Saturday afternoon, the Texas Longhorns were in a real pickle. With both Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix missing the game with concussions, Rick Barnes was without his two best perimeter shooters, and two of his most aggressive offensive players.
And yet, the Texas offense was rather effective on Saturday, finishing the game scoring 1.09 points per possession. Rick Barnes did this by dumping a lot of his offensive sets that function with three big men on the floor, and instead pulled out an old offense designed to work with three perimeter players, the "Blocker-Mover."
First, I need to make a disclaimer. I can't be exactly certain that the Longhorns were running the Blocker-Mover offense; it could have instead been a collection of one or more set plays that look nearly identical. But the actions, screens, and movements looked so much like this offense that it is hard to avoid this conclusion. But perhaps Texas is doing something entirely different that just looks exactly like the Blocker-Mover.
Like so many good things in life (examples include fried cheese curds and the Violent Femmes), the Blocker-Mover originally comes from Wisconsin. Dick Bennett developed the offense when he coached at Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the offense lives on today with his son Tony's Virginia Cavaliers.
The Blocker-Mover is a simple motion offense. Players are assigned into two groups: blockers and movers.
Blockers are usually big guys, and are typically required to stay in specific areas of the court. Usually, there are two blockers, although you could certainly construct a version of this offense with a different number. Frequently, each blocker gets one side of the floor, and they hang out at the edge of the lane. A blocker's job is to set screens for the movers as they pass through their area, and then to look for chances to seal a defender and post up, or roll to the rim.
Movers are usually the perimeter players. Movers follow a different set of rules, which primarily require that they keep the floor balanced and stay out the way of the other movers. It is the job of the movers to decide where to go, and they spend most of their time working off of screens and reading the defense.
It seems really simple, but that is kind of the point. By being simple, it allows a team like Virginia to focus on learning to read screens properly, rather than learning a bunch of plays. And because it is basically a free-lance approach to basketball, it is hard to scout. The movers just run around the floor (frequently it looks like they are just running in a circle) until a player can use a screen to create an advantage over the defense. And then they either shoot or attack.
How Texas implemented this offense
While the Longhorns did not run this action as their exclusive man-to-man offense on Saturday (Barnes also spread the floor some for Isaiah Taylor), they ran it quite a lot. Kansas State eventually switched to a zone defense (something that Bruce Weber almost never does) to take Texas out of this attack.
I have selected the sequence below because I think it does a nice job of illustrating Rick Barnes' implementation of the Blocker-Mover. Below we will trace through a single possession to show you this offense in action. In this sequence, the two blockers are Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert. The three other players on the floor are movers.
With any motion offense, the first action is always something that is designed to get you into the offense. For Texas on Saturday, this was frequently a dribble handoff. In the image below, Isaiah Taylor has the ball, and is preparing to hand off to Jordan Barnett. Demarcus Holland is on the opposite end of the floor, and is preparing to cut out to the point to receive the reversing pass.
In the next image, Holland is receiving a pass from Barnett. Taylor is preparing to work across the lane through a series of screens. The first screener is Ibeh, who will set a screen for Taylor before sliding up the side of the key to set a screen for Barnett. This is the basic action of the blockers, who slide up and down the side of the lane looking to set screens. Lammert is on the opposite side of the lane, also preparing to screen for Taylor.
In the next image, I have advanced a few frames. Holland still has the ball. Taylor is now preparing to work through a screen being set by Lammert, while Ibeh is setting a "drift" screen (so named because the player receiving the screen drifts away from the ball). We could take a snapshot that looks like this from a significant fraction of Virginia offensive possessions this season.
The next image in the sequence shows us the action a few frames later. Taylor is coming off of a screen, and his defender is chasing him through that screen. Taylor's response to curl off of the screen, which is generally the right move when a defender chases the offensive player through the screen. Connor Lammert's defender is preparing to help absorb the curl, and Lammert will read this and react by making himself available rolling to the hoop.
Advancing a few frames more, and we see Taylor has curled into the paint, while Lammert is now opening up and preparing to roll to the rim. Taylor and Lammert have the defense beat. If Holland just throws the ball inside to Taylor, it is very likely something good will happen for Texas. Either Taylor will get a shot very close to the rim, draw a foul, or drop the ball off to Lammert or Barnett (who is also in a good spot) for an easy dunk. Alas, Holland does not appear to be ready to make this pass, and the opportunity will be missed.
With the threat no longer developing, the movers just have to keep moving. Both Taylor and Barnett reverse the direction of their cuts, and a few seconds later Holland and Barnett do another dribble exchange. As this happens, Taylor prepares to flash to the point.
After Taylor receives the ball, Holland has continued across the lane, balancing out the floor. Holland cuts off of Lammert's screen, but doesn't get free of his defender.
One of the actions that we saw happen repeatedly on Saturday was that Texas would frequently break out of the Blocker-Mover action and ball screen. This happened most often when Taylor got the ball, as the Texas blockers were allowed to ball screen for the Texas point guard whenever it made sense.
In the image below, after Holland has cleared Lammert's screen, Lammert is now preparing to sprint out and set a ball screen for Taylor. This ball screen ends up being highly effective for several reasons: it is well set and Taylor uses it well, Lammert sprints out to set the screen making it difficult for his defender to disrupt it, Texas will mostly space the floor well, and the basic movement of the Texas offense prior to setting the screen has further weakened Kansas State's pick and roll defense.
In the next photo, we reach the point where Lammert is setting the ball screen. There is a lot to like about this photo. Lammert is setting a good screen with the proper angle, forcing Taylor's defender to go over the screen. Lammert's defender is in no man's land, having to go from helping to defend Lammert's screen on Holland to chasing Lammert out from the baseline. Ibeh and Holland are spaced perfectly, with Holland in the near-side corner, and Ibeh along the baseline. While Ibeh's positioning seems strange, almost standing behind the backboard, watch any NBA game (or Iowa State for that matter) and you will frequently see the non-screening big man in this location. It puts his defender in a difficult spot. Should his defender step up to help on dribble penetration, Ibeh can slip in behind him for a dunk or an offensive rebound. On the opposite wing Barnett is a little bit too high -- he should be along the baseline as well -- but it doesn't end up hurting Texas.
Finally, the payoff comes in the final photo. After dribbling towards the paint and drawing two defenders, Taylor finds Lammert who has popped back to shoot a three. Lammert hit this shot, which gave Texas a four point lead.
Texas ran this Blocker-Mover action throughout Saturday's game. This action is particularly useful while Holmes is unavailable, as it allows less offensively-oriented players like Holland, Barnett, and Kendal Yancy to threaten the defense by moving without the ball.
It is the simplicity of this approach that I find so appealing. By giving players simple rules to follow, rather than highly specific actions, it frees them up to just play. But this simple approach doesn't sacrifice good offensive principles like floor spacing, ball movement, and moving without the basketball -- in fact, it encourages them.
Simplicity is important in basketball. You really don't want players just running plays -- you want them attacking. A well constructed set puts a player in a position to do something, but it won't break down the defense and put the ball in the hole by itself. Plays don't score, players do, and simple sets that keep the floor spaced and everyone moving create the best chances to score.