The humble on-ball screen has been around since the beginning of basketball. For decades the formula has been simple, send one of your team's big guys to set an on-ball screen for your guard and that in itself will create a heap of options offensively. Whether it be allowing the guard to drive to the basket, the big guy to roll to the basket or the big popping to the perimeter to shoot a 3 to name a few.
It’s basketball 101 for generating an opportunity at the offensive end. Coaches and their defenses have been scheming to stop the traditional on-ball screen for just as long as offenses have been trying to take advantage of it.
But there is a twist starting to creep into the NBA game and an advantage to be had on an unprepared defense, which is....
Sending a guard (smaller/perimeter player) to set the on-ball screen, a “guard to guard on-ball screen”. Specifically, looking at the option of finding the screener (the guard) who rolls or pops to open space for a wide open 3, jump shot or drive to the basket.
When executed correctly the numbers from this past NBA season are proving that defenses aren’t ready for this and it can be more efficient than sending your traditional big guys to set the on-ball screen then looking for the big coming out of that action.
Let’s take a look at this past season's data where a guard set an on-ball screen and received the ball coming out of the screen....
And how do the guards stack up against bigs who set on-ball screens and receive the ball…?
What are the numbers above saying?
Firstly from a usage perspective, only 10 guards in the whole league set an on-ball screen last season and received the ball coming out of the screen. This is a super low number, compare this with 173 bigs who were put in the same scenario.
We aren’t talking about a heap of data but it’s showing a trend that guards can be far more efficient in this situation than your average NBA big man.
Exactly half of those 10 guards are well above the league average for points per possession coming out of the on-ball screen with Kyle Lowry and Patrick Beverley surprisingly having numbers that put them in the top 10% of the league in terms of scoring and well above some of elite big men in the game.
How are Kyle Lowry and Patrick Beverley leading the way here? My initial thoughts are the body sizes of the pair, these are two of the most physical and aggressive guards in the league who can really man-handle opposition guards with an on-ball screen and creating space.
Lowry and Beverley’s numbers in these scenarios compared to the bigs on their own teams are impressive and shows that they should be involved in setting the on-ball screen more often:
The numbers from the first table also show another advantage. The turnover frequency is lower when a guard sets the on-ball screen, 5.5% of possessions are turnovers with a guard vs 7.9% with a big man setting the screen.
One of the biggest gains and what will move coaches to using guards in screens going forward, is the ability to get a wide open 3 point shot for the guard who screens and then “pops” to the 3 point line.
Looking at the eFG% (Effective field goal percentage) which is a statistic that gives more weight to 3’s made, you can see that half of the guards who are setting these screens have an eFG% of 50% or higher which tells us that guards are making a lot of 3’s in this scenario and what coach wouldn’t want a possession where his guard is shooting a 50%+ shot?
A heavy 3 point shooting team like the Golden State Warriors would love this right?
Well I would have expected Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to have been involved more in this scenario during the regular season, but when the Warriors perform their many hand-offs in offense between guards it can very much act like an on-ball screen.
But the Warriors did up the ante considerably in the playoffs with Klay Thompson setting the screen and in particular against Cleveland in the finals. They, however weren’t the only team to try the guard to guard on-ball screen more in the playoffs……
Again the numbers aren’t huge but we can see that we have gone from 10 guards being put in this scenario in the regular season to 26 guards in the playoffs.
Klay Thompson set 22 on-ball screens in the playoffs compared to 14 times for the entire regular season. A huge strategic change by Golden State.
Let’s have a look at Klay Thompson in action where he sets the screen for Stephen Curry.....
It will be interesting to see if Golden State and other NBA teams use this more next season, especially with some of the guard and perimeter heavy lineups that Golden State in particular will be able to put out on the court.
The league is moving to position-less basketball where each player is asked and expected to have a range of guard and big man like skills, so it makes you wonder why have teams stuck to the archaic tradition of the biggest guys on the court only setting an on-ball screen?
Think about a team’s traditional practice time, time is always invested in teaching the big guys how to defend on-ball screens and it’s where they build a defensive chemistry with the guard. A guard to guard on-ball scenario would have almost zero time invested by coaches and players in practice, and you can see in the Klay Thompson video how much confusion and lack of communication the defending guards have.
Defenses clearly aren’t ready for this type of scenario and the efficiency in which guards are scoring in limited opportunities paired with a low turnover rate shows that there is a strategic advantage to be had. NBA teams should be moving towards this trend next season to get an advantage over unprepared defense.