It’s understandable that whatever happens in the European basketball world largely remains a mystery to American audiences. Start times often don’t coincide with ideal viewing times; those that do want to watch try to find which channel is airing them, and are left with less-than-legal means (*cough*streams*cough) of watching them.
An even more plausible explanation is that the American audience simply doesn’t care about basketball beyond their shores. Even the allure of watching non-American NBA superstars — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, and Nikola Jokić, to name the three biggest names — competing for flag and country isn’t enough to pull them in.
But for hardcore basketball junkies such as myself, it’s almost imperative that I get to watch the European basketball scene — especially during this current period chock full of games from the FIBA World Cup qualifiers and Europe’s continental basketball championship, EuroBasket.
The marquee matchups have lived up to the hype so far, but tuning in to relatively mundane and less-competitive bouts can result in “eureka” moments and wonderful realizations — some of which speak more to the basketball nerds’ sensibilities. Take this particular half-court possession during Serbia vs. The Netherlands, for example:
The open corner three doesn’t go in, but the entire offensive process was good — in fact, more than good. It was absolutely exquisite.
Nothing more appropriately describes the possession above than it being a work of moving art. The ball spends less than a second in each player’s hands; it whips back and forth like a ricocheting pinball, while personnel move around in synchronous fashion. After the ball is passed, no one stands still — they either relocate to a different spot on the floor, or set a screen.
If you keep your eyes on Serbia’s no. 16 (Nemanja Nedović, who plays professionally for Greek Basket League team Panathinaikos), he never stops moving — which is highly reminiscent of a Golden State Warriors superstar who has built a reputation off of perpetual movement.
In Stephen Curry’s case, the movement certainly wanders more into the randomized-chaos side of the spectrum, rather than the seemingly orchestrated and pre-planned routes that Nedović ran. But the similarities in philosophy are uncanny, and while it’s something that may be rare in the NBA outside of the Warriors, it’s much more common in European basketball circles.
It’s hard not to see the European influence behind the Warriors’ motion offense. Steve Kerr once played for Gregg Popovich, who himself drew inspiration from European styles of play — exemplified in the “Beautiful Game” San Antonio Spurs that went to the NBA Finals for two consecutive seasons.
Kerr also played under Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense, itself a precursor to several of today’s motion offenses that are more commonplace in Europe. In his role as a General Manager for the 7-Seconds-Or-Less era Phoenix Suns, Kerr witnessed firsthand the emergence of “Pace and Space,” a concept brought over from Europe by Mike D’Antoni, who played and coached in Italy’s professional basketball league.
All of those influences combined resulted in an eclectic mixture of rapid pace, ball movement, personnel movement, every conceivable screen type, and high/low-post passing — all of which have been part-and-parcel of European basketball, but are steadily being integrated within NBA offenses.
The Warriors were — and in many ways, still are — at the forefront of that integration. So it was a surprise to see a somewhat familiar half-court set — one the Warriors like to run during end-of-quarter situations — employed by Turkey’s national squad.
Turkey National Team Golden State Warriors— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 29, 2022
Turkey ran a variant of the Warriors' favorite end-of-quarter "Fist" set (Ram screen action) + post staggered split ("Bilbao" action).
They made their own tweaks to it, but ended up with the same shot and same result. pic.twitter.com/1Hcucffxhu
Furthermore, the Serbian national team employs highly similar sets that are part of the Kerr playbook, including one particular pick-and-roll based “HORNS” action (a ball handler up top, two players at the elbows, and two players on both corners) that creates an opening by luring weak-side help away from the corner.
Another set that both Serbia and the Warriors use aims to maximize the elite passing and decision making of the NBA’s reigning MVP and the Warriors’ bigs. These 5-Out “Delay” sets, featuring a trailing big man handling the ball at the top of the arc and making decisions, are some of the most versatile motion actions that have become a common sight in both European and NBA circles.
Another "5-Out Delay" possession from the Warriors.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) August 20, 2022
The versatility of Delay plays into the strengths of Draymond (as a playmaker and decision maker), Steph, and Klay. Virtually turns into 3-man action that throws the Nuggets for a loop. https://t.co/pX3fcwVGZO pic.twitter.com/um7zrqmLOq
Naturally, being at the forefront of the motion revolution, the Warriors popularized Delay, with Draymond Green (and occasionally, Kevon Looney) the one being tasked to make the playmaking decisions.
Golden State Warriors Serbia National Team— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 2, 2022
Similar half-court sets ("HORNS Twist" and "5-Out Delay") yield similar results. Widely used concepts -- shared between teams separated by an ocean -- create advantages and generate efficient shots. pic.twitter.com/ptGgUctBEl
By virtue of being averse to running a heavy diet of high ball screens — their 25 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions ranked dead last during the 2021-2022 regular season — the Warriors haven’t fully adopted some of the more in-vogue half-court actions that several NBA teams run on a regular basis. One of these is the ever popular “Spain” pick-and-roll, named after the Spanish national team, who popularized its use and was mostly responsible for its surfacing among the collective basketball mindset.
The difference between a Spain action and your typical high ball screen involves the addition of a third party — a backscreener, usually a shooter, who screens for the roll man’s defender, after which he pops out and presents himself as an open kick-out target.
While Kerr doesn’t rely on Spain heavily, there have been recorded instances of the Warriors running their own versions of it — including one that starts off with a “Weave” action:
But possessions like the one above are more the extreme exception than the norm — even with the presence of Curry, one of the league’s premier guard screeners (he generated 157 screen-assist points, 2nd among 95 guards who played at least 1500 minutes during the regular season).
This is an area where the Warriors can draw further inspiration and add to their extensive playbook. One idea that I’ve often pondered about is combining a common pick-and-roll action — “Double Drag” screens, or two staggered ball screens set in transition or semi-transition — with the Spain pick-and-roll, with Curry or Klay Thompson acting as the backscreener.
During their recently concluded championship campaign, the Warriors increased their diet of pick-and-roll possessions — up from 25 per 100 possessions to 29 per 100 possessions. Double drags comprised a huge component of that diet.
Why not add another element to double drags — a backscreen, for example — to divert expectations and make further use of their shooters’ talents? After all, Dončić and the Slovenian national team tried it recently during the World Cup qualifiers — to great success.
With both the roll-man defender and Dončić’s defender keyed in on the two-man ball-screen action, the backscreener leaks out toward the weak-side wing, leaving the low man alone and having to zone up against two players. A pass to the wing, followed by a swing pass to the corner, and the Double Drag Spain becomes an instant success.
Imagine Curry handling the ball, with Thompson setting the backscreen and leaking out toward the wing, and Andrew Wiggins — a prolific left-corner marksman — waiting for a potential swing pass. The thought of such a scenario is mouth-watering.
Europe continues to innovate and zig, while the rest of the basketball world zags. The Warriors — themselves zigging in an NBA that continuously likes to zag — can only benefit from borrowing ideas from a continent that has already given them plenty of inspiration.