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2014-15 Warriors season review: Appreciating Shaun Livingston's value on offense

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GSOM has had this weird, ongoing, and sometimes extremely contentious dialogue about Shaun Livingston that started out wondering whether he could be a Klay Thompson replacement when he was signed, went downright negative, started to trend optimistic, became irrelevant in its redundancy, and then jubilant once Livingston found a place and really began to thrive in the postseason. And the major point of contention was Livingston's effect on spacing, which is a point that has become a bit exaggerated when you actually watch the game film.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I think we all know about Shaun Livingston's defensive value: he was key to the Warriors' ability to go small in the playoffs and win with that aggressively switching scheme.

Yet for whatever reason, as much as folks around here didn't much know what to make about Livingston offensively, the Warriors coaching staff seemed to take a while to fully integrate him into the offense as well.

Ronaldinho alluded to that point about Livingston's role in March and it was meaty enough that I'm going to quote him at length as a way to frame this review of Livingston's game.

Most of the plays I've noticed lately when that post-up happens and Shaun settled for a mediocre midrange jump-shot happen when the cutters do a lousy job, either going late (there are clearly timing issues the play) when he's already turned back and committed to his shot, or don't go at all, or just sort of clump up and don't get through cleanly.

That being said, for that play to work well, you need a jump shooter on Livingston's side of the court, a good pick-setter in the middle, and somebody running a good-hard cut. Speights can work as the same-side shooter if the post-up is deep enough, but somebody with three-point range is preferable. But you really see what Shaun does well when the play is run well: he gets guys the ball in their sweet spot, whereas when Lee or Green is going it the pass tends to be a little more forced and sloppy.

In the last couple of games, we've started to see more interesting wrinkles. e.g., Horns with Curry as one of the high post men, and Livingston as the initial ball-handler, used to get the ball to Curry in interesting ways. This kind of play is the advantage Livingston has over many of the other PGs mentioned (because you can play him more with Curry) but we're only just starting to see it in action.

I really thought Ronaldinho was on to something at that point in the season so I wanted to follow up on it this offseason with two questions: 1) When did Livingston actually succeed? and 2) why was he more successful then? I think the answers to those questions were pretty interesting and, at the very least, open up a little more room for optimism about this coming season than we might otherwise have.

Livingston stepped up in March

Interestingly enough, Ronaldinho's comment was quite timely: according to Basketball-Reference, Livingston's best +/- of the season occurred in March when he was +12.5 in 17 games. He recorded season-highs in minutes (23.3 per game) and usage rate (18%) in addition to associated increases in points (7.8 per game) and assists (4.6 per game). He recorded his highest assist percentage of the season (29.4%), beginning to realize some of that potential as a playmaker that made him an attractive pairing with Steph Curry to begin with.

And that latter point is what made March particularly interesting: Livingston logged 116 of the 289 total minutes he played with Curry last season during March, which amounted to 40.13% of their minutes together in 17 games. He played 64 of the 163 minutes he played with Curry and Iguodala in that month, which has some rather dubious significance on its own — despite being a very small sample size, it was the top three man unit of any lineup that played more than 150 minutes during the season at +27.7, closely followed by the Livingston-Curry-Harrison Barnes unit that was +27.6 in 120 minutes (which also recorded 40% of its minutes in March).

A brief trip to Small Sample Size Theater

So what makes that lineup data, even at small sample sizes, interesting? Livingston played more minutes with Andre Iguodala (1019) than any Warriors teammate last season. For the season as a whole, that pairing was just -6.6 over 73 games and many people might assume that the reasons for that are obvious: pairing two wings who aren't known for their shooting range together would just shrink the floor, conventional wisdom might suggest. And that might be why six of the eight four-man units that Livingston played with most last year — all with Iguodala on the floor, of course — rated at 0 or below.

