The Golden State Warriors offense isn’t what you would typically call a “scripted” offense.
While there are set plays and designated play calls that aim to initiate an offensive possession, get players to their correct spots, and serve as guides and “direction arrows” that prevent stagnation and confusion, such plays are by no means one dimensional.
Look at any other offensive set in the league — from as something as simple as a high pick-and-roll in a spread offense, or the bread-and-butter “HORNS” sets that have become perhaps the most common formation in the league — and they tend to have only one or two progressions.
Most teams don’t even make it past the first progression or option; once it has been shut down and denied, the possession often stagnates into an isolation contest, where a team’s best shot maker is counted on to self create.
The Warriors offense isn’t what you would consider limited in that sense. While elite and intelligent defenses have the capacity to bog it down through copious switching or aggressive forms of coverages such as hedging, blitzing, or trapping, even they sometimes can’t keep up with the Warriors’ ball movement, personnel movement, and various amounts of “plays within plays” that are nearly impossible to keep track of.
There’s a good reason the Warriors — after a dominant 118-103 win over the Portland Trail Blazers — are currently the second best offense in the league (113.4 offensive rating). Not only are their sets and progressions absolutely beautiful to watch; more importantly, they work brilliantly.
There is rhyme and reason to their sets and progressions. Rarely does any of it amount to useless running around or wasted movement. But perhaps the most important component of all: they have Stephen Curry’s presence as the keystone that makes the machinery run like clockwork.
The “modified” split action
Everyone is cognizant of what a typical, run-of-the-mill low-post split action looks like: an entry pass to the low post, followed by the passer setting a down-screen for a shooter that aims to generate an open three, especially against defenses with dropping bigs.
The “modified” version of this low-post split action adds the element of a screen for a dive cutter. Starting out with a wing hand-off, followed by a reversal to the weak-side wing, the ball is then fed to the low post. The two players involved in the initial handoff then initiate screening action: one sets the screen for the other to curl and dive inside.
If the dive cut isn’t open, the natural progression is the classic split-action maneuver: a down-screen for a shooter to get open for a three.
The difficulty in guarding this specific action comes mainly from the plethora of options that branch off from each other. The dive cut itself can generate a cut to the rim; if that isn’t open, the down-screen option is there, especially against a defense with a big in deep drop coverage.
If those two aren’t open, a third option opens up: the down-screener can slip the screen and dive to the rim for a dunk.
This set encapsulates all of the Warriors’ most efficient play types: it has an off-ball down-screen element, where the Warriors’ 1.18 points per possession on such plays is the league’s best; the dive cut option and the potential slip of the down-screen are examples of the Warriors’ 1.30 points per possession on cuts — 7th in the league, per Synergy.
“We had a good stretch at the end of the game or mid-fourth quarter when they pulled to within eight or whatever it was,” Steve Kerr said. “We had a good run the other night against Philly down the stretch of the game doing the same. It’s been a good action, obviously, it’s tough guarding Steph off of those splits and you just got to figure out ways to score when you’re struggling a little bit.”
The “HORNS” formation is a fairly common configuration in the NBA, widely used by a majority of teams, including the Warriors. It places two players at the elbows, two players stationed in each corner, and a ball handler up top.
This formation allows a wide variety of actions to be run — screening at the elbows, hand-off action, or even something as simple as double-sided high pick-and-rolls. With Curry on the floor, they use HORNS to run “Flex” action, which involves screening for someone in the corner — called a “Flex” screen — before running around a down-screen.
Just like the modified split action above, the beauty of this seemingly simple action comes from the options that branch off of each other. The down-screen for a shooter is there should the Flex screen fail to generate a clean cut underneath the rim.
But replace Jordan Poole with Andrew Wiggins as the man in the corner, and that cut to the rim becomes a plausible option.
(Listen to Kerr clearly call out the play: “FLEX! FLEX”, complete with a bicep flex.)
Peep at CJ McCollum struggle with the difficulty of keeping up with Wiggins’ flex cut above. McCollum navigates around Curry’s screen, and with no switch due to Curry’s man insisting on staying attached to him, McCollum’s split-second difficulty with screen navigation gives Wiggins space to score underneath.
“Iverson” cut into “Rip” screen
The Warriors unearthed a play they ran heavily for Kelly Oubre Jr last season, running it as an after-timeout play (ATO) during the third quarter against the Blazers.
Initiated by an “Iverson” cut — eponymously termed after Allen Iverson, who used such cuts frequently during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers — the ball is then fed to the elbow. Curry then sets a “Rip” screen (back screen) for the player on the opposite elbow — usually a lengthy lob threat — that creates an alley-oop opportunity.
This action banks heavily on Curry’s man sticking to him instead of switching onto the cutting lob threat. Defenders usually come in with a stick-to-Curry-at-all-times mindset on off-ball screens — those that are set for Curry, and those that are set by Curry.
As a result, no one is left to pick up the cutter off the back screen, and a perfectly placed lob by Draymond Green finds its mark.
The sets above are all playing a part in weaving an exquisite offensive tapestry, one that is painting the picture of a Warriors team that is currently the second most efficient in the league. But the one who is weaving it all together to form a cohesive image has been Curry.
Curry’s pull and willingness to set screens have made most of these sets possible, and the example he sets is trickling down to his teammates, who are encouraged by their leader’s dedication and willingness to become a cog — albeit, the most important one — in a well-oiled machine.
The Warriors’ offense is humming, and their play calling has arguably been at its best since the dynasty years.