SABA vs Zones

I saw this tweet with a play from the Clippers’ scrimmage, and immediately thought “that should have been a lob for a dunk”. I read the comments, and people appeared to think it was good defense.

The problem starts as the player receives the first pass over half-court.

This picture occurs just before the ball is passed to the player high on the right sideline.

At the start, the spacing is fine. Most high school teams teach to flash a player to the middle against the 1-2-2, and that would not be wrong. However, the current spacing creates an immediate 2v1 in the yellow circle above. Quick ball movement should be able to exploit this advantage.

This image is the instant that the player receives the pass.

Now, the spacing creates a problem. Why is the player circled above standing in the midrange? His positioning eliminates a driving lane for the player with the ball, and he is unprepared to shoot a three-pointer on the catch. If he is not a shooter, he should be positioned elsewhere, potentially in the dunker’s spot with his shoulders squared to the ball. This would create a 2v1 with the player circled below.

This image is then the attacker with the ball faces the basket.

Now, for some reason, our shooter in the corner still is not behind the three-point line. Despite this, the baseline defender is sprinting out toward him. What is the opposite post, circled above, doing? Does he not like to score? He is actually backing away from the basket area that is currently being vacated with no defender sprinting to take away the space. At this instant, there should be a lob for a dunk. The next best alternative is a flash to the ball side to take away the weak side help for a catch and finish at the rim. To end up with the next frame instead of the ball at the rim is terrible execution.

After looking to the basket, he looks away and starts to dribble middle as the original passer basket cuts because he is denied.

The attacker with the ball turns away from the basket and still no defender has covered the open space in yellow. Fortunately for the defense, the baseline attacker has backed further away from the basket, presumably because he hates offense. An adept passer could throw a little pocket pass to the point guard cutting because he has a step and there is no help defense, but if he was unwilling to throw the lob to an open player, I imagine he is not equipped to throw the pocket pass right there.

Despite giving up the big advantage (lob), the cut attracts the attention of two players, which means that the offense still has a 2v1 advantage in green with a quick ball reversal.

Next dribble.

Instead, he dribbles again, and defenders match up. At this point, the advantage is gone, and the offense relies on the attacker to make an individual move to create a shot.

The shot

With the lack of spacing — neither weak side player is outside the three-point line, the baseline strong side has lifted from the corner, and the fifth player apparently gave up and ran back on defense — the help defense rotates and forces a bad, contested shot.

Again, most see good defense because the offense attempted a bad shot. However, the offense forfeited multiple advantages. When the player on the right wing receives the pass, the ball stopped. When he stopped the ball, the defense could recover and match up.

The ball stopped largely because the offense was spaced poorly on the strong side — too far out to create the 2v1 on the baseline, but not outside the three-point line — and the opposite baseline attacker, who should have scored, decided that he did not want to play on that possession and took himself out of the play.

The defense rotated fairly well, as these movements occurred in fractions of a second, but that is the speed of play at the NBA level. Attackers have to recognize openings immediately, or preferably anticipate the openings, because of the speed of the game. Once the attacker on the right wing holds the ball, they lose the big advantage. Once he takes the second dribble, they lose the small 2v1 advantage on the weak side.

This is a major reason that zones work at all levels. Players catch and hold and allow the defense to rotate instead of attacking on the catch like we teach against player-to-player defense. If he caught and ripped to the basket, he creates a kickback to his teammate in the corner or a 2v1 with the opposite baseline and the baseline defender. If he passes immediately, he likely creates a dunk for his teammate on the baseline. Instead, he holds the ball, the defense moves quickly, and the advantages quickly disappear. Good defense, but the offense allowed it by forfeiting its advantages and holding the ball.

The SABA Offensive Philosophy

SABA is more of a philosophy of offensive basketball than it is a specific system. Consequently, the philosophy can be applied to any system, although it may change the system’s precise goals and execution. To learn more about the specifics of SABA, please see SABA: The Antifragile Offense, available as a Kindle or a paperback.

SABA is based on the idea that an offensive possession has four possible states: Disadvantage (defensive advantage), neutral, small advantage and big advantage.

A disadvantage is when the defense aggressively pursues a steal; the basic principles of attack do not change if this attempt is a full-court diamond press, a half-court 1-3-3 or trapping a high on-ball screen. Consequently, we do not have numerous full-court and half-court press breaks. In fact, we do not have a press break; we just have proper spacing in the full-court and half-court, and proper spacing when a teammate is trapped.

Our offensive objective is to create a big advantage; for us, a big advantage is an open layup or a catch-and-shoot three-pointer for one of our 37+% shooters. When we face a disadvantage, our goal is to create the big advantage immediately, as beating a trap immediately takes out two defenders, creating a numerical advantage.

In transition, the offense has a small advantage because the defense is not set; depending on the numbered advantage, the offense may start with a big advantage (2v1, 4v2), but at minimum, it has a small advantage. Our objective is to maintain and extend this advantage rather than allowing the defense to recover and set up.

