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Utah Jazz staggered screens and high hopes for Myck Kabongo

Many words were written in the fall of 2010 about Rick Barnes' spiritual journey.  After a bit of soul searching, Barnes went on a quest to improve his offense.  He and his staff spent time learning offense from Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz.   Barnes was able to implement some of Sloan's offense last year with reasonable success.

Over the years, the Utah Jazz offense under Jerry Sloan included many concepts.  Stockton and Malone were famous for the pick and roll, which is the bread and butter play for most teams in the NBA.  The Jazz also ran a lot of flex.   I highly recommend this post by Sebastian Pruiti over at NBA for anyone who wants to understand the flex in general, and the Jazz implementation in particular.    The Jazz offense also makes heavy use of staggered double screens.  These sorts of staggered screens can sometimes evolve organically out of a particular read in the flex.  But Sloan also used a few sets that explicitly created a staggered double screen.  (Pruiti also writes for SB Nation, and has contributed this great article on some of the Jazz staggered screen sets.  You might have seen Jordan Hamilton using these screens last season.)

In recent years, the Jazz's most dangerous player was point guard Deron Williams.  Staggered screens were a powerful way to create opportunities for Williams to catch the ball on the move against an out of position defender and break down the defense.  By examining a part of one of Utah's sets, we can see just how staggered screens can work to free up a point guard on the move.  Given what Barnes did with some of Jerry Sloan's offense last year, it is pretty reasonable to assume that we will see Myck Kabongo coming off staggered screens this year.

So let's dive into a single set from the Jazz offense after the jump, and try to understand just how the options and reads work on this implementation of the staggered screen.

I will only be examining a part of a single offensive set, as I can't tell exactly what all of the reads become after the basic staggered screen portion until I find a bit more footage and have a little bit more time.  Needless to say, there is a lot going on here.  But even in this limited view, we can understand the basic ways that the staggered screen threatens and attacks the defense, and we can understand a lot about how players read screens in general.  Reading screens is the essential element of this set.

The original video is available on You Tube.  This video shows a lot of the different elements of Sloan's offense.  I am only going to look at two possessions in the video, which both seem to come from the same offensive play call.  These two possessions I will be focusing on are the first and third possessions on the video (the third possession appears at the 0:36 minute mark).  I will be mixing and matching images from each of these two possessions, so don't be confused if Deron Williams suddenly disappears.  I will be doing this because in some cases I was able to capture clearer pictures that show particular elements of what is going on.

The Jazz start out in what is commonly referred to as a 1-4.  In a 1-4 setup, a guard has the ball on top, two players start at the elbows of the lane, and two players start on the wing at the extension of the free throw line.  In the first image below, that is more or less how they are set.  Andrei Kirilenko is executing what is called a v-cut on the wing to get open to receive the pass from the point.


In the next image, we see that after the ball is passed to the wing the point guard attempts to rub his defender off of the high post screener.  This is the famous UCLA cut, and it will not be fooling anyone.  This little maneuver can work pretty well against 10 year olds, but most defenses at higher levels won't get beaten for a layup very often off of this back screen.  Notice the defender (marked with the red arrow) is in pretty good position.  The key in defending this cut is for the defender to jump a step or two towards the ball on the pass to the wing.  This prevents the guard from going in front of this screen, which is the way that you can get hurt by the UCLA cut. 


While this UCLA cut isn't going to lead to a quick score, the high post back pick still serves a purpose.  It forces the defender to work around a screen.  It won't be the last one he has to deal with.  Having to repeatedly work through a series of screens is a real pain for a defender.  This is part of what makes screening offenses such a bear to play against.  It is no fun having to fight through three or four screens in a row.

After setting the back pick, the high post man pops out to receive the pass.  The guard who has worked off of the back screen is now under the basket, which is shown in the photo below.  Texas fans will recognize this photo.  There were a lot of complaints last season when Matt Hill or some other non-threating Longhorn offensive player was standing twenty feet from the basket with the ball, while his defender was packing the lane.  This is sort of a necessary evil in running many of Sloan's sets, but it shouldn't present too much of a problem as long as everyone away from the ball keeps working. 

Now, the magic happens.  I have drawn yellow lines in the photo below to show where the weak side wing and weak side post players will go to set their staggered screen.  Success from this point on will require that all five players on the court read the play properly, and react to each other and the defense.  While this sounds hard, it doesn't really have to be, as we will see below.


