The Value Of Paint Touches
One of my biggest gripes with certain analysis during the NBA playoffs stemmed from the critique of a team’s “shot distribution.” My timeline was often littered with complaints about how a team didn’t take enough threes, or how their offense became overly-reliant on contested mid range pull-ups. I’m not discounting these points in a vacuum, in fact, I’m not even denying them. Instead, I’m pushing back on how we arrived at these points and which conclusions we should truly be taking away. I want to engage in a deeper discussion, aiming to find the root cause of these critiques. The biggest misconception about shot types is that you can simply pick and choose your quantities in each area of the court. This utopian approach is a flawed explanation of NBA offense, and completely devalues basketball gravity. It isn’t as simple as “we need to take more corner threes, shoot more of them!” Of course, there are upper echelon talents that can tip the scale one way or another with their self-creation abilities, but for the most part, shots are generated from tilting the defense, forcing them into rotation and then capitalizing. I used corner threes as an example because they’re virtually impossible to self-generate. Also, given that help is typically encouraged from the weak-side lowman, corner threes can be indirectly representative of forcing those said rotations and making the defense pay. I used the word indirectly because this observation is anecdotal from film on my end, but tracking data from 82games.com indicates that 95% of the corner threes tracked in their sample were assisted, which corroborates my personal takeaways.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat” is probably my favorite, and most used, cliche saying when it comes to basketball. The end goal is always the same, putting the round ball in the round bucket. But, the avenues in which a team or player can get there are endless. It would be naive to say that it’s necessary to create advantages and force rotations in order to score, because that’s not true. The NBA is home to the world’s best shotmakers, and sometimes they can beat the defense, without bending it. Those players are incredibly valuable, and being able to reliably generate buckets on command is certainly nothing to scoff at, but the players who can bend defenses at will are in a league of their own when it comes to team-building chess pieces. Oftentimes, I find that relying too much on the former archetype to carry an offensive load can lead you to those timeline critiques I mentioned earlier, especially when there isn’t someone to fill the latter role. Friend of the program, Henry Ward, would arrive at my doorstep in minutes if I didn’t mention that there are other ways to force rotations. Henry’s incredible work focuses on a movement-based, free flowing and quick processing style of offense that sends defense’s into a tizzy without even navigating a ball screen.
(Henry if you read beyond this just know I’m expecting a text)
With that being said, the NBA game gets stagnant when it matters most. Whether it be fatigue or merely just a lack of trust in the overall scheme and all five players on the floor, it’s the reality of the situation. I have my personal qualms about teams resorting to iso-ball in the waning moments of a big game, but seeing that I’m in no position to change that approach, we might as well evaluate the game for what it is. When the game slows down, and player movement comes to halt like traffic on the beltway during rush hour, the easiest form of offense is derived from individual paint touches off the bounce. In the playoffs, we saw a wide array of players excel at personally punishing defenses with the ball in their hands, and the best part? They all did it their own way. This isn’t just restricted to late game situations either, having someone who can routinely carve up the defense brings a certain level of comfort and stability to your offense. Many of the NBA’s best provide ample value by doing this very thing night in and night out, getting two feet in the paint and making plays for themselves and others. However, legitimate paint touches are hard to come by, and I’ve established a few ground rules that should aid in detecting them and properly assessing their worth.
Must Be Easy
In an ode to a critical part of PD Web’s “The Heuristic,” easy paint touches are not just encouraged, but required. The appeal of self-created paint touches as an avenue to shift the defense is that the pressure is always constant, but that pitch falls flat on its face if you’re getting walled off 18 feet from the rim. No player is the real life equivalent of NBA2K17 Westbrook, where even Gary Payton is no match at the POA. There needs to be a consistent diet of drives in a player’s arsenal. The more difficult your average paint touch is, the slimmer the margin for error is when creating them on a possession-by-possession basis. To me, easy is synonymous with clean blow-by’s. The kind of blow-by’s where the primary defender is left in the dust, stuck in their shoes and out of play, forcing a full fledged rotation on the backend to cover their teammate. Taking it a step further, clean blow-by’s are typically synonymous with straight line burst and Usain Bolt-esque acceleration down the straightaway. While that’s certainly true in some cases, and we’ll explore those shortly, there are many ways to create “easy drives.”