Player 1

Player 2

Player 3

Player 4

Mins

+/-

Livingston

Iguodala

Barbosa

Speights

205

9.4

Livingston

Iguodala

Barnes

Speights

193

0

Livingston

Iguodala

Barbosa

Barnes

180

-10.1

Livingston

Iguodala

Thompson

Green

179

14.6

Livingston

Iguodala

Lee

Barbosa

143

-0.3

Livingston

Iguodala

Lee

Speights

140

-8.6

Livingston

Iguodala

Thompson

Speights

137

-4.6

Livingston

Iguodala

Thompson

Barnes

133

-6.5

Livingston

Iguodala

Green

Curry

89

26.5

Livingston

Iguodala

Barnes

Green

64

44.3

The 10 most used four-man units including Shaun Livingston for the 2014-15 season (via NBA.com/stats).

Nevertheless, that concern about Iguodala's shooting next to Livingston would be overblown: Iguodala was more of an "inconsistent" than "bad" 3-point shooter last season, making 37.5% of his 3-point attempts in March and 34.9% for the season overall. And with Iguodala hitting shots in March and Livingston more aggressive overall — as a passer and scorer — suddenly their +/- as a pairing shot up to +13.5 in March. Throw in more minutes with Curry — who shot a scorching hot 51.7% from the 3-point line in March — and suddenly it's easier to see why Livingston might have done a little bit better in March: he not only played more, but he played more with players he could pass to for open shots.

So Livingston should play more with Curry maybe?

At this point, I'd forgive you if you dismissed any further analysis as nothing more than stating the obvious: of course Livingston was better with Curry because everybody (and they mama) was better with the MVP on the floor. But there is actually more to it and it starts with Ronaldinho's observation about how Livingston was used.

How was Livingston used in March?

Once again, Ronaldinho framed what happened in March so well that I'm going to quote a comment of his at length from that same thread:

I actually see two main problems, in terms of actual plays I'm watching:

The first is the absence of players with the ability to create motion towards the basket. The offense gets stagnant when all the passing is around the perimeter. Livingston (and Green and Lee) post-ups are a way to solve this problem. You use the post-up to get the ball low, and then pass to cutters who are moving towards the basket.

The second is that too often guys stand around when he's posting up, or mistime their cuts. Whereas Green, when he posts up, is looking for the pass right away, Livingston has a rhythm to his post-up, where he pulls the defender out of position, then looks for the pass, then looks for the shot ... and the rest of the team isn't totally on board with that yet.

I do think adding a jump shot would help, particularly on his drives: the threat of the J can make it easier to drive past someone. On his patented drive-and-dish-to-Speights play, smarter teams (e.g. the Spurs) do a good job falling back and cutting him of without giving up the pass, and I think a better jump shot would help that.

But just form a pure spacing point of view, I have to be honest: I've been looking for plays where the problem was that Livingston's man didn't respect him on the perimeter when he's off ball, and I'm largely not seeing it. I'm certainly not seeing it anywhere as much as I'm seeing sloppy or late cuts when he's in the post...

Ronaldinho was spot on here. And while there's not much missing between these two excerpts, I do want to elaborate on the bolded portions based on what I saw when looking back at the film: Livingston created a matchup problem for some teams that they just absolutely could not figure out.

To reframe what Ronaldinho said a tiny bit, it's not only that Livingston's defender respected him when he was off the ball, but also that they hounded him with the ball, often tried to force him into giving up the ball early, actively jammed him when he started to cut, and even face guarded him as he did cut to the basket. The reason: for the most part, opposing defenses were doing everything they could to avoid having to deal with Livingston in the post. And you can see how much they respect his post game from just looking at a few stills from to illustrate the point (read the captions describing each).

For all the talk that Livingston wasn't a scoring threat, opponents sure did treat him like one — the spacing issues didn't manifest the way people assumed once the Warriors figured out how to use him more effectively. And part of the reason is that Livingston is not only dangerous in the post but also off the cut, which causes a dilemma for defenders.

Setting up Livingston for success with the Flex Post-Up

Livingston ranked in the 76th percentile in the league in scoring efficiency off the cut and you see teams playing him to deny those plays. Once he beats a defender and gets into the middle of the paint he can create high-percentage scoring opportunities for both himself and others.

But the post is where he's particularly interesting: the second the Warriors run a set to isolate him, they create a problem either off the drive if the defender closes hard or the post up if the defender is too small to prevent him from setting up in his comfort zone. When defenders experience moments of indecision, Livingston has the court vision to make them pay.

