The Film Room Five, Including Mo Wagner’s Two-Way Playmaking

A new week, a new Film Room Five column reflecting on the old. We start with a pick-and-roll action the Sixers have been using frequently. Then we pass it over to the Grizzlies, who used a brilliant wrinkle to Pistol action to get Ja Morant a layup. We hop on a quick flight to Golden State, where the Nets executed a split action to perfection. We show some love to an unsung role player suiting up for the Wizards, and then we wrap it up with a decoy Horns set rolling into a flare screen in Denver.

Sixers Getting Snug

You might ask yourself how the Sixers can be anywhere but the basement in pick-and-roll frequency when they have a primary ball-handler who doesn’t shoot jumpers. Many view his lack of jump-shooting to be a gaping problem. I’ve been known to take the other path. Would it be nice? Sure. Is it making the difference between wins and losses? Absolutely not. Anyway, the Sixers have arrived in modernity with Doc Rivers’ offensive system. Under Brett Brown, they were consistently amongst the last in the league in pick-and-roll frequency and usage. Under Rivers, they’re not quite maestros yet, but they’re sitting comfortably in the living room after escaping the basement. Just below 20 possessions per game are being used by the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, redeemable at just below league-average.

So, besides allowing Shake Milton and Tobias Harris take their turns operating in the pick-and-roll, how is Philly creeping up that ladder with a ball-handler that makes pick-and-rolls easier for defenses to digest?

It’s a wrinkle of pick-and-roll called Snug:

Embiid screens for Simmons out of the dribble hand-off, and the Australian star is able to convert a rhythm hook shot just above the Restricted Area. ‘Snug’ is, by definition, referring to a pick-and-roll executed in very tight spaces. Snug is most commonly utilized in the post. With a traditional ball-handler, it can function as a dribble hand-off into a down screen for the scorer to square up at the elbow for a midrange jumper. There are, of course, other options available. If the big is feeding the hot hand, the ball-handler can leverage pressure from the defense and feed the ball back to the rolling big for a quick dunk, turning the play into a give-and-go, of sorts.

In the Sixers’ case, it’s about creating functional pick-and-roll sets with a ball-handler who is only comfortable shooting the ball within ten feet of the rim. Snug pick-and-rolls bridge the gap between Embiid and Simmons and traditional offense. They also make it easier to see that Embiid and Simmons can fit together.

Grizzlies Pull Out The Pistol

One of the fundamental needs pressing the Memphis Grizzlies at the moment is a secondary playmaker. Why, you ask? Ja Morant can’t make the play every possession. No player can do so and maintain effectiveness. Adding a secondary playmaker would allow Morant to play off-ball and leverage his scoring prowess to create opportunities for other teammates. Think about how the Warriors manufacture offense when anyone other than Steph is shooting the ball—they leverage his shooting gravity to create open looks for the other four players on the court. With Jaren Jackson Jr and Ja Morant piloting the flight, the Grizzlies have a bright future. But, in order to build an offensive juggernaut, they do need to add that wing playmaker that can credibly manufacture offense with the ball in his hands.

For now, they do have ways of generating points when Morant plays off-ball, even if the other players aren’t exactly producing high-action offense. One way they do it is with a play derived from what is commonly known as Pistol action:

Why is it called ‘Pistol’, you ask? Pause the above clip at 0:01 and take note of the shape the players on the first side form. Jonas Valanciunas is the tip of the pistol, Kyle Anderson is the barrel of the pistol, and Ja Morant is the hand grip of the pistol. The three-pinpoint shape of the triangle looks like a pistol. With Pistol action, the player in Morant’s spot usually comes around the tip of the pistol and attacks the middle of the lane–creating the visual of a bullet leaving the pistol. Because the desired ball-handler fires out of the barrel towards the middle of the lane, Pistol is typically initiated facing the sideline and headed towards the corner.

But, this wrinkle goes the other way. Instead of Morant exploding towards Valanciunas and attacking downhill, he follows Anderson’s screen and fades towards the baseline ever so quietly. The Lakers think Morant is simply cutting through the side of the lane to clear out space for Anderson to go to work, but he’s watching the ball as he travels to the rim. Valanciunas times the pass perfectly so that Anthony Davis has no chance of recovering to protect the rim, and it’s a quick deposit.

