In an era where traditional point guards — the yell-out-the-play, point-to-spots-on-the-floor kind who make sure that everyone is running the correct set, are where they’re supposed to be, and by default is the best decision-maker on the floor — are a dying breed, it’s nice to have someone like that to calm things down in the half court.
There are benefits to playing a fast-paced game. Off of misses, defenses are often scrambling to get back and set up their half-court defense. The more you put pressure on them to hurry back and get organized, the likelier they’ll make mistakes. Bigs will get matched up against quicker guards; smalls will get sealed in underneath the paint against larger and stronger centers.
Even off of made baskets, a team who relaxes and thinks that nothing will happen because the other team got the ball out of the bucket can suddenly find themselves victim to an early offense set — or worse, a leak out in transition.
But the faster an offense plays, the higher the odds of themselves making mistakes. That has often been the tightrope that the Golden State Warriors have treaded all these years in the Steph Curry era. Playing small allows them to outrun and outgun opponents — but it makes them prone to the pitfalls of playing fast.
Slowing things down in the half court means that the Warriors are even more dependent on their main moneymakers to create efficient offense. Curry has carried that mantle for more than a decade, both as on off-ball menace and as an on-ball primary handler.
The on-ball part can be as much of a risk as it is a benefit. Curry has been the Warriors’ best pick-and-roll operator and isolation scorer. When given the opportunity to do so, he’s shown that he can pass as well as the best passers in the league. But turnovers have been a problem for him throughout his career due to his small stature and his penchant for playing fast.
With Chris Paul on the team, Curry has the freedom to be in the off-ball role that he has thrived in historically. While the team still needs him to be an on-ball scorer, having a traditional point guard who not only can make good decisions but also present as a scoring threat increases the Warriors’ ceiling during half-court possessions on offense.
Paul’s mastery of the point guard position needs no further explanation. If given the choice, he prefers the methodical approach. He takes stock of the opposing defense, sees which sets take advantage of the chinks in the armor, and make sure to communicate his intentions to the rest of his team.
Furthermore, he makes sure to put his best teammates in a position to score.
Case in point:
You can hear Paul yelling out the play: “Fifty-one! Fifty-one!”
“Fifty-one” (51) is the Warriors’ play call for double drag screens with an empty corner where one screener (typically the second screener) is a shooter, who then comes off of a flare screen by the first screener. In the case above, Curry is the one setting the second screen. With Dillon Brooks on the bench with foul trouble, Fred VanVleet is guarding Curry, with Jalen Green on Paul.
While VanVleet is a capable defender, Paul recognizes that putting Green in the screening action forces the Houston Rockets to have to make a choice. Do we switch Green onto Curry? Do we want VanVleet trying to stay connected and fighting over the flare screen? Do we send two to the ball and hope that the ball handler makes a mistake; at the very least, hope that the set grinds to a halt?
The Rockets chose the third option: Green and Jabari Smith Jr. doubling Paul, which means VanVleet is left all alone on the flare screen action for Curry. VanVleet gets caught up on the flare screen, while Green notices that Curry is left open. In his attempt to recover toward Curry, Green fouls and coughs up the four-point play.
This is a set more commonly run for Klay Thompson, who drilled one of his five threes against the Rockets off of “51” action — set up and assisted by none other than Paul himself:
After the game, Curry alluded to the play and the thought process behind it.
“Plus-12 tells you everything about the game tonight and how (Paul) controlled tempo and just the action, trying to get us organized offensively especially in the first half to finish out the second quarter (which) was a masterclass of just reading the flow,” Curry said.
“He called the play where I got the and-one three. It wasn’t planned or anything from the bench, he cleared a side and got me and (Looney) in the right action. Twelve assists, one turnover, plus-12 — in a game where we needed to kind of connect both sides of the ball, it was a masterclass.
Paul just seems to know which play to run for the Warriors to score — or at the very least, create a good scoring look, no matter which teammates he has on the floor with him.
If Brandin Podziemski happens to be one of those teammates, Paul knows that Podziemski is willing to do all the blue-collar work on offense — setting screens, for example — for a chance to be the one who finishes the play (e.g., drilling a three). Accordingly, Paul calls out a set that puts Podziemski in such a position:
Paul calls out “stack” — what NBA teams call the action more commonly known as a “Spain” pick-and-roll. What differentiates it from the typical pick-and-roll is the addition of a third player, typically a shooter, who sets the backscreen on the roll-man defender, after which he pops out to make himself available for a three.
Podziemski sets the backscreen, and the Rockets opt to switch the backscreener’s defender and the on-ball defender to counter — but the on-ball defender is a beat slow to switch out onto Podziemski. Paul promptly finds the rookie, who drills the three.
Paul finished the night with 15 points on seven shots (3-of-5 on threes), 6 rebounds, and 12 assists. The Warriors outscored the Rockets by 12 points during his 34 minutes and 14 seconds of time on the floor. The assists and overall playmaking pop out — but a bigger development is Paul’s efficient scoring.
Paul may not be the primary scoring threat he once was in his prime, but the Warriors still need him to be an auxiliary scoring threat, especially whenever he shares the floor with the Splash Brothers. The attention they garner from defenses will create plenty of looks for Paul, ones he must finish if the Warriors are to survive his minutes with Curry and Thompson.
The overall scoring numbers still aren’t pretty — 9.8 points on 39.8/32.8/91.7 shooting splits and 51.2% True Shooting — but over the previous five games, they’ve been trending up: 11.8 points on 43.9/56.5/100 shooting splits and 65% True Shooting, with a 13-of-23 clip from three-point range.
Whenever he’s able to finish advantages generated by Curry and Thompson’s pull, the Warriors are better off for it:
A pindown for Thompson draws in “nail” help from Paul’s defender (VanVleet). Thompson makes a good decision by kicking out to Paul, who’s left with the space to shoot and drill the three.
Even advantages that are created by Andrew Wiggins in the post against a smaller defender are ripe for Paul threes:
The initial screen by Wiggins forces VanVleet to have to switch onto him in the post. Smith then decides to help off of Paul to double Wiggins in the post — which leaves Paul open on the weak side.
Paul has been the steady hand the Warriors needed. His 12 assists against only one turnover against the Rockets continues a trend that has been a hallmark of his “Point God” career. For the season, he has tallied 115 assists against 18 turnovers — a 6.39 assist/turnover ratio. Only Mike Conley’s 6.60 is better among qualified players, per NBA Stats.
Another key stat that serves as proof behind Paul’s steadiness: with him *on* the floor, the Warriors have a turnover rate (percentage of possessions that end in a turnover) of 13.3% — equivalent to sixth in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. With Paul *off* the floor, that number jumps to 17.5% — equivalent to 29th in the league.
The Warriors traded youthful scoring for veteran decision-making, a risk given Paul’s age and the fact that no one on the team not named Curry seems to have a firm handle on the secondary-scorer role. This version of Paul won’t ever be placed in that role — but they don’t need him to.
As long as he continues to play mistake-free basketball — as he has done throughout his career — Paul will provide the Warriors with a continuous stream of good chances to score efficiently in the half court.