And the perfect set to exploit that dynamic was the flex post-up set that isolates Livingston with his man on the block: he initiates the action with a strong side handoff and comes around to post weakside while setting up cutters to the basket and a shooter (most effectively, Marreese Speights) in the high post.

It's in that set that you begin to see why Livingston was so much better with Curry on the floor: if you have him in the post with two shooters around him, opposing defenses really struggle to make decisions and he's left with lots of room to operate. To Ronaldinho's point about coordinating that better, the key was that the Warriors began setting a screen to get that "outlet shooter", so to speak, an open look.

The way the Utah Jazz defended Livingston on March 21st provides an extreme example of what all that looks like.

How defenses react to Shaun Livingston

You'll notice the entire strong side collapsed to help Eiljah Millsap defend Livingston's post-up in the play above, especially Rudy Gobert (#27) who is justifiably playing off of Festus Ezeli in the high post. But watch what happens when Ezeli sets a screen on Trey Burke to free up Leandro Barbosa.

Utah Jazz defending Livingston

Gobert (and even Rodney Hood) were so far out of position to help once Burke got the screen that Barbosa was able to step into a three in rhythm after Livingston was able to thread the needle through Jazz defenders to get the pass there. This is where Livingston thrives and adds a type of versatility that few other players can replicate.

Why Livingston's versatility can overcome his poor shooting

Livingston actually shot really poorly in March and there were a number of reasons for that. As suggested by the stat that he gets less effective when he dribbles more — an unfortunate footnote for a point guard — he takes a lot of his off-balance shots when he tries to create off the dribble. When he steps into his shot and squares up he's fine, but far too often his fading off the dribble caused problems. And as Ronaldinho already observed, when they don't give him a quick and efficient option out of that post situation he's put in a position where he has to create.

And his March shot chart reveals and even stranger problem: he was taking way too many shots from a spot he was woefully inefficient from.

Livingston March 2015 shot chart

Shaun Livingston's shot chart for games during March 2015.

The majority of those shots right in the middle of that shot chart came in situations where he got surrounded by defenders and settled for that midrange jumper way too quickly...and that was bizarrely where the majority of his shots were coming from. In essence, he was being given that shot and taking it with poor results.

But these are all fairly correctable problems rather than tragic flaws: the simple fix is for him to stop taking those shots he's bad at. The problem is that he typically doesn't like to probe the middle of the floor much so he sort of plays with the ball in space when he gets stuck instead. However, if he could show the same restraint in those situations as he does by not shooting threes, he could be a far more efficient, if lower usage, player.

Nevertheless, despite his below average shooting in March, he was able to remain effective due to the lineups he played with, his ability to set up others, and of course his defense. The idea that he hurt spacing? Well, if you run plays where you keep him moving, keep the defense off-balance, and force the defense to react to his strengths instead of exploit his weaknesses, suddenly spacing isn't a problem at all — by adding a post threat, he provides a curve ball that actually helps get others shots. And sometimes, having a range of options is better than just single-mindedly, and thus predictably, hunting down the best shot statistically, as nicely described by Kelly Scaletta of Vantage Sports.

At its best, basketball really is more art than algorithm — you have to have some sort of creativity to be successful.

As such, the subtle value of Livingston offensively is his ability to flat out confuse defenses because they just don't know what to do with a guard who's operating from the post. What I'm eager to see this year is how the Warriors are able to continue building on what he did well: are there specific lineups he should be playing with so that he can truly be effective without Curry being on the floor? Can the coaching staff come up with more sets that so beautifully maximize Livingston's strengths as a post-up guard? Does he really need to be playing with Andre Iguodala so often? And how much better could the Warriors become with a fully-integrated Shaun Livingston?

For more season reviews, check out our 2014-15 season reviews section.

Poll

How would you grade Shaun Livingston's 2014-15 season?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    A
    (86 votes)
  • 60%
    B
    (170 votes)
  • 8%
    C
    (23 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Inc.
    (0 votes)
279 votes total Vote Now