NBA

Settling the Steph Curry vs. Jayson Tatum pick-and-roll debate

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NBA Twitter is an infamous no-man’s land of eyebrow-raising snaps, memes and comments. There are honest analyzes without agendas; we would like this kind of content to be the norm rather than the exception, but the truth is that there is still a long way to go before this becomes a reality.

Until then, you might find yourself stumbling across gems like this:

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Your initial reaction will likely range from amused bewilderment to outright disgust. Any of those in this spectrum of emotions are justified – after all, we all just witnessed what was arguably Stephen Curry’s greatest display of pick-and-roll mastery in the final. of the NBA 2022.

But my personal reaction to the video was more in the direction of curiosity. On the face of it, I disagreed with the argument presented above, but to make sure that personal bias and the fallibility of human memory weren’t fooling me, I did some research – at both digital and visual – to see if indeed Jayson Tatum 1) “spammed” the pick-and-roll during the playoffs, and 2) was a highly influential pick-and-roll operator.

To set the scene, it should be mentioned that the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics weren’t far from each other in terms of pick-and-roll numbers (including man-on-the-roll passes). or a third) they ran during the playoffs: 29.0 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions for the Warriors and 33.5 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions for the Celtics.

The Celtics may have had a slight advantage in pick-and-roll possessions, but does that advantage carry over when comparing the two teams’ main stars to each other?

Curry vs. Tatum PnR data
Synergy

When comparing the number of pick-and-rolls executed by the two stars, Curry has a clear advantage in pace-adjusted volume during the regular season (3 pick-and-rolls for 75 more possessions than Tatum) and the playoffs (nearly 4 pick-and-rolls for 75 more possessions than Tatum).

Curry also has a decisive advantage in pick-and-roll efficiency. Pick-and-rolls involving Curry during the regular season ranked in the 77th percentile (1.035 PPP), while those involving Tatum were a more average 56th percentile (0.966). In the playoffs, the gap was comically wider: 81st percentile (1.090 PPP) for Curry-led pick-and-rolls and a disappointing 42nd percentile (0.925 PPP) for Tatum-led pick-and-rolls.

It must be said that Tatum is a gifted attacking player who has the ability to score on all three levels. Its combination of length and height gives it advantages that few players are lucky enough to have. Combined with deft footwork, a fluid stroke and an improved ability to map the ground and pass rock, his offensive profile has reached a level that most people expected him to arrive at – and it didn’t. not stopping its ascent anytime soon.

However, a fine line still exists between a star-level offensive player like Tatum and an all-time great offensive player in Curry. The difference is clearly visible in the way the two players approach the pick-and-roll, as well as the way the defenses respond to it.

Having more experience against all types of cover gives Curry a natural advantage, but more than just experience, Curry’s otherworldly shot is a threat that presents a unique challenge to opponents (more in this room).

Give up and choose to prevent all your defensive machinery from being overstretched? Curry will run around the screen. Do you show any semblance of aggressive commitment around ball screens for Curry? A baseline disadvantage is created and the Warriors are better than anyone at making the most of it. Skip a big man on Curry and leave him alone on an island? Curry’s grip, flexibility, and relative agility will ground slower feet.

No matter what cover you throw at him, Curry will find ways to put defenses in the torture chamber. No matter how often his tendencies have been spotted, he will render those reconnaissance reports useless thanks to his genius. The aforementioned dividing line is characterized by an ability to transcend reports of recognition – a point that Tatum has yet to reach.

For example: the report on Tatum includes his propensity to drive to the edge if the defenses allow him to reach his right hand. By Synergy:

Tatum Driving Right, Regular Season + Playoffs
Synergy

Half of Tatum’s practices to his right all of last season ended in rim attempts, while only a quarter ended in pull-ups. For a team like the Warriors that crosses the t’s and dots the i’s in terms of opposing tendencies, that’s a fact that certainly hasn’t escaped their notice.

Knowing that Tatum’s mindset when going right is rim-or-bust, the Warriors countered with fundamental defensive concepts (e.g., low man assist or “trap box”) with a hint of unorthodox principles that are otherwise considered rule-breaking (e.g. momentarily assisting the strongside corner).

Tatum rejects the screen and opts to drive right – straight into the meat grinder, considering Draymond Green is the strong corner defender and has no qualms about helping Marcus Smart, while Kevon Looney is the low man who prepares to challenge the drive with verticality and Andrew Wiggins stays close to Tatum’s hip.

As expected, the result: a missed point-blank shot from Tatum.

The possession below – almost identical except for one aspect – corresponds to the same end point:

The difference above is that Tatum embraces the mismatch with Nemanja Bjelica instead of rejecting the screen. But as expected, Tatum’s preference for his right hand plays directly into the Warriors’ hands: Klay Thompson as a strong corner assist and Wiggins — fresh off of Tatum — acting as a paint assist.

Other times, Tatum was just too erratic with his grip, while being too reliant on intentional baiting instead of taking the ball hard on the edge (and potentially getting calls that way). Compared to Curry’s turnover percentage in pick-and-roll possessions (8.7%), Tatum’s playoff turnover percentage when performing pick-and-roll (15.0%) was simply unacceptable for a primary option.

A significant number of ball screens for Tatum were set up in an effort to chase down a lag that put him in an advantageous position, while putting the Warriors defense in a tight spot. But hunting for switches was often laborious and time-consuming; too much of the clock was burned in an effort to get the game he wanted for Tatum, and by the time he was able to isolate himself and begin his movement, the risk of being penalized for a clock violation increased – which forced Tatum into rushing shots.

Just look at how much time was left on the shot clock by the time the Celtics were able to enter their HORNS set in possession below:

Approximately 10 seconds elapse before the HORNS formation can be set. It takes another eight seconds to set a series of screens that allow Tatum to square off with Thompson, who does a good job cutting off Tatum’s attempt to drive to his right. With little time on the clock remaining, Tatum opts to shoot for a deep three that hits the iron.

It was half-court possessions like the one above – too long, too slow to develop and, ultimately, too narrow in reach and imagination – that cratered the Celtics’ offense in the Finals. Whether that’s a function of the scheme or Tatum’s own limitations as a decision-maker varies — but in terms of the absolute primary offensive option in ball-screen situations, Tatum hasn’t fully matured yet.

On the other hand, Curry has long matured, not just as a pick-and-roll operator, but as an all-around offensive weapon. It’s understandable, given where he stands at this point in his career compared to Tatum: a 34-year-old gaming legend who’s climbing the all-time top charts and is arguably already a member of its highest level.

Tatum is 10 years younger, with a stratospheric rise that has earned him three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and a Finals berth in just five seasons. He’s already made several leaps in his attacking game, with a repertoire growing with each passing season – but suffice to say his death as a pick-and-roll operator still needs work to match or surpass Curry’s own power.

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