For more than 25% of NBA teams, the first offensive set of the game looks to be predictable.
Eight teams are running very similar sets to get a particular player the opening shot >40% of the time.
It’s no secret that coaches like to run a particular set to start each game. The last huddle before teams go out for the jump ball, a coach can designate and control how their teams start the game in terms of running the offense.
Looking outside of these eight teams, there are trends with superstar players purposely not taking the first shot of the game. Likely in an attempt to get their teammates confidence up with an early touch.
What does this mean for opposing teams? Scouting the first play should be easy and teams should have their defense ready to counter it. It’s a nice way for the defense to set the tone of the game with a comprehensive stop, sending a message to the opposing team that you have scouted them and are focused.
So let’s take a look at the numbers for the season thus far. The below looks at the percentage of times a player takes the first shot of the game for their team.
Eg. Dirk Nowitzki is leading the league by shooting the first shot 60% of the time in games where he has suited up.
The first chart looks at the breakdown by team:
The second chart is the leader board by player:
The final chart looks at the average shot distance taken by a player. This allows us to analyze if shots are being taken in the paint, mid-range or from long-range:
A few observations:
Let’s now have a look at a few teams and what they are running to get the same player a shot over and over again to start the game.
Brook Lopez at Brooklyn: The Nets go-to play for Lopez is one where he will start on the left side of the court, typically around short corner. Lopez will receive a down screen which he uses to curl towards the middle of the key to receive the ball and can operate with his right hand at the hoop.
To guard the Lopez sets, the defender on Lopez needs to not fight over the screen but should be in a position where they are not getting pinned down. Positioning themselves higher, so they can meet Lopez when he curls around the screen and then get a hand in the passing lane.
Marc Gasol at Memphis: The Grizzlies send Gasol to the right hand block, where he will set a back pick for the wing on the perimeter (it’s really just a token screen). Gasol then receives a cross screen from the opposite post, which allows him to cross the key and get a catch on the left side low block. He’s looking for a mid-range jumper if you give him space.
The Grizzlies are sending their 3 man to set the cross screen on Gasol. One option would be to switch on the screen and heavily front the post. The other option being, the big man guarding Gasol must be aware that the cross screen is coming and beating Gasol to the opposite post and fronting it.
Kevin Love at Cleveland: Probably the prettiest offensive set I have seen so far. The Cavs will set two back picks on the weak side for Kevin Love to get a catch under the hoop for an easy dunk. Love times his cuts really well and makes great use of the screeners.
Getting through two back picks is tough on a defender, there really needs to be a switch made here by the defense. The defender who is guarding the 2nd of the back picks needs to switch onto Love and beat him to the ring and deny the pass.
The other set the Cavs like to run for Love is very similar to what Memphis runs for Marc Gasol. They start by setting 2 down screens to get Lebron James the ball on the wing. The Cavs 2 or 3 man will then set the cross screen on Kevin Love to get him a touch on the low block.
As per the defense on Marc Gasol, a switch could be made on the cross screen with the defense heavily fronting the post. The alternative being, Kevin Love's defender needs to beat him to the low post on the cross screen and not get caught up.
I hope what this article shows is that a number of NBA teams can be quite predicable with their opening set. Teams should be able to scout and get a defensive stop with the first play of the game and set a good tone to start the game.
Thanks @nbastuffer for providing the play by play data. https://www.bigdataball.com/