scoring a ridiculous 76% of the time and shooting 76%.
By the way that was second to Deandre Jordan. Add it all up, and Giannis is the winner. Giannis is what happens when you combine immense athleticism with savvy timing. The only weakness in his game is shooting, and defenders know that. Giannis does too, so he knows defenders will play off him, but if they turn their head for even a second, or take a step towards a penetrating guard, Giannis is cutting to the basket. If he beats his first defender, it’s over.
Here against the Celtics, Giannis starts the play in the left corner and is guarded by Jonas Jerebko, I know lol. Jerebko is playing way off of him. The play begins with Michael Carter-Williams penetrating into the middle of the lane. Once Jerebko takes a step to help contain Carter-Williams penetration, Giannis sprints to the basket.
Carter-Williams feeds him with a nice bounce pass and Giannis slams it home. Evan Turner has no chance to get there in time to help. Give Giannis a moment head start he is off and finishing at the rim. It is great to see a player as talented as Giannis mastering one of the little things of the game. If he does learn to shoot watch out, because he will become unguardable.
Best Transition Player
Now we’re getting into the fun stuff. Every fan loves good transition basketball that ends with an exciting dunk. Transition is a big part of today’s game. It is a way for athletic players to get easy points without the defense set. 30 players averaged at least three transition possessions per game, led by Russell Westbrook at 6.8 a game. PPP went to Westbrooks old teammate Kevin Durant at 1.36 PPP. Things get tricky from here as a different player leads each category. AFG% went to Lebron at a ridiculous 73.7%. TO% went to TJ Warren out of nowhere.
Score% went to the Greek Freak. Durant was 4th in AFG%, 5th in TO% and 3rd in score%. He posted the most consistent numbers across the board. The other leaders in specific categories were too up and down in other categories. Actually, the second most consistent player was Jabari Parker. However, the winner here goes to Kevin Durant. Long strides, long arms, the ability to finish over people with either hand and draw fouls. Durant checks all of those boxes. Oh and he can pull up from 30 feet and drill a three.
Here against the Jazz, Durant gets the ball and immediately starts to push it. He then heads to the middle hits Gordon Hayward with a hesitation dribble and then blows by him. From there he elevates and Rudy Gobert has no chance to help in time. Durant throws it down with the right. This may seem like a simple ho-hum play from Durant, but there are very few players who can take it coast to coast like this. All Durant needs is the slightest opening and he can blow by all five defenders. It is still so unfair that he is on the Warriors.
Best Spot Up Player
This isn’t for the best spot up shooter it is for the best spot-up player. Meaning I measure players who not only spot up to shoot threes but spot up and then get the ball and can drive or score in a multitude of ways. Spotting up means standing to the side of where the main action is ready to get the ball once a defender commits to helping the player with the ball. Usually, players spot up off pick and rolls, isolations and post-ups. This year 41 players spotted up at least 3.5 times a game, and Jabari Parker was the leader.
People are surprised to see Parker as the leader but don’t be. Giannis handled the ball most of the time, so Parker stood out of the wing even though he is not a great shooter. What he can do is catch it and drive. The leader in PPP was Demarcus Cousins. I know another huge surprise. Heres’ the thing Cousins can shoot threes. Also, he is usually defended by slow bigs not used to defending out by the three-point line. Cousins simply blows by then and barrels to the lane for an easy dunk. Cousins was also the leader in AFG% and score%. The only category he didn’t win was TO%, that went to Otto Porter. The winner here is Demarcus Cousins. I know people are still surprised so let me show you what I mean.
Here when he was with the Kings in a game against the Blazers, Boogie is late to the play. I didn’t say he was the hardest playing guy in the league. When he gets there he spots up at the top of the key and gets the ball quickly. Mason Plumlee is playing off of him, but one he lunges towards Cousins, he puts the ball on the floor and drives to the right. Two dribbles and a euro step and Cousins is dunking over some poor help defender. This play is typical Cousins. Blow by a slower big and then finish strong over a weaker and smaller defender. Now here is the second play that shows how great Cousins is as a spot-up player.