When the defense is set, and the position starts from neutral, the offense uses an action to create its advantage. Occasionally, the action works perfectly, and the team moves directly from neutral to a big advantage. In a traditional view, this is the “play” working.

The action always creates an advantage, even when the big advantage is not available immediately. If the defense switches to prevent a layup, now the offense has created two mismatches, which is a small advantage. When a player catches without sufficient room to shoot, but with a defender closing out, she has a small advantage; we want to keep the defense in rotations until we create the big advantage (desired shot).

Occasionally, whether due to the defense or the shot clock, the offense does not extend the advantage and instead uses the small advantage to create its shot. Not every possession ends with an open layup or a wide open catch and shoot three-pointer.

Are the Rockets the Anti-SABA?

When I wrote SABA: The Antifragile Offense, the San Antonio Spurs were the model; they moved the ball, cut and exploited small openings or advantages, continually hunting for a better shot. They used some of the same ideas: you’re most open on the catch, 1-second rule (they call it a .5 second rule), etc. Because the book debuted around this time, the Spurs, and teams that played similarly, were viewed as the ideal. Many coaches loved SABA because many coaches see the Spurs, and this style of basketball, as the right way to play.

The 2018 Rockets, then, appear to be the polar opposite. In fact, several people have tweeted at me to ask my thoughts or to express this feeling. Whereas the Rockets do not play the exact style that I prefer aesthetically, their basic gameplay very much fits within the SABA philosophy, and is a testament to one of the core reasons for SABA: Flexibility.

The Rockets generally start with a simple action (an on-ball screen) rather than an elaborate play. The Warriors switch this screen. The switch creates a small advantage. The Rockets, usually Harden, attempts to exploit this small advantage to create a big advantage: He drives at the defender and steps back for a 3 or he drives by the defender for a layup.

I do not want to shoot a lot of step-back three-pointers, but I also do not coach James Harden, nor do I play against defenses as good as the Warriors. I would struggle to call a step-back three a “big advantage”, but Harden’s success during the season changes the math.

At most levels, when Harden penetrates against the switch, defenses help. The pass off the penetration forces rotations, and ball movement creates a big advantage and an open catch-and-shoot three-pointer or a layup, as the Spurs demonstrate above.

However, when teams do not help, Harden attacking a mismatch to get to the rim is turning a small advantage into a big advantage. Occasionally the defender plays well and negates the advantage, but generally, Harden gets to the rim for free throws or a layup.

That’s SABA.

It may not be the joyful, aesthetically-pleasing version of SABA, but it fits the basic philosophy: Disorganize the defense, create a small advantage, and exploit the small advantage to find a big advantage. Harden and the Rockets dribble more than I prefer, and play at a slower pace, which reduces the amount of ball movement available, but otherwise, they stick to the general ideas of SABA.

In the criticism of the Rockets’ offense, few have mentioned the Warriors’ defense. I was taught that the goal in a pick-and-roll was to create a switch and then to exploit the mismatch. The Rockets take their time, but with Golden State largely staying home on shooters and trusting their individual defenders, the Rockets’ isolations are the result.

In previous generations, when defenses’ switched, offenses spent entire possessions trying to exploit the mismatch inside with the roller posting up the smaller defender. Offenses stopped and attempted to pass inside at all costs. This still occurs at the college level.

Most have realized that the perimeter mismatch can be (is) a bigger mismatch than inside. The Rockets attack there. If the defense does not help, they trust Chris Paul or James Harden to score one-vs-one against the mismatch. Most defenses help, which leaves shooters open, forces rotations, and creates ball movement.

The Rockets have played this way all season. During the playoffs, the pace has slowed (I assume; I have not looked at the stats). Also, Golden State is switching off the screener, so the Rockets must run multiple screens to get their matchup. It is fascinating to watch the movements off the ball by the offense and defense as Houston attempts to create the mismatch that it wants, and Golden State attempts to prevent this matchup.

Golden State’s defense is a big reason for the Rockets’ isolation-heavy offense, and a reason that “switch ability” is such a buzzword for draft prospects. Defenses can turn a devastating pick-and-roll into “iso ball” and not have to over help and leave shooters when the “mismatch” is not much of a mismatch.

The slower pace plus off-ball switches and multiple screens to create the desired match up puts the Rockets against shot clock. I imagine D’Antoni is concerned with the pace, not the isos. In Game 5, Chris Paul could not pass out, and Durant blocked his shot because the shot clock was at 1. That is a problem; playing slowly allows the defense to swarm late on the penetration.

The Warriors have shown the best way to defend a SABA offense, especially one built on the three-pointer: Switch and do not help. Force the offense to play one-vs-one and make tough shots.

The Rockets’ offense may not be pretty, but it is, to a certain extent, the evolution. Defenses have evolved to frustrate the Spurs-like SABA offenses, and the current offensive answer is to hunt for the best matchup and isolate one’s best player with the other four players spread to the three-point line to prevent help. By next season, the best offensive minds will have better methods of attacking the switch-heavy defenses, and the defenses will be forced to evolve to close the gap again.

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