Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, widely considered two of the NBA’s most notorious gunners, are making things happen on offense with their passing. Obviously, each is still using their fair share of offensive possessions – Bryant currently ranks 7th in the league in usage rate and Anthony is 1st (we’re not counting Josh Howard, who has played just one game), according to HoopData - but they have shown a willingness to defer that has not previously been evident in either one of their games.
With Bryant, it’s easy to see changes on the surface. He appears more willing to trust that a teammate will make the shot, or the right subsequent pass, when he gets them the ball than in the previous few seasons, and that trust, combined with his incredibly high basketball IQ and ability to read help defense has resulted in a career high 29.2 AST% (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assists on while he is on the floor), as well as his lowest usage rate (29.1) since the 2003-04 season.
With Steve Nash out injured, Kobe’s being used as a pick-and-roll ball handler quite often, and he’s making all the right reads in those situations. In the first half against the Brooklyn Nets last night, all three of Bryant’s assists came out of the pick-and-roll, and all he really had to do was make the easy read each time.
On the first play of the game, the Lakers start out in horns. Bryant enters the ball to Gasol at the left elbow, and after some brief off-ball movement, Kobe gets a side pick-and-roll with Howard, and he gets trapped by both his man, Gerald Wallace, and Howard’s, Kris Humphries. To compensate for the trap, Brook Lopez crashes down on Howard’s dive to the rim, leaving Gasol wide open just above the right elbow. Rather than trying to force his way around the trap to shoot, Kobe makes the (relatively) easy pass and Pau gets the basket.
Later in the first half, the Lakers are again about the line up in horns, but Howard sets a drag screen on Kobe’s man about six seconds into the shot clock. This type of early offense screen is one of the foundational plays in Mike D’Antoni’s playbook. Gasol’s station outside the 3-point line on the weak side pulls Lopez out of the lane, so when Wallace tries to go over Howard’s screen at the same time that Humphries hedges hard, Howard is wide open after slipping the pick. When Dwight catches just inside the lane, he’s already drawn Lopez about five feet away from Gasol, and Deron Williams abandons Darius Morris in the corner. Though Dwight turns this into an easy hook, he had two teammates who were even more wide open.
In the last minute of the half, he gets the same read as on the first play of the game. He gets trapped off a pick-and-roll with Howard, and when Lopez crashes down on Howard’s dive, he hits Pau with a bounce pass for an open jumper.
Rather than try to force his way around these traps, or dribble out of them to isolate on one of the defenders, he’s picking his spots. That’s led to hyper-efficient scoring on both pick-and-roll and isolation plays, as well as a drastic shift in the percentage of each that he’s using so far this season. Just 16.5% of his plays (down from 27.9% last season) that have ended with a FGA, FTA or TO this season have been isolations, per mySynergySports, compared to 25.4% (a massive increase over 12.2% from last season) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. His 1.19 PPP in isolation and 0.98 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler rank 2nd and 5th in the league, respectively, compared to when he finished with 0.86 PPP and ranked 46th and 41st on each play last year.
His willingness to pass out, the ball movement that results from that first pass, and the extra help defenders Howard and Gasol are each drawing has created more space for everyone on the court. One thing we’ve seen numerous times is some variation of this:
Kobe runs a pick-and-roll with Dwight and gets trapped. Pau’s defender crashes down into the lane to tag Dwight on the roll (or half-heartedly doesn’t and leaves Dwight wide open for the subsequent pass, as we’ll see below), so Kobe hits Pau above the elbow. Then, just as Pau’s defender starts to recover on the elbow jumper, he slides a pass to Dwight next to the rim for a layup or a dunk before Howard’s man can recover. This, or he runs the pick-and-roll with Pau, who gets left open, and then Dwight’s man comes over to guard him and Pau hits Dwight near the rim. Either or.
But really, these are the “easy” passes for Bryant to make out of the pick-and-roll. He’s reading one level of defense and finding the open man. The more difficult passes, the really impressive ones, come at the second level. The easiest version of that more difficult pass came against the Pistons in the Lakers’ first impressive offensive performance of the season.