All of the NBA’s best advantage creators get easy paint touches, but they each do it in a unique way, and that’s what made this piece so fascinating to study and prepare for. Most of those aforementioned players check all these boxes, and I didn’t want to mention every player in every paragraph. There won’t be a Trae clip in this section, but trust me, I know he wins easily.
De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Schroder are two of the league’s fastest players with the ball in their hands. Whether it be in open transition or in a stagnant half court with the shot clock waning, their sheer speed is evident and overwhelming. In these clips, Fox baits his defender to have this dance, before dusting him and throwing down a thunderous dunk. Schroder’s is extremely similar, selling the pull-up three for a split second and then accelerating past Mike Conley with ease. These possessions are very common for both guards, and both teams can rely on consistent defensive pressure because of it. Drives per game and secondary (hockey) assists are two stats that you’ll hear frequently throughout this piece. Due to their ability to collapse the defense on command, Fox finished tied for 4th in drives per game and Schroder led the league in secondary assists.
Drives are more self-explanatory, but I want to dive a little deeper into secondary assists, and why Schroder finishing atop the list is noteworthy. Hockey assists have typically been equated with smart basketball, boosting players who keep the ball moving and act as a cog in the operation. Nevertheless, when exploring the league leaders in this particular stat, you’ll find far more “creators” than “connectors.” Evaluators in the twitter space have always praised these so-called connectors, prospects that prey on advantages created by others and use quick-processing to deliver the knockout punch. But, I’ve always valued the creation aspect a little more than most. In order to deliver the final blow, someone has to bend the defense and create the said advantage in the first place. That’s where Schroder comes into play. He might not get credited with a typical assist in the box score, but his collapsing of the defense puts his teammate in a favorable position to do so.
There is more to winning easy than simple blow-by’s, and I couldn’t think of someone better to represent that than 2019-20 James Harden. I was infatuated with the Rockets heliocentric approach, and while my views on that have certainly changed, my fawning over Harden’s advantage creation has not. There are legendary stories about how he perfected this craft, and they’re evident every time he invites someone on his island. His unique combination of positional strength, mathematician-like understanding of angles, NBA Street Vol. 2 handle and wicked first step make him unguardable off the bounce.
Poor SGA is simply hopeless here. Harden lulls him to sleep with a series of combos, before viciously snatching over, with SGA stuck in the mud. As I mentioned earlier, Harden could certainly be used as an example for every positive category in this piece, but I couldn’t think of a better poster-child for winning easily. It’s a more nuanced approach than Schroder and Fox, and his generational cabinet of ingredients truly does make him a historically great chef.
Variation Is Key
In previous pieces, I’ve harped on the phrase “predictability is the detriment of success in the NBA” and I think it rings true again here. The elite tier of advantage creators are unguardable because there is always a counter. You can pre-rotate, force them into non-ideal areas of the court, but when push comes to shove, they’re going to find a way. This realization has led to a philosophy point that I wholeheartedly agree with — valuing team-defense more than POA defense. It’s a mature way of taking your medicine and accepting the inevitable, practically acknowledging that your initial layer is bound to be broken, and that your best hope is overwhelming inside the arc with help defense and schemed rotations. The Clippers arguably have two of the league’s best wing defenders, but that didn’t stop Luka from getting whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it.
To me, “variation” and “counters” go hand in hand. It would be unrealistic to expect a player to have Fox’s speed, Kyrie’s handle and Luka’s strength. Every player has their own calling card, one broad go-to avenue that they rely on to create advantages consistently. Think of that calling card as a tree. The best of the best have multiple branches stemming from that tree, where they can leverage that one skill, but with a twist that keeps the defense on their toes. Instead of attempting a straight line blow-by, Fox might hit his defender with a hesi in semi-transition, still leveraging his speed, but in an aspect that the defense wasn’t expecting. Instead of winding his defender down with a series of slow-mo combos before accelerating, SGA might use high-hands to get them to bite on his pull-up three, before swiftly gliding towards the rim. In each scenario, both calling cards — Fox’s speed and SGA’s change of pace — are still apparent, but they were presented as counters. The more counters you have, the more difficult you are to guard, it’s that simple.