The Bed-Stuy Split

Don’t lie. I know your eyes read that as ‘The Best Buy Split’. I know it because my eyes did it, too, and I’m the columnist who wrote it. They say sharing is caring. They also said, “There’s only one ball,” when making counterpoints about why the three-headed dragon in Brooklyn might not be all it’s cracked up to be. But, with that one ball, the Nets aren’t playing favorites. In fact, they’re giving it to someone else. Joe Harris has been a clear winner of both the introduction of Kevin Durant and the Harden trade. Harris, in the first year of a multi-year contract extension, is converting better than 49 percent of his nearly seven three-point attempts per game. His volume of attempts is very high, and his efficiency is better than ‘damn incredible’. The Nets are doing more than just ‘driving and kicking’. They’re running actual plays that weaponize each of the big three on the court in ways that open windows of opportunity for other members of the team. This Split action for Kyrie Irving is a beautiful example of those simple actions:

You can tell it’s a Split action because of the first pass and off-ball movements. Splits usually begin with the designated big man catching the ball in the high post. Then, there’s typically a screening action that gets the initial ball-handler cutting towards the lane. From there, the ball goes back to the handler and he’s attacking the lane.

In this case, Durant is the trigger man, with Harden setting what is the world’s weakest screen for Irving to burst down the lane. Durant feeds Irving as he gets downhill, while Kelly Oubre Jr goes under the screen and gets slowed up by the crowded space. Oubre’s tardiness forces Curry to slide over to help stop the penetration. Once Irving has Curry stretched out as far as possible, he shuffles the rock to Harris, who knocks in the corner triple.

The Unsung Moritz Wagner

Sometimes you have to spotlight the role players. Mo Wagner earned his moment yesterday. Of all Wizards to play at least 140 minutes this season, Wagner has created the most positive net impact. With him on the floor, Washington outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions, far and away the highest margin on the team under that criteria. When Wagner is off the court, and he’s spent the third most minutes on the team off the floor, Washington is being outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions–the most of any Wizard to sit at least 800 minutes this season.

When you see plays like the one below, it’s not hard to observe his impact.

Wagner receives the rock in the post after the long roll towards the rim. Rather than attacking the smaller Ojeleye in the low post, he senses a better opportunity for a teammate. Rui Hachimura plunges to the rim for a dump-off. Wagner waits patiently for the plunger to get to a spot where Ojeleye cannot possibly rotate and recover in time, and pivots into a crisp dime when his teammate tags the block. The vision and playmaking intelligence of the backup big man is worthy of applause.

Wait, Wagner isn’t done there. Just a few moments later, he cooks up this beauty.

At 6’11” and 245 pounds, Wagner does an incredible job of blowing up this pick-and-roll with the smaller and speedier Kemba Walker looking to leave him in the dust. Bigs typically have a much higher center of gravity, which is why they usually aren’t credible defenders on the perimeter and get crushed by guards when tasked with trying to stop them. But, Wagner digs down deep into a defensive stance–something that is increasingly rare these days. Walker, seeing that he has nowhere to go and growing slightly unsure of what to do, picks up his dribble. A costly mistake, to say the least. Wagner steps up and smothers him with wingspan, and makes it impossible for Walker to see any of his teammates. The pressure forces a turnover, and Wagner deserves the credit for blowing up what is typically a very difficult pick-and-roll ball-handler to thwart.

A Mile High Decoy

I’m training myself on Xs and Os at this juncture in my career. I cannot tell you how many times I rewind game footage to dissect what a certain action is. Tedious? Maybe. Worth it for advancing my knowledge and understanding of the game so that I can engage in credible, nuanced basketball discourse? Absolutely. We’ll end it with one of the best plays I saw this week.

This play starts as a Horns formation. Facundo Campazzo is the ball-handler at the top. There are two Nuggets setting up just below the three-point line as screeners depending on which way Campazzo elects to go. The two other players are stretching out the defense. So, the alignment technically follows the 1-2-2 setup that Horns follows, but it’s not a real Horns set. Why? Because of where those other two Nuggets are. In a Horns set, you have the wings stretching out to the corners to create deep pockets of space for the ball-handler to operate. Here, they’re set up together in the same corner, with the right side of the court completely unoccupied. Jamal Murray rotates up to the top to screen for Campazzo, and then jets out to the weak-side wing on a screen-the-screener action courtesy of JaMychal Green. Campazzo doesn’t like how that wrinkle is playing out, so Green returns to set a ball screen for him. Green pops out, and Campazzo shuffles the rock back to him for an open trey. Bartender, a shot please.

Featured Image: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

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