A couple of months back, I wrote this article about Steve Kerr making an appearance on an NBA App segment called “Coaches Corner” that brought in NBA head coaches to break down some of their respective teams’ pet plays.
Kerr was brought in to break down a modified version of the Golden State Warriors’ classic low-post split action. It’s essentially a three-way split/triple split due to three players being involved in the screening action: a person who curls and cuts inside off of a screen set near the top of the key, followed by the aforementioned screener curling off of a screener on the wing in what constitutes the classic split-action maneuver.
Here’s Kerr breaking it down:
Think of the classic low-post split — the one where the ball is fed into the post and the split action occurs straight away without any preamble — and how it puts tons of pressure on the screener’s defender to make a choice.
Most teams with bigs who aren’t as versatile with their schemes opt to drop them back and let the defender guarding the shooter navigate over the screen. That puts a ton of pressure on a single defender to stick to their man, close space quickly, and discourage a shot.
The logic behind teams dropping their big is that they wouldn’t want to be put in rotation. If the big steps up high to meet the shooter around the screen, the screener can then slip inside, which presents all sorts of trouble against a backline defense that suddenly finds itself with a 4-on-3 numbers disadvantage.
While switching may outright stop the action in its tracks, it also presents a mismatch on a silver platter for the likes of Steph Curry, who feasts in isolation against slower-footed bigs. Only a select few teams have the personnel to comfortably switch split action and live with the results of a capable switch-big holding his own against Curry on the perimeter.
Which is why in the clip above, the Denver Nuggets elect to keep Nikola Jokić dropped back to prevent them from having to scramble. The price they paid, however, was Jordan Poole being set free for an open three.
The “gaggle” split action is consistent with the Warriors’ offense and its overall theme of forcing offenses to pick their poison. Defense is often a game of preventing a damaging outcome to settle for a less-damaging outcome, especially in this day and age where rules tilt considerably toward the offensive side of things.
The Warriors took that concept and ran away with it on their way to four championships in eight seasons under Kerr, who understood that having two of the greatest shooters in basketball history gave him all the leeway in the world to concoct several poisons for defenses to choose from.
Against a team that is one of the worst defensive squads in the league — one that doesn’t possess the personnel and experience to know how to keep complex actions contained — the Warriors maximized the “gaggle” concept to the utmost degree.
The “gaggle” action itself refers to the initial cut-and-curl maneuver that occurs at the top of the key. Involving the Splash Brothers in that action massively increases the degree of difficulty for defenders:
Curry does a lot of legwork with just a simple screen. A defender guarding Curry typically has one job and one job only: stick to him at all times.
As such, the “gaggle” action takes advantage of this by having Thompson curl and dive inside, knowing that most defenders wouldn’t want to switch off of Curry to prevent Thompson from strolling his way inside. Smarter defenses would switch this guard-guard action — but the San Antonio Spurs aren’t anywhere close to that level yet.
(Even high-level defenses have trouble guarding actions like these. It requires a ton of concentration and discipline to keep them contained.)
Running the same action twice means that defenses at the NBA level will most likely know how to guard it the next time around. Even a team such as the Spurs are drilled enough to know when a previously run action is coming — and as such, not to make the same mistake.
But the Warriors are the masters of flowing straight into another option by reading what the defense gives them:
The Spurs do switch this time around to take away the “gaggle” action — but this is still a set that involves split action, after all. Thompson may have had his cut inside taken away, but there’s still the split screen from Kevon Looney with Sandro Mamukelashvili dropping back.
Looney catches Thompson’s defender clean — which is all Thompson needs to drill the three.
The “gaggle” concept isn’t limited to just low-post split actions. The Warriors make use of it during baseline out-of-bounds sets such as the one they call “22.”
It’s very similar to the “gaggle” split action — the only difference being that it’s not initiated out of the low post:
Just like what happened with the Thompson three out of “gaggle” split action, the Spurs switch the “gaggle” action between Thompson and Lamb in the clip above. Thompson then forces his man to chase him around the Looney screen. Again, Thompson is set free for another open three.
In order to defend these “gaggle”-based sets, you need to be constantly on your toes, be aware of the options, do your work early, and be able to communicate with your teammates. That’s a long list of must-dos that teams have to check off — a tall task for most teams, let alone the most elite of defenses.
The young rebuilding Spurs didn’t know what hit them.