Here Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo run a side pick and roll and Rondo throws an extra pass to Cousins who is spotting up at the top of the key. Cousins catches it takes a jab step to create more space between him and Deandre Jordan. Then Cousins simply pops a three. Jordan is too far off him and doesn’t have time to recover. It is almost like the league hasn’t learned that Cousins can shoot threes yet. He can and will need to next year if the Pelicans want to make the playoffs.
Pick and Roll Handler
The bread and butter play of every NBA offense. 43 players last year averaged at least five pick and roll possessions per game as the ball handler. Kemba Walker was the leader at 12.2 possession per game. To be a great pick and roll player, you need smarts, a great handle, vision and hopefully a jump shot. A player who has all of those is Lou Williams, and that is why he was the leader of PPP at 1.067.
Whats interesting was Lebron James only had 5 picks and rolls a game, but led the group in AFG%. TO% went to Damian Lillard and score% went to Kawhi Leonard. You don’t think of Kawhi Leonard as a great pick and roll player, but he is. Actually, Kawhi Leonard is my winner. While Kawhi didn’t have the best AFG% or PPP, he had the best score% and was 2nd in TO%. The reason for that is he is very good at drawing fouls. It is very hard thing to draw fouls often without being a high turnover player. He is not the best pick and roll passer in the league, but no one scores more or as effective in pick and rolls than Kawhi. This dude is a beast and my pick for MVP next season.
This side pick and roll is classic Kawhi. He patiently waits for Aaron Baynes to come and then he dribbles to the right forcing the defender to absorb the contact of Baynes. Then he comes off Gasol tightly and takes two hard dribbles and gets to his spot at the elbow. From there he stops on a dime and elevates for a smooth midrange jumper before Omer Asik can get there to help. The key to Kawhis P&R game is his midrange jumper. His ability to stop on a dime in between two defenders and elevate over both of them is incredible. Plus his jumper is money, making this simple play one of the toughest to stop in all of basketball.
Pick and Roll Man
This is for the best screener/roller in the league. The best screeners/rollers are versatile, crafty and can finish. Last year 21 players averaged at least three possessions a game as the roll man. The leader of the group was Anthony Davis, no surprise there. However, the leader in PPP was Karl Anthony Towns at 1.229 PPP. Pretty impressive for a second-year player. Kat scored often, and he scored efficiently. He was the leader in AFG% at 64.5%.
To put into perspective how impressive that is only one other player is in the sixty percentile and that is Clint Capela at 60%. Speaking of Capela he was the leader in score% at 59.3%. Second place was KAT at 56.2%. TO% went to LaMarcus Aldridge. People are down on him, but dude can still play efficient basketball. Add it all up and the winner is Karl Anthony Towns with Clint Capela as a close second. KAT is simply more versatile and a little more efficient. He does turn the ball over more, but that is on more possessions and he does more than Capela. This clip here shows how dominant and versatile he is in P%R situations.
Here KAT sets a quick screen for Ricky Rubio at the top left of the key. He then quickly opens up and drifts out to the 3-point line. The reason for this is to open space and because he is a threat from out there. Once Rubio chooses to drive, KAT sees his man in this case Joffrey Lauvergne go to contain the Rubio penetration. At that moment KAT sprints to the middle of the paint receives the pass from Rubio and then its one dribble and he dunks over everyone on the Thunder. This is an easy and routine play for KAT. His ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor opens up everything for him. Once he is in the paint he will finish. This guy will be unstoppable next season.
I was the most excited for this one. Mainly because offensive rebounding has been dramatically reduced in the NBA, with the emphasis on getting back in transition. The numbers show this. Only 16 players average at least two putback attempts a game. The leader of the group was Andre Drummond at 3.5 a game.
PPP went to Tyson Chandler at 1.37. Shocked don’t be. I know he spent most of the year on the bench injured and because the Suns were tanking but Chandler can still play a bit. Like he always was Chandler is a putback specialist. Chandler combines tremendous strength with impeccable timing. Don’t believe me? Chandler was also the leader in Score% and TO% and tied for first in AFG% with Dwight Howard. Add it all up and Tyson Chandler is the clear winner here. Here is a clip to show you what I mean.
