The Utah Jazz aren’t the first team to employ a box-and-one against Stephen Curry — and they certainly won’t be the last.
Ever since the Toronto Raptors unleashed the so-called “junk” defense during Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Curry has seen a monumental uptick of teams assigning a sole defender to guard him wherever he goes, while the other four defenders zone up in a “box” — adhering to the principle of denying Curry from touching the ball and letting his teammates beat them.
It largely worked in 2019 because of the lineup configuration around Curry. Without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson — both sidelined with injuries at the time — the Raptors were perfectly content with the likes of Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, DeMarcus Cousins, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala trying to create their own offense.
With Curry in spacing hell, a box-and-one’s potency is magnified to the extreme. Such a radical defensive concept is made viable because teams can afford to sell out on Curry, whose gravity is rendered useless when his teammates can do nothing but float and wander aimlessly.
Which brings us to the present day, where teams are still empowered to run a box-and-one against Curry, despite having teammates around him who can punish it.
There comes a time when an out-of-the-box concept spends too much time being out of the box. Even the Warriors — who have employed a box-and-one themselves on several occasions this season — aren’t too indulgent when it comes to using it, due to its context-dependent nature.
A box-and-one just doesn’t work as well when it is thrown out against spacing, playmaking, and positional awareness — three traits that Otto Porter Jr. happens to possess.
A defense denying Curry from even sniffing the ball has its perks, but it can be used against a them, as shown above. Curry spaces out toward the weak-side corner to eliminate his defender from equation, clearing a cutting lane for Andrew Wiggins. Porter himself is drawing attention, with three defenders staring at his direction. This is a luxury Curry simply did not have in the past.
When Curry does get his hands on the ball when being guarded in a box-and-one, it becomes even less effective with the appropriate personnel surrounding him. Denying Curry possession or forcing him to pass the ball can be schemed against, both through proper lineup combinations and specific play calls.
Steve Kerr counters a virtual zone by throwing out his best zone-busting lineup: Curry, Jordan Poole, Porter, Gary Payton II, and Nemanja Bjelica. A plethora of shooting is the classical method of rendering a zone ineffective; having a 6’8” wing who not only can pass and set screens but also shoot the lights out relieves a monumental amount of pressure off of Curry, as evidenced by the “ghost” screen Porter sets in the possession above, after which he flares toward the wing and drills an open three.
The second method of busting a zone — more subtle but equally effective — is by playing through a man who places himself in the middle of the zone. Establishing middle position places zoning defenders in an untenable position, and it allows the middle man to pick at weak points in the zone: dunker spot roamers, cutters, or perimeter shooters.
Porter practically strolls into middle ground on the possessions above, allowing him to pass to Payton, who is spaced out on the corner, with Donovan Mitchell being the sole zoner on the weak side. Porter’s ability to recognize and make a decision on these possessions has been crucial — arguably his most underrated and understated skill.
Porter has done wonders for the Warriors as their standout role-player acquisition. While his value doesn’t replicate Draymond Green’s — no one in today’s league can, to be fair to Porter — he can act as a serviceable doppelganger, with the added benefit of him also being able to drill a timely outside shot with unlimited audacity and confidence.
But Porter is also aware of who butters the bread. Being able to co-exist on the floor with Curry entails being aware and cognizant of where Curry is at all times, with the mindset of seeking him on his off-ball relocations and routes around down screens. Porter certainly fits that bill.
Porter’s 638 minutes on the floor this season has seen the Warriors outscore opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, with an offense and defense that approximates their fourth-ranked and first-ranked efficiencies, respectively. His confidence and poise during high stakes moments belies his status as a role player — to the point that he has taken it upon himself to create shots off the dribble.
With years of having personnel that didn’t fit Kerr’s demanding motion offense — as well as being unable to complement and boost the talents of a generational force — Porter’s arrival on the scene is a much-needed breath of fresh air. The depth of this Warriors team guarantees that his presence (or non-presence) won’t make or break their chances of going all the way — but him playing and wearing many hats on both ends of the floor as a utility man will most certainly boost them.