I elected to use Luka and SGA as the NBA representatives for this category, as I think they both epitomize compensating for a lack of traditional tools with counters. Neither player is the fastest, strongest or has the tightest handle, but guarding them looks exhausting and miserable. You’ll sit on the first move, maybe even their second and third as well, but there’s always a sliver of defensive exposure available, and these two pounce on that better than anyone else.
I wasn’t being facetious, and I can only imagine how demoralizing it is to be Marcus Morris on this play. He sits on the pull-up, walls off the initial attack and stays relatively square on the re-drive, yet he still can’t stop SGA from skipping through the lane for a layup. Luka and SGA were the two players I had the most fun watching for this piece. Both have an incredibly unique understanding of angles and change of pace, and how to leverage them with one another. Neither of them have the most wicked handle in a vacuum, but in conjunction with everything else in their game, it’s very functional. They don’t need to hang the cross all the way out in an attempt to mimic Allen Iverson, because they already got the defender leaning with a hard step in the opposite direction.
On the simplest surface level, it might even be confusing or mind-boggling how each of them create advantages at the volume that they do. It isn’t orthodox, and it doesn’t pop on a HoopMixtape. But, when put under the microscope, it’s a defensive nightmare. By no means is this the coldest cross I’ve ever seen, but it was a manipulative masterclass from the jump. The changing of speeds, subtle movements to sell each aspect of the move and knowing where to attack are too much for basically any defender to handle.
I mentioned drives earlier in the piece, and it would be irresponsible to not give SGA’s 2021 campaign its proper flowers. NBA tracking data goes back to the 2013-14 season on their site, in that timeframe, only five players — including SGA — have eclipsed 20 drives per game in a single season. The highest of that group was Russell Westbrook in 2020 with 20.8 drivers per game. 2021 SGA sustained a historical volume of on-ball production, clocking in with 25.2 (!!!) drives per game. Of course, some of this is correlated with his situation and free reign of usage, but usage doesn’t equal paint touches. Without having the burstiest first step or the trickiest handle, SGA still managed to turn in one of the best creation seasons in NBA history.
There are always avenues to compensate, and SGA truly brings that to life. His calling card, or tree, is his otherworldly change of pace. Over the years, he’s added branches that enable him to leverage that in a multitude of ways. There are plenty more clips like the one above, and defenses simply just don’t know what to do with him. Every move could be viewed as the knockout punch or the tactical predecessor that sets it up. I personally haven’t figured out how to diagnose between the two, and I think it’s safe to say defenses haven’t either.
Creating advantages and forcing rotations often go hand in hand, but there are levels to which the defense can commit. Can they get away with a stunt and recover? Or do they have to fully sell out and completely rotate? These questions might seem overly analytical and nit-picky, but they absolutely matter when distinctly separating the good creators from the elite creators. Of course, rim rotations are more frequent than hard closeouts that are aimed to run a shooter off the line. Perhaps, that’s why it gets underrated in discourse. The difference in aggressiveness between a Steph Curry closeout and a (insert average three point shooter) closeout is far more stark than the difference in aggressiveness between a Giannis rim rotation and a (insert average slasher) rim rotation. Schemed rim rotations are routine, and I think that’s why we subconsciously undervalue those who force them at a historic rate. On the other hand, locking-and-trailing your opponent on every square inch over half court is not. I’m not suggesting that Giannis’ rim gravity is equal to Curry’s shooting gravity, it’s a moot point that is entirely theoretical. Instead, I’m trying to understand why the latter is properly given his respect, while the former is still sold short in this aspect.
We never see Rudy Gobert purposely not rotate towards a downhill attacker, but we’ve seen defenses sit in the paint and watch non-shooters take practice jumpers on the biggest stage. We actually have seen defenses drop everything to rotate and stop the league’s best slashers, but the chaos is less palpable to the average viewer, simply because we see similar rotations so often. Hard-core rim rotations that open up lanes for individual and team offense often get conflated with those typical schemes, but they shouldn’t be.
