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Settling the Steph Curry vs. Jayson Tatum pick-and-roll debate

Did Tatum run more pick-and-roll? Was Tatum more effective and more influential in the pick-and-roll? Let’s find out.

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

NBA Twitter is an infamous no-man’s land of hot takes, memes, and eyebrow-raising comments. There are the honest-to-goodness analyses devoid of agendas; one would like that kind of content to be the norm rather than the exception, but the truth of the matter is that there’s still ways to go before that becomes reality.

Until then, you may find yourself chancing upon gems like this one:

Your initial reaction would probably range from amused bewilderment to outright disgust. Any one of those within that spectrum of emotions is justified — after all, we did all just witness what was arguably the greatest display of pick-and-roll mastery from Stephen Curry during the 2022 NBA Finals.

But my personal reaction to the video was more along the lines of curiosity. On its face, I didn’t agree with the argument presented above, but to make sure that personal biases and the fallibility of human memory don’t deceive me, I did some research — both of the numerical and visual kind — to see if indeed Jayson Tatum 1) “spammed” pick-and-roll during the playoffs, and 2) was a highly influential pick-and-roll operator.

To set the stage, it must be mentioned that both the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics weren’t far away from each other in terms of the amount of pick-and-rolls (including passes to the roll man or a third party) they ran during the playoffs: 29.0 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions for the Warriors, and 33.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions for the Celtics.

The Celtics may have had a slight edge in pick-and-roll possessions, but does that edge trickle down when comparing both teams’ primary stars to each other?

Curry vs. Tatum PnR Data

When comparing the amount of pick-and-rolls both stars ran, Curry has a clear edge in terms of pace-adjusted volume during the regular season (3 pick-and-rolls per 75 possessions more than Tatum) and the playoffs (nearly 4 pick-and-rolls per 75 possessions more than Tatum).

Curry also has a commanding advantage in pick-and-roll efficiency. Pick-and-rolls involving Curry during the regular season ranked in the 77th percentile (1.035 PPP), while those that involved Tatum was a more middling 56th percentile (0.966). In the playoffs, the gap was comically wider: 81st percentile (1.090 PPP) for Curry-led pick-and-rolls, and a disappointing 42nd percentile (0.925 PPP) for Tatum-led pick-and-rolls.

It should be said that Tatum is a gifted offensive player who has flashed the ability to score on all three levels. His combination of length and height gives him advantages that not a lot of players are blessed with. Combined with deft footwork, a smooth stroke, and an improved ability to map the floor and pass the rock, his offensive profile has risen to a level most people expected him to arrive at — and it’s not stopping its rise any time soon.

However, a demarcation line still exists between a star-level offensive player such as Tatum and an all-time-great offensive player in Curry. The difference is clearly seen in how both players approach the pick-and-roll, as well as how defenses respond to them.

Having more experience against every sort of coverage gives Curry a natural advantage, but more than just experience, Curry’s otherworldly shooting is a threat that presents a unique challenge for opponents (more in this piece).

Drop and choose to keep your entire defensive machinery from being stretched too thin? Curry will pull-up around the screen. Show any semblance of aggressive commitment around ball screens for Curry? A backline disadvantage is created, and the Warriors are better than anyone at making the most out of them. Switch a big man onto Curry and leave him alone on an island? Curry’s handle, shiftiness, and relative agility will make mincemeat of slower feet.

No matter what coverage you throw at him, Curry will find ways to put defenses in the torture chamber. No matter how often his tendencies have been scouted, he will make such scouting reports useless through his sheer brilliance. The aforementioned demarcation line is characterized by an ability to transcend scouting reports — a point Tatum has yet to reach.

For example: the report on Tatum includes his proclivity to drive all the way to the rim should defenses allow him to get to his right hand. Per Synergy:

Tatum Driving Right, Regular Season + Playoffs

Half of Tatum’s drives to his right during all of last season ended in rim attempts, while only a quarter ended in pull-up jumpers. For a team such as the Warriors who cross their t’s and dot their i’s in terms of opponent tendencies, this is one fact that definitely didn’t escape their attention.

Knowing that Tatum’s mindset when going right is rim-or-bust, the Warriors countered with fundamental defensive concepts (e.g., low-man help or “trapping the box”) with an inkling of unorthodox principles that are otherwise considered breaking the rules (e.g., momentarily helping off the strong-side corner).

Tatum rejects the screen and opts to drive right — right into the meat grinder, considering that Draymond Green is the strong-side corner defender and has no qualms with helping off of Marcus Smart, while Kevon Looney is the low man preparing to contest the drive with verticality and Andrew Wiggins stays close to Tatum’s hip.

As expected, the result: a missed Tatum point-blank shot.

The possession below — virtually identical save for one aspect — nets the same endpoint:

The difference above lies in Tatum embracing the mismatch onto Nemanja Bjelica instead of rejecting the screen. But as expected, Tatum’s preference for his right hand plays right into the Warriors’ hands: Klay Thompson as the helper off the strong-side corner, and Wiggins — freshly switched off of Tatum — acting as the paint helper.

Other times, Tatum was simply too erratic with his handle, while also being too reliant on intentional foul-baiting in lieu of taking the ball hard to the rim (and potentially getting calls that way). Compared to Curry’s turnover percentage in pick-and-roll possessions (8.7%), Tatum’s playoff turnover percentage while running pick-and-roll (15.0%) was simply unacceptable for a primary option.

A significant number of ball screens for Tatum were set with the purpose of hunting a mismatch that placed him in an advantageous position, while putting the Warriors defense in a tough spot. But switch hunting was often laborious and time consuming; too much clock was burned in an effort to get Tatum the matchup he wanted, and by the time he was able to isolate and start his move, the risk of being penalized for a shot clock violation increased — which forced Tatum into rushed shots.

Just look at how much time was left on the shot clock by the time the Celtics were able to get into their HORNS set in the possession below:

Around 10 seconds pass before the HORNS formation can be set. It takes another eight seconds to set a series of screens that gets Tatum a matchup with Thompson, who does a good job of cutting off Tatum’s attempt to drive to his right. With little time on the clock remaining, Tatum opts to pull up for a deep three that hits back iron.

It’s half-court possessions like the one above — too drawn out, too slow in development, and ultimately, too narrow in scope and imagination — that cratered the Celtics offense in the Finals. Whether that’s a function of scheme or Tatum’s own limitations as a decision maker varies — but in terms of being the absolute primary offensive option in ball-screen situations, Tatum has yet to fully mature.

On the other hand, Curry has long since matured, not only as a pick-and-roll operator, but as an overall offensive weapon. That’s understandable, considering where he is at this stage of his career compared to Tatum: a 34-year-old legend of the game who is climbing the all-time-great rankings and is arguably already a member of its highest echelon.

Tatum is 10 years younger, with a stratospheric rise that has garnered him three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a Finals berth in only five seasons. He has already made several leaps in his offensive game, with a repertoire that is increasing with each passing season — but suffice to say, his deadliness as a pick-and-roll operator still needs work in order to match or surpass Curry’s own potency.

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