In the photo below, we see the man under the basket starts to run through the staggered screen.  I have used red arrows to mark two players.  One of these players the defender who is guarding the player running through the screen.  If you look closely, you will notice that he is following the player through the screen.  This is the key that tells the player running off the screen what to do next.  If the man follows him through the screen as seen here, then he is going to curl, which we will see below.


I have also marked Mr. Kirilenko with a red arrow.  It looks like he is just standing around watching the play, but I don't think that is actually true.  I believe that he is also reading the action on the screen.  I believe (from watching the You Tube clips) that his read consists of staying on the wing if the defender follows the guard running through the screen, as we have in the photo above.  As we will see, he will actually be in perfect position as the curling guard works off of the staggered screen.  Further down in this post, I will show another read that he can make if the defense plays the screen differently.

There is one other point that I should make about the double screen.  In addition to picking the defender, the guys setting the screen have an additional job.  Once the offensive player clears their portion of the screen, the man screening needs to move.  This is really important.  It keeps the defense honest, making it more challenging for the other defenders to help the man being screened.  It also can create some nice scoring opportunities.  In this set, the Jazz have the wing picking on the low block cut across the key to the opposite block, and the high post screener rolling to the low block.

In the image below, the guard is coming off the curl and receives the ball on the move.  Let's examine the situation that the Jazz have created.  The man with the ball is about to enter the lane with his defender behind him.  He has a big guy rolling to the rim and a wing on the opposite side (Mr. Kirilenko) who will likely be wide open for a three point shot.  The defense is completely broken down.  Now, I want you to close your eyes and imagine that the man with the ball is Myck Kabongo, and the man on the wing spotting up from three is J'Covan Brown.  Doesn't that just make your day?


Here is  a link to the video, starting at the point where this whole play occurs.

Now let's take a look at the same staggered screen set to see what happens if the defense plays things a little bit differently.  To help reset, we find ourselves in the situation below, with the wing and high post players preparing to set the staggered screen, and Deron Williams and AK-47 preparing to read the play.


In the next photo, there is a lot to digest.  I have marked three players with red arrows.  One of them is Deron Williams, who is running through the screen.  A second is the man guarding Williams.  Note that he is not following Williams through the screen, but is instead working to fight over the top of it.  Williams is going to read this, and is not going to curl.  Instead, he will pop to the corner.  This time Kirilenko is not just standing around on the wing, but instead is moving in to set a screen for another player.  I believe (although cannot confirm) that this action of Kirilenko's is part of a read that he makes on how the staggered screen is defended.  If he sees the defender following Williams, then he will anticipate the curl and will stay outside to spot up from three.  If he instead sees what is happening here, then he moves in to set a pick.



In the photo below, you see what is happening next.  I have again marked Deron Williams and his defender with red arrows.  Notice where they are standing.  Deron Williams is alone, headed for the corner.  His defender is at the elbow fighting around screens.  Roughly twenty feet and one big dude now separate Deron Williams and the man guarding him.  Also notice on the opposite side of the court from all of this another player is running off of Kirilenko's screen.  He can also curl or pop to the wing or corner, and stands a pretty good chance of also getting open.


What is most amazing about this play, if you watch the video play out, is that the skip pass goes to Williams and his defender somehow manages to fight through the screen and close out.  Those NBA guys are really good, and anyone who says that they don't play defense in the NBA is not paying attention to stuff like this.  The play then continues on from here with a lot more interesting action that falls outside of the scope of this post.


If you watch the rest of the You Tube video, you will see another set where the Jazz use this staggered screen approach.  You will also see a few more interesting sets based on screening away from the ball.  In my view, there are thee things that make many of these sets work:

1.  Everyone on the court is reading a single defender.  We often think that the man being screened for is the only one reading the action off of screen.  Sometimes, the screener also has to make a read.  But in this set from the Jazz, even players away from the action seem to be reading the defender and responding accordingly.

2.  Everyone is moving a lot.  This keeps the defenders busy, so that they can't help the man who is fighting through the screen.  If you watch some of the action in some of the other sets in that video, much of the motion away from the ball seems almost pointless, but it exists to keep off-ball defenders occupied.

3.  Deron Williams.  No matter how you teach the offense, you need that guy who can beat his man and make a play for himself or someone else.  The screening action just makes it a little bit easier for him to do the things that he can do.