Garnering this level of defensive attention around the rim is easier said than done and requires a seasoned profile of volume and efficiency around the rim. LaVine leverages his tools and skill to get to the basket and convert at a very good clip, finishing 2nd among guards in rim attempts per game, while still shooting 63.6% there. Free throw rate, the ratio of FGA to FTA, is also another good benchmark to gauge rim gravity. I’m not suggesting you need to be Jimmy Butler, who is sandwiched in between Jarrett Allen and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but an alarmingly low FTr will usually hinder your ability to fully capitalize on high-end processing speed. Players like Lonzo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton come to mind here. Both will be very valuable NBA players, fitting in the “connector” role, but other players are able to possess more playmaking value — despite not being as smart or skilled as passers — because of their gravity.
In recent years, a new pathway to put pressure on bigs in the paint emerged for smaller guards that might struggle to be enforcers at the rim. While watching the playoffs, I had an anecdotal thought about young guards and their expertise with the floater. Thankfully, my man Dom Samangy took the time to dive into the data, and corroborated my tweet. The floater had typically been pushed aside as an inefficient shot, as most guards will be lucky to shoot 50% on high volume. However, similar to deep pull-up threes, it carries a unique gravity with it.
Some defenses are content with allowing guards to take this shot at will, and I understand it, a barrage of floaters almost certainly won’t kill you. With that being said, basketball players are not robots. They’re humans who are prone to react to whatever has been beating them in that exact moment. Staying disciplined as a rim protector against the league’s best “in-between” guys is easier said than done, and all it takes is one false step to trigger a defensive domino effect.
I’m not sure anyone blends their floater and lob together better than Trae Young. As a Knicks fan, I’m still recovering from round one. The threat of his floater has Randle in no man’s land, and since he never commits, no one on the Knicks rotates on the backend. Trae did this time and time again, completely toying with the defense, without even getting into the restricted area. In a perfect world, Randle takes a better angle and drops all the way towards the rim, but Young’s presence is demanding. To even play devil’s advocate, if Randle steps up to take away the floater, it’ll force a full-fledged rotation, with Trae licking his chops at a skip pass. This isn’t the easiest avenue of pressure, and it requires a high threshold of volume and efficiency to garner the defense’s attention, but it’s certainly feasible.
The last subsection of applying pressure that I wanted to touch on is reactive passing. This resides on the opposite end of the spectrum that I spoke about with Haliburton and Lonzo. Amassing a large amount of rim pressure will consistently demand rotations, some that are even hyper-aggressive, purely in response to the anticipation of what typically happens. Due to these tendencies from the defense, there is a pathway to being a plus-playmaker without checking all of the boxes that would usually need to be checked. I tend to think interior passing (drop offs, lobs, etc) are the simplest form of playmaking. It’s essentially a one stop read, assuming there isn’t an otherworldly help defender behind the play, and doesn’t require the broad-view court mapping that comes with skip passes.
From a statistical standpoint, no one applies more rim pressure than Zion. While he is documented as a capable passer, who has flaunted impressive reads and passing execution dating back to his days in Durham, his playmaking is vastly aided by his rim gravity. After the rip, he attracts the full attention of Moses Brown, enabling a sneaky backdoor cut from his teammate. This wasn’t a difficult read, Zion was simply reading and reacting to what was given to him, but it’s crucial to understand why that door opened up in the first place.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
There was no better way to end it. This is the last portion of the article, but it’s the most important piece of the puzzle. Uncle Ben utters those famous — and incredibly true — words to Peter during a heartfelt conversation, in which he urges him to be cautious of his power. He leaves him with a simple gist, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Both the title quote and my paraphrased overarching theme are eerily applicable in this aspect of the piece. There is only one basketball, and only one person can be dribbling it at a time. The opportunity cost of employing a handler on a given possession is simply that someone else can’t be initiating the offense. In less complicated words, if you want to be on the ball, you better be damn good at it. Now onto a more subjective topic: what does “being damn good” entail? There are multiple tests that one could run, with the goal of attempting to quantify if Player X’s production validates their creation opportunities. I haven’t come across a metric that takes a stab at this (please point one out to me if I’m lacking) and personally, I always come back to this masterpiece from JZ Mazlish titled “The Wrong Initiator.” Site bias aside, JZ elegantly lays out the limitations that come with relying on good, not great, creators to shoulder a heavy usage load.
