The very first offensive possession by the Golden State Warriors in their preseason rematch against the Sacramento Kings was intriguing for a couple of reasons.
First possessions are important to monitor because it’s one of a few times during a 48-minute NBA game where the head coach has full and complete control over what is going to occur. Scripted sets are commonplace throughout a game, but never are they at their most scripted than the opening offensive possession.
Whichever set teams open the game with — whether they result in a bucket or not — provides a glimpse into a team’s philosophy for that given night. For the Warriors, the philosophy has typically been to keep the ball moving in a near-perpetual state of motion, which has been the driving force behind Steve Kerr’s principle of “0.5” basketball. As such, opening sets are almost always a mishmash of second-side action, off-ball screens, and handoffs — the usual motion offense fare.
But Kerr opted to open their preseason tilt against the Kings with something slightly different:
The Warriors’ opener — on the surface, at least — opted to go the simple route instead of the complex. Jonathan Kuminga sets the ball screen for Steph Curry, with Klay Thompson clearing the left corner and relocating to the weak side (an important detail that will be explained in a bit).
This empty-corner ball screen generates a Kuminga roll to the rim because of the Kings’ coverage on Curry: Harrison Barnes being higher up than a deep drop but not committing to a full hedge or double (which is called being “up to the touch” or stepping up to the level of the screen). Curry has seen plenty of coverages like this against him and has come a long way in terms of how to deal with it. The pass to the roll is instinctual and automatic — and Kuminga finds himself with an open lane to the rim.
Considering how most teams defend an empty-corner pick-and-roll, Kuminga’s open lane is actually quite unusual. Here’s an example of how teams traditionally defend empty ball screens:
The importance of the “low” man (the defender guarding the weak-side corner) is more pronounced whenever offenses empty the side where the ball is to eliminate an extra helper — the one who’s often tasked to “tag” the roll man — and put extra pressure on both the on-ball defender and the roll-man defender. Since there’s no one on the strong side, the low man is then the one who has to rotate into the paint and contest any shots at the rim by the roll man.
There are a couple of ways to counter the counter. One is what happened in the clip above: if the low man is an undersized guard such as Fred VanVleet, have the roll man simply finish above the contest, as Kevon Looney did.
The other method requires a bit more creativity: find a way to occupy the low man to eliminate help from the weak side — which is exactly what the Warriors did in the opening possession against the Kings.
Let’s revisit the clip — only this time, focus on Thompson’s relocation toward the opposite corner:
Thompson clearing to the weak side makes his defender — Kevin Huerter — the low man whose task becomes to rotate into the paint to contest the Kuminga roll. The problem: he can’t exactly leave Thompson alone because... well, because he’s Klay Thompson.
There lies the problem that the Kings defense was faced with in this situation — a problem created by the Warriors, simply by having one of the greatest shooters of all time relocate to bring his defender along with him.
To be clear, this wasn’t the first time the Warriors had Thompson start on a side, empty it by clearing out, and using his pull to unleash the roll man on an empty side:
But this was the first time they ran it to open a game — and also the first time they ran it a considerable amount.
Here’s the second instance of Curry and Kuminga linking up on empty-corner ball-screen action, with Thompson clearing out the side:
This time, the Kings simply switch the ball screen. Thompson then comes off of a down screen on the weak side — when that’s covered, he flows seamlessly into a ball screen with Trayce Jackson-Davis, who gets into the paint and puts the Kings defense in rotation. The chain of events leads to ball movement, a swing-swing to the corner, and Kuminga attacking the closeout and finishing at the rim.
The second unit also emphasized empty-corner action, with Chris Paul taking the ball-handling duties and Gary Payton II being the screener:
Whereas the empty-corner action was the meat of the action in the first instance, this one serves as window dressing for the down-screen for Thompson, who gets an open look that he won’t miss that often (also take note of Kuminga’s curl that preceded the down screen as an additional layer of distraction and deception). Combining what is typically construed as a “static” half-court concept in the pick-and-roll with that of second-side movement in the form of a weak-side down screen is what makes this particular action intriguing. It’s a marriage — and somewhat of a compromise — between what Kerr has typically shied away from and what he has preached throughout his decade-long tenure as head coach.
Again, the Thompson down-screen progression of this empty-corner set isn’t anything new — as the clip below shows. But another interesting thing to note is that while the initial empty-corner ball screen didn’t generate an advantage, the subsequent down-screen action for Thompson manages to generate an empty corner — with equal levels of distraction heaped upon the low man:
While empty-corner actions aren’t anything new, it feels as if the Warriors are making it a point of emphasis this season, especially when Kerr has previously stated that he intends to run a more pick-and-roll-based half-court offense with Paul as the main facilitator.
“Chris has been amazing every day of camp, just asking great questions, trying to fit in,” Kerr said. “He just wants to win. He wants to be part of something special. I told him we need him to be himself. Sometimes we just need him to go take four mid-range jumpers in a row if the defense is playing a certain way.”
Here’s Steve Kerr on Chris Paul coming off the bench tonight. Sounds like part of it is getting Paul in a pick-and-roll heavy lineup.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 19, 2023
“I told him we need him to be himself. He’s trying to fit in. Sometimes we need him to go take four mid-range jumpers in a row.” pic.twitter.com/s7WAvVAAeu
Paul being himself might just include a heavy diet of pick-and-rolls, some of which are going to have a corner emptied. Contrary to what some people may think, the Warriors have built a foundation of empty-corner actions throughout the years — just not in the traditional sense of how most teams generate them:
Adding in the pick-and-roll option — with two generational pick-and-roll ball handlers, a couple of roll threats on the team to pair them up with, and an all-time shooter causing all sorts of second-side chaos — might be what shifts the Warriors’ empty-corner emphasis into overdrive.