In several ways, Chris Paul serves as the antithesis to the Golden State Warriors’ brand of basketball.
There are certain realities and contexts that understandably give people pause when it comes to this union:
- At 38-years old and turning 39 come playoffs time, will Paul have enough in his tank to help this team?
- A notoriously injury-prone player, will Paul be healthy enough to even see playing time in the playoffs?
- With his days behind him as a plus defender, will Paul be a defensive liability, especially when it comes to defending pick-and-rolls, screen navigation, and being hunted down on mismatches?
Never mind the fact that he was the bane of the young Warriors in the early-to-mid 2010s, while also playing a role in the Houston Rockets squad that nearly knocked the Dynasty Warriors off their lofty perch. Paul’s preferred style of play — a slow-it-down, deliberate half-court exercise — is the complete opposite of the Warriors’ fast-paced organized chaos with a plethora of moving parts.
Nothing is more indicative of that fact than simply comparing possessions-per-game numbers (otherwise known as pace) between the Warriors and the Phoenix Suns last season. The Warriors averaged 102.54 possessions per game during the regular season — the most in the league; meanwhile, the Suns averaged 98.83 possessions per game, 22nd in the league.
That is far from an insignificant difference — which also gives Steve Kerr an entirely new conundrum he’ll have to solve because of the philosophical and stylistic differences between his original core and that of his new player.
The operational term above is “philosophical,” because in addition to the slow pace that Paul prefers, another main point of contention is the fact that he has thrived in the one play type Kerr and the Warriors have used sparingly throughout their dynastic run: the pick-and-roll.
If you’ve watched the Warriors throughout the last decade, you don’t need an analytical eye to conclude that they largely prefer to run their offense through playmaking hubs at the low post, on the elbows, and at the top of the three-point arc. But putting numbers to the eye test provides staggering context behind their preference for not relying on ball screens.
Last season alone, the Warriors ran a total of 2,262 pick-and-roll possessions, all of which included possessions which were finished by the ball handler, the roll man, or a third party, per Synergy. Only the Sacramento Kings (2,260) ran fewer pick-and-roll possessions.
In contrast, the Phoenix Suns ran a total of 3,357 pick-and-roll possessions, fifth most last season. Out of those, Paul was involved in a total of 1,134 pick-and-roll possessions, or nearly 34% of the Suns’ total number.
Comparing that number to the Warriors’ total is even more astounding. Paul alone ran half of the Warriors’ total (50.1%, to be exact) during last season, which is the one statistical fact differentiating just how far apart the team and the player are from each other on the philosophical spectrum.
While Kerr has his work cut out for him in terms of integrating Paul into his offensive schemes, it’s not like there isn’t any precedent for how Paul can find ways to thrive. A veteran of his stature isn’t beyond setting screens, either through guard-guard actions or inverted setups both on and off the ball.
He can even act as a standstill spot-up shooter, something he excelled at during the 2022-23 campaign. Since 2013-14, Paul attempted the most catch-and-shoot threes per game (1.5) while also posting his highest percentage (52.3%) last season. The volume isn’t particularly high, but it’s indicative enough of Paul being an effective spot-up option should the need arise for it.
Assuming that Paul is featured heavily as the primary creator in second-unit groups where Stephen Curry sits, it wouldn’t be beyond Kerr to switch his offense up entirely from a hub-heavy perpetual-motion scheme to a more traditional spread pick-and-roll setup.
One particular iteration of the pick-and-roll could be put into play by Kerr during Paul’s minutes: the “Spain” pick-and-roll.
Quite simply, a “Spain” pick-and-roll adds a third party to what traditionally constitutes a ball-screen possession: the ball-handler, the roll man, and a back-screener (ideally a shooter) who sets a back screen for the roll man.
There is precedent for the Warriors running “Spain” in the past, although Kerr has been selective with his use of it. Notably, he used it more last season against opponents who employed the deep drop as their main coverage (i.e., the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks).
Perhaps the most notable use of “Spain” last season was against the Bucks in Chase Center. Knowing that the Bucks’ base pick-and-roll coverage was going to be drop, Kerr called for more “Spain” pick-and-rolls; I counted around 11 instances of them using it during that particular game.
WARRIORS SPAIN PNR THREAD— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) March 12, 2023
By my count, the Warriors ran Spain PnR a total of 11 times last night vs. the Bucks. Safe to say it's the most times they've used it during the Steve Kerr era.
First instance below gets them a corner 3 from JaMychal Green. pic.twitter.com/WKYeOmnQur
I expect Kerr to not only dial up the number of pick-and-rolls next season — he’ll almost use it exclusively whenever Paul is the primary ball handler and main decision maker, and that’ll most likely include a heavy dose of the “Spain” variation.
“Spain” pick-and-roll was a main weapon the Suns used during Monty Williams’ tenure as head coach. It was an action perfect for the skill sets that Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton brought to the table.
While the Warriors’ terminology for “Spain” was “Stack” or “Fist” (if it was preceded by screen-the-screener action or “ram” screen), the Suns called their version “Snap” because Paul would rub his fingers together in a snapping motion to call out the play.
Running “Spain” entails a primary ball handler who can make decisions based on how defenses choose to defend the action. Paul is certainly the kind of point guard who not only makes the correct decision most of the time, but also makes sure to punish incorrect coverage decisions:
If the Warriors were to incorporate “Spain” actions like the one above, it’s not hard to imagine Curry or Klay Thompson — both willing off-ball screeners — in the Booker role. If defenses botch their coverages, Paul will find himself with an open Splash Brother on the perimeter.
Curry, in particular, can use hard close-outs against him to force a fly-by or to attack the rim, like what Booker does below:
If said incorrect decisions by a defense involve a failure to properly switch or avoid being caught up in the backscreen action, Paul will promptly find the open roll man underneath the rim:
There are several poisons defenses must pick in a theoretical “Spain” action that involves Paul and one or both of the Splash Brothers. If Paul is the least toxic option, so to speak, it may still end up being a poison defenses aren’t able to swallow:
Of course, Paul himself can opt to attack dropping bigs and comfortably settle or “snake” himself into his preferred mid-range spots, particularly near the right elbow (and where specific screening angles will most certainly come into play). His preference for deliberate play and the uncertainty he generates can freeze defenders on the spot, or otherwise make them extra jumpy:
Kerr is a crafty play designer out of timeouts, but he’s also not afraid to “borrow” concepts from other coaches and teams. He could very well use such concepts (which the Warriors themselves make use of) and combine them into focused sets for Paul.
When added with the kind of spread floor and advantage creation the Splash Brothers provide (as well as the screening chops the likes of Kevon Looney and Draymond Green provide), Paul can find himself getting into his comfort zones with the kind of ease he hasn’t experienced in a while:
While the concerns about Paul and his health, age, and chemistry with a team that has given him plenty of headaches in the past are valid, there’s no doubt the on-court fit on offense allows the Warriors to delve into underexplored avenues they haven’t fully committed to during their dynastic run. With them seemingly going all-in on the win-now timeline, they might as well place their hats on the lowest-hanging fruit.
After all, the so-called “Point God” may have just opened up their ability to do such a thing.