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Steve Kerr and the Warriors’ offense: Why don’t we see more pick & roll?

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Examining what Kerr has achieved and the argument for and against more pick and roll action.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Steve Kerr was given the head coaching position with the Golden State Warriors I was skeptical about the move.

The skepticism didn't last long, however, when Coach Kerr started his position by adding brilliant assistant coaches while putting an emphasis on ball and player movement, something that was distinctly lacking from Mark Jackson’s "offense" (if you could even call it an offense).

On top of that, the Warriors also improved defensively. Coach Kerr's motion offense, which also utilizes a ton of triangle sets, was beautiful to watch and the perceived "small ball" death lineup that rallied the Warriors to the championship in 2015 was a sight to behold.

The Warriors embraced playmaking bigs such as Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, utilising their passing ability to deadly effect. The ball zipped around the floor with precision (and with a little flash), burning defenders and dazzling fans. They let the three-pointers fly and defended with a level of fierceness that allowed them to dominate in transition.

There was no answer for the Warriors... until there was.

The same coaching ethos that endeared Coach Kerr to fans is now a source of disillusionment for some. It appears as if the rest of the league is catching up. While some mimic the Warriors’ offense, others have changed their approach defensively. The Red Auerbach quote above appears to sum it up perfectly. Despite some striking similarities to other teams, Coach Kerr’s offense was something "new" and now teams are finally adjusting.

While having Curry playing off the ball, running along the baseline on a double pin down has worked in the past and still does on occasion, defenses have adjusted. Instead of having Curry’s defender chasing him all over the court through a gauntlet of screens, some teams are now actively switching other defenders onto him as he crosses from one end of the baseline to the other.

Other teams? Well, they're just blatantly fouling him and for whatever reason Curry doesn't get those calls. Take this recent example of the Warriors game in Houston.

Being physical with Curry isn't a new trend that's just been discovered this year. It's the same style of defense the Cleveland Cavaliers and others have used in the playoffs where there is a greater leniency for physical defense. So what can the Warriors do to try and counteract this?

Coach Kerr may have been outmaneuvered by Coach Ty Lue at certain points during last year’s finals, but his failure to adjust has been noticeable throughout the past year. Combine that with the strange decision to play end-of-bench players in key minutes and Draymond Green’s outburst that lead to his suspension, and the Warriors shot themselves in the foot.

One adjustment Warriors fans (and players) have been hoping for is more pick and rolls with Curry as the ball handler. Curry himself addressed this earlier in the season:

"I definitely want to be in more pick-and-roll situations," Curry said at Golden State's practice facility when asked whether the ball is in his hand enough this season. "Whether I'm getting shots or whether we're manufacturing ball movement, that's a strength of ours, regardless of how teams play us." - Source

In theory, putting Curry in more pick and rolls (as the ball handler) makes a lot of sense. In the playoffs, defenders would be less likely to wrap their arms around him to prevent him from moving or grab his jersey to slow him down if he had the ball in his hands. Why? Because it's difficult for officials to not call those fouls when they're committed on the ball handler as opposed to an off ball player.

Curry is also an incredibly efficient scorer out of the pick and roll. Below is a table comparing Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s pick and roll statistics from last year and this year:

2016 season

2017 season

The concept of a Curry - Durant pick and roll had Warriors fans salivating. It should have been unstoppable. So why didn't we see it more often?

In defense of Coach Kerr, there are some issues with a Curry-Durant pick and roll and plenty of reasons to try and avoid leaning on it as the foundation of your offense.

  • The Curry-Durant pick and roll will usually end up with a longer wing player being switched onto Curry, which can be difficult for him to break down as opposed to having a slower big man switched onto him (which would occur in traditional pick and rolls with the PF/C).
  • Kevin Durant isn't very good at setting screens. Although he tends to read angles relatively well, he doesn't set his feet properly and often opts for a slip-screen, meaning he doesn't use his body as much. This hinders the space created for Curry and in general is only valuable for getting the defense to switch a smaller player onto Kevin Durant. One example of this can be seen in the clip below.

In this clip Durant sets a lackadaisical slip screen and the Toronto Raptors switch, putting Kyle Lowry - a much smaller player - onto Kevin Durant. This is good because it creates a significant mismatch; however, Durant inexplicably settles for a fadeaway mid-range shot. As great as he is in the post, this isn't exactly the desired outcome when he's matched up against someone so much smaller.

In comparison, Draymond Green sets excellent screens, sacrificing his body, setting his feet and reading the angles perfectly. Green is also a superior distributor which gives you even more options when using him as a roll man. The spacing also tends to be slightly better as it means you have three great shooters (Curry, Durant and Thompson) on the perimeter so the defense can't risk collapsing on Green and leaving one of those three open.

  • Curry is an elite off ball player. Not taking advantage of that seems foolish. His ability to shift gears, change speed, accelerate and stop on a dime to change direction is part of what makes him so incredible. It's also these movements that were missing in the finals last year when Curry was still feeling the effects of his knee injury. Take the video below for example, where Curry shakes Kawhi Leonard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
  • The Warriors’ offense is the best in the league (leading in offensive rating). If something isn't broken you don't try to fix it. Improvements are always welcome, but the Warriors already boast one of the greatest offenses in league history. It's better to gradually build on the offense as opposed to making sweeping changes.

For Warriors fans (and others) watching "Chef Curry" cook up a storm on the court is like basketball dopamine.

It makes sense we would want to see the ball in his hands more often not just because that's when the team seems to be at their best, but also because it's incredibly entertaining. However, we would be wise to remember that the Warriors’ team-first approach to the game is part of what attracts free agents to the team (including Kevin Durant), as well as being a significant part of the reason for their recent success.

As much as we want to see Curry flourish, the team comes first.

As the playoffs approach and the Warriors look to redeem themselves after last year’s catastrophe, fans will begin to feel the excitement... and the nerves.

It's unlikely Coach Kerr is going to make any significant changes; I highly doubt he's been waiting for the postseason to unleash a barrage of high screen pick and rolls and isolation plays. Then again, it's not uncommon for coaches to keep an ace up their sleeve for the post season. If the Warriors fail to win it all again this year then perhaps we have to revisit this discussion.

For now, however, only one thing matters: Coach Kerr is an elite coach.

Although some of his decisions have been frustrating and at times he occasionally seems reluctant to adapt, he is still one of the best coaches this team has ever had. He's also the perfect coach for this roster. Even if Curry as an individual could have reached this sort of level without Coach Kerr’s tutelage, it's unlikely that the Warriors as a whole would have.

In the end, this is much ado about nothing. The Warriors’ offense is magnificent and although I would personally like to see the ball in Curry's hands more, you can't argue with the results so far.

All statistics used in this article were taken from basketball-reference.com and stats.NBA.com and were accurate at the time of writing (April 1st 2017).