In the same train of thought, he praises “scalability” in players and prospects, alluding to the flexibility that they provide from a team-building standpoint. A few months back, I posted a twitter poll. It started off as a simple debate between college friends on the beach, and ended in very controversial fashion. I posed the question, “Who would you rather have on your team, Kevin Huerter or Collin Sexton?” I think it’s safe to say the philosophical ideals behind the question went over the head of most, as my mentions were flooded with accounts yelling at me for slandering the Cleveland guard. The point I was getting at was inspired by JZ’s work back in 2018. How do you value creation vs. scalability, especially when the creation is imperfect? Think back to Uncle Ben. There is no doubt that Collin Sexton can play on the ball, but should he?
I don’t want this to come off as me despising Sexton. He’s undoubtedly a good basketball player. There’s only a select group that can score off the bounce like he can, and while acknowledging his pros, the fact that he somewhat handicaps your team from a lineup standpoint is inescapable. Unlike Huerter, he doesn’t provide much value off the ball. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in carrying off-ball gravity, or flying in the passenger seat. Again, Collin Sexton is a very good basketball player, but his lack of scalability and hell-bent nature to play on the ball forces him into a very high threshold, one that I’m not sure he clears. The reason for my potential skepticism for Sexton in this role, as well as everyone else that fits the general small scoring guard archetype, is decision making.
A:TO and box score counting stats aside, Sexton makes too many mind-boggling decisions on film. After coming off the PnR, he doesn’t draw any rotations and everyone is content with staying home — which is okay! However, instead of recognizing what isn’t there and regrouping, he stays fixated on the initial read, forcing something that was never there in the first place.
In my piece about processing speed last year, I wrote: “The easiest way to detect fraudulent processors is when the first read is forced. Whether it’s a drop off to the roll man, or a lob for a scripted ATO play, blindly following the first read is a huge red flag. Not only does it show they didn’t read the defense on that particular play, it also means they were too overwhelmed with the idea of going through progressions. Similar to when a QB hits his checkdown after surveying the entire field, the best initiators are perfectly content with taking their medicine. I’m always impressed when a ball-handler goes through every read, and decides nothing is truly worth it.” Sexton and other scoring guards tend to lack processing speed, which I believe is a requisite for on ball equity. On the flipside, it’s very difficult to not get swayed by passing functionality, and that’s what made Tre Mann so divisive for me as a playmaker. But, when push comes to shove, processing almost always reigns supreme.
Colin Sexton could improve his processing and playmaking, and I would be remiss to paint the picture that improvement is impossible. There are multiple players that would scream otherwise. Jayson Tatum is probably my favorite case. He’s 6’9” and one of the world’s most prominent shotmakers, and I personally think that those two traits have given him a major leg-up on other players when it comes to playmaking improvement.
Defenses are so hung up on his scoring capabilities off the bounce, and in conjunction with his height — which allows him to tower over the defense like a skyscraper and survey the floor — Tatum is able to deliver live dribble skips like this one. I’m relatively confident that off the dribble shooting gravity can be tied to playmaking improvement, purely based on gravity and the extra split-second that you’re gifted to make the read. Theoretically, that would be a positive sign for Sexton and other small gunners, but I’m less optimistic about their improvement. Despite possessing pull-up gravity, I’m not sure it’s enough to compensate for below average processing and size on a NBA floor.
The first three ideals were geared towards how to acquire paint touches, and the final ideal was aimed at who you want acquiring them. It’s easy to get deep in the weeds, and I’m probably as guilty as anyone of this, and it’s crucial to keep the broad overall message in mind. When all else fails, self created paint touches are the most reliable form of offense. When I set out to write this piece, I tasked myself with properly expressing the value of paint touches, while also examining the correct players to entrust with this responsibility. Tough shotmaking will always be a staple in the league, and that might even be a piece for the future, but at the conclusion of this one, I urge all readers to understand the reliability and consistency that comes with paint touches in contrast to shotmaking. Bend don’t break is much easier said than done in the NBA. It requires flawless communication, timing and attention to detail from all five players. Putting the defense in as many of those situations as possible should be the ultimate goal. It can be done in many ways, but standstill self-created paint touches are ultimately the holy grail.