Here is a quick clip of Tyson Chandler finishing an impressive putback slam. Jon Leuer drives and misses a runner in the lane. Chandler is to the right of the basket and elevates so fast that he surprises Kenneth Faried and finishes over him. This is what makes Chandler great. He is so explosive from a standstill place, and he always times his jump just right. His vertical is so good that he can catch the ball at its highest point and then he is so strong that he can finish in traffic. Can we get this man on a contender to finish his career?
Off screens means coming off screens that are set off the ball. This is how the best scorers free themselves up. Down screeners, cross screens, flare screens all count. Off screens are not as prevalent as P&R today, but they are still used in a lot of teams offenses. Especially the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors had three players in the top ten of off-screen possessions per game. Last year 26 players averaged at least two off-screen possessions per game. The leader of the group was Klay Thompson at 6.6 per game.
His teammate Steph Curry was the leader in PPP at 1.183. The remaining three categories are split between three different players. AFG% went to Kyle Korver, TO% went to CJ Miles, and score% went to Kevin Durant. Durant was also 4th in PPP, 5th in AFG% and 3rd in TO%. Across the board, he had the best numbers overall. Kevin Durant is the winner of his second category. He is that good. Here is a clip of him with the Thunder to show how good he is coming off screens. There are two plays in the clip both from a playoff game against the Spurs.
In the first play, Stephen Adams sets a simple down screen for Durant. Durant comes off the screen, and the Spurs decide to switch it. David West is right there to contest the shot, but it doesn’t matter. Durant just elevates over him and drills the jumper. This is an example of good defense getting beat by better offense.
The second play is the same thing except the Spurs don’t switch it. Danny Green stays with Durant, but again it doesn’t matter. Durant gets to his spot at the right elbow and from there its over. Green’s contest has no chance over Durant’s elevation and length. This is what makes Durant so great. Even if he only gets a little separation from the screen he can get his shot off with high efficiency. For most players, this would be a tough shot, for Durant it’s a lay up. Once again it’s ridiculous he is on the Warriors.
This one is for fun; it isn’t a play type, it’s a shot type. A seldom used shot type in fact. Only 16 players averaged at least 1.5 runners a game. The reason it is rarely used is its a tough shot to perfect. Not a lot of players have it in their wheelhouse. Demar DeRozan led the league in 2.9 attempts per game. However, the winner of this one was clear. The leader in PPP, score% and AFG% was CJ McCollum. There is no TO% in this one because of it’s a type of shot, not a play. CJ also was third in shooting fouls drawn.
His PPP was 1.012, AFG% was 48%, and his score% was the same because again its a shot. CJ has perfected one of the toughest shots in basketball. To make almost 50% of them is incredible. TO have a good runner you need to be able to penetrate, finish over length, have great touch and be able to launch from different points. CJ McCollum can do all of those things. That is why he is the winner and a boss. Here is a clip of one of his amazing runners to win the GAME.
Here McCollum gets the inbound pass from Mason Plumlee. Wesley Matthews is all over him, but CJ quickly spins away from him and splits the double team between Matthews and Harrison Barnes. He is knocked a little off-balance during the process. It doesn’t matter he gets tot he free throw line and launches his runner from there. Nothing but net. Only CJ could sink a free throw line runner off-balance. Incredible.
This article was eye-opening and fun to write. It showed who’s the best at certain plays and why. People you wouldn’t expect succeed at a thing you wouldn’t expect them too. If anything it shows why more information is ideal for writers, coaches, and fans to have. It was tough to pick winners on some, but I think I found the best for each play type. Next season it will be interesting to see new players emerge as the best. People will be surprised and disagree, but that’s the fun of sports. This article is an appreciation of players greatness. The season is a month away people, LETS GO!!!
Putbacks- Tyson Chandler
Transition- Kevin Durant
Off Screens- Kevin Durant
Pick and Roll handler- Kawhi Leonard
Pick and Roll Man- Karl Anthony Towns
Spot Up- Demarcus Cousins
Runner- CJ McCollum