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What the Warriors’ playoff offense tells us about the upcoming season

The playoffs are a different breed — so expect the upcoming regular season to be preparation for them.

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

If you watched the Golden State Warriors’ 2022 playoff run closely, there was a noticeable difference to their offensive approach.

We all know who they are as an offensive unit. The motion scheme compels them to move constantly. The death of their ethos occurs when both ball and personnel stand still, inviting stagnancy and making opponents’ jobs on defense much easier. But when they manage to get a rhythm going, nearly no one can stop them.

Most of that is because of Stephen Curry, who singlehandedly changes the approach of defenses and commands extensive game-planning from opponents. The Boston Celtics tried to zig when everyone else zagged; when the typical coverage for Curry around ball screens was to go up to the level of the screen at minimum and blitz at most, they opted for the conservative route by dropping and preventing their entire machinery from being put in rotation.

Of course, they experienced firsthand the danger of putting the on-ball defender on an island against ball-screen action for Curry:

With Steve Kerr calling for a high ball screen in a spread alignment (peep at the hand signal), Curry punishes Al Horford’s drop by initiating two-man action between himself and Otto Porter Jr. Derrick White is a supreme screen navigator, but even he can only do so much against a mini-barrage of screens, handoffs, and re-screens, especially with no one up to touch to help him.

Even the Dallas Mavericks fell prey to Curry ball screens:

Double drag screens (often referred to as “55” by most NBA teams) are a common sight in NBA circles, but its potency is multiplied a hundredfold whenever it’s Curry who’s handling the ball. Disciplined defenses take good care to either switch the action or blitz Curry around the second ball screen, but even they falter and make mistakes on occasion.

The playoffs truly are a different beast, requiring extensive game-planning and perhaps a bit of a shift away from one’s normal modus operandi. Scheme versatility on both ends is an important recipe for success, especially in terms of offensive schemes. Being nailed to one philosophy and dogmatically sticking to it — either due to coaching stubbornness, personnel limitations, or a combination of both — places a ceiling on one’s playoff capabilities.

A huge part of the Warriors’ success is their willingness to diversify their offense whenever the playoffs arrive. The 2022 playoffs was perhaps the ultimate manifestation of said diversification in the form of a more concerted effort to involve Curry (and Jordan Poole in second-unit lineups) in ball-screen action.

One such action — HORNS Twist — often targeted the weakest links. The Celtics don’t really have a bona-fide targetable defender on their roster, but the Warriors identified Grant Williams as having trouble keeping up with Curry on switches:

Ball-screen actions such as HORNS Twist constituted a larger part of the Warriors offense during the playoffs compared to the regular season, where they ranked dead last in terms of pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions (24.9). In fact, their 29 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions during the 2022 playoffs was the highest mark during the Kerr era.

Additionally, the change in pick-and-roll frequency from the 2021-2022 regular season to the 2022 playoffs (plus-4.1 per 100 possessions) was the largest regular-season-to-playoffs increase in Kerr’s entire eight-year tenure.

PnRs per 100 possessions, Steve Kerr era

In the grand scheme of things, the Warriors’ pick-and-roll frequency during the 2022 playoffs still ranked among the bottom tier of playoff teams (11th out of 16), but the increase symbolized Kerr’s diversification of his offense from a heavy motion-based scheme to one that incorporates more pick-and-roll.

It made tons of sense. Playoff opponents came in with the expectation of defending the constant movement and second-side actions; what better way to divert expectations than to use relatively simplified half-court sets — such as ball screens — to throw a wrench into opponents’ carefully crafted game plans?

When defenses became accustomed to defending ball screen after ball screen, Kerr then returned to his usual concoction of randomized movement, akin to a pitcher throwing an off-speed pitch after a continuous stream of fastballs. As opposed to the motion being the 100-mph fastball that it often was during the regular season, Kerr employed it as his curveball to make opponents bend the knee.

The action above was especially cruel and merciless toward the Celtics. What looks like your run-of-the-mill low-post split action for Curry is defended well — only for the ball to find its way to Gary Payton II, who initiates a handoff for Klay Thompson. Jaylen Brown is caught unawares for a split second, which is all the time Thompson needs to get off his shot.

The playoffs aren’t the appropriate environment for experimentation and mad-scientist tendencies — traits that Kerr is famous (or infamous) for. But he does have enough self-awareness at this point of his coaching career to reserve his experimental desires for the regular season, where fewer pick-and-rolls are run and more diverse half-court sets and after-time-out (ATO) plays are drawn up.

Kerr uses the regular season to see which lineup combinations work, which of his bench pieces are reliable, and which sets and schemes are transferable to the more unforgiving playoff environment. As competitive as he is, he won’t mind a few losses here and there to collect valuable data (at times, much to the chagrin of the fanbase).

As such, it’s a common sight to see him draw up creative sets that make full use of the personnel given to him. For example: Don’t be surprised to see Kerr draw up ATOs for his athletic lob threats; he adds to his playbook whenever he has a JaVale McGee or Payton II as chess pieces — both capable of catching lobs and finishing with aplomb above the rim.

James Wiseman would stand to benefit from the set above, as well as Jonathan Kuminga — both of whom are young athletic lob threats who, at this stage of their careers, require simplified roles (such as setting/ghosting a screen and diving to the rim, as exemplified above). If Wiseman and/or Kuminga prove themselves to be worthy of playoff rotation minutes, actions like the one above will go a long way toward making them effective rollers at minimum and generating pull as roll-gravity threats at most — a highly valuable trait to possess during the playoffs.

Another example of an out-of-the-box set that the Warriors may whip out during the regular season is “Hammer” action, derived from Kerr’s connection with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs:

Set creativity is a trait that Kerr likes to display during the regular season. Expect him to trot out ATOs and half-court sets you’ve never seen before, as well as some oldies but goodies — from as recent as last season, to as far back as eight years ago; every play Kerr has shown during his tenure as head coach is on the table.

In turn, expect the frequency of pick-and-rolls to dip once again, most likely in the mid-to-low 20s per 100 possessions, and ranking once again in the bottom half of the league. Kerr’s personal philosophy runs anathema to what most of the league opts to run; he likes to involve as many of his players as possible, to keep them engaged, alert, and empowered to play both ends of the floor.

Entering the Warriors’ first title defense since the 2018-19 season — with a bunch of new faces added to the “Foundational Six” that has become the dependable bedrock of the franchise — Kerr will definitely treat the regular season as a time for mixing and matching, for easing his young/new players into the system, and for his aging core to pick their spots and prevent overexertion.

All that matters is for them to finish the regular season respectably, well within the non-play-in contingent of the Western Conference. Once they manage to obtain a ticket to the playoffs, track record — which includes Kerr’s willingness to reduce the playbook to only what is necessary to succeed — states that their chances of winning another championship becomes exponentially high.

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