Here he just beats the strong side help defense by finding Blake drifting toward the corner. Simple pass to beat the defense.
Against the Rockets, this was one slightly more difficult, but it’s still as simple as hitting the outlet man when the guard crashes down on the rolling big after the pick-and-roll. Chris Duhon is wide open and gets a catch-and-shoot 3-point look. It’s not an especially difficult pass for Kobe to make, even though it’s backward across his body, but he’s been more willing the make the pass this year than last.
And this one is again a little bit more difficult. Kobe takes Pau’s screen and gets into the lane, where he draws four defenders and spots Darius Morris in the weak side corner for a 3-pointer.
Though the willingness to give up the ball more often has been readily apparent in Bryant’s numbers, the same is not the case for Anthony. The Knick forward is averaging a career-low in both assists per game and AST%, and his usage rate is just 0.4% below his career high. But those numbers bely the fact that Anthony has shown more willingness to pass the ball out of double teams in the post than in many previous years, and that he’s reading defenses at another level this year. As Zach Lowe wrote at Grantland, it’s a good bet than Anthony is among the league leaders in “hockey assists” this season. His passing, particularly out of the post, is jump-starting the Knicks’ ball movement around the perimeter.
Against the Hornets last night, Anthony’s entire passing arsenal was on display. There was the simple, one pass away kickout to an open shooter.
This is the type of pass that Melo has always been able – even if not always willing – to make. It’s fairly easy to beat a strong side help defender when they double, especially when you’re as effective a scorer out of the post as Anthony has been this season. He’s posting up more than ever before – 23.7% of his plays according to Synergy – and has been incredibly efficient with 1.06 PPP, 6th best in the league so far. What’s made him all the more dangerous is that he’s been willing to pass out when doubled, and the Knicks have capitalized by knocking down those shots. Non-Melo Knicks are shooting 41.3% on spot-up 3′s this season. Raymond Felton (7-19), Jason Kidd (9-20) and JR Smith (12-19) have been the primary benefactors of Anthony’s newfound willingness to dish it out.
Those guys have all also shown their willingness to keep moving the ball off kickouts from Anthony, resulting in open looks for one of the others, or Ronnie Brewer, Steve Novak or Rasheed Wallace. The Knicks aren’t just playing one pass and shoot type ball. When that kickout comes, they’ll throw a pump fake and move it to the next guy, again and again until they find an open look. Plenty of Knicks possessions wind up looking something like this:
But again, that’s still a one-pass-away type of look from Carmelo. The more impressive stuff is when he’ll read the second level (these links are more videos) of the defense and throw those skip passes, as Lowe mentioned in the Grantland piece linked above. He did this multiple times in the first half against the Hornets last night, and has indeed been doing it all season long. It may not always result in a made basket, but when it does, it’s so pretty.
The way the Hornets defend this possession – sending a help defender from the weak side corner to overload the strong side, is the way a lot of teams defend isolations or post-ups, banking on the fact A. the pass to that weak side corner is a difficult one to make for most players and B. their defenders will be quick enough to rotate around and contest the shot. But the Knicks this season are loaded with quick-release guys like Novak and Smith, as well as guys (Kidd especially, along with Felton and to a lesser extent, Pablo Prigioni) who are extremely willing to just keep moving the ball around and eventually force the rotating defense into a mistake that opens up a shot or a driving lane two or three more passes down the line.
So while the improvement in Anthony’s passing may not be staring you in the face in his numbers like it is for Kobe, it’s certainly there, and it’s key to what the Knicks are doing. Whether it’s because of his coach, the veteran players on the team or simply that he was sick of being talked about as lesser than his Class of 2003 Draftmates, Melo has made a concerted effort to “do the right thing” on the court. Though he’s still been prone to bouts of repetitive isolation jumpers occasionally, he’s mostly been willing to draw double teams, kick the ball out and jumpstart ball movement, or to find the open man across the court. He’s evolving as a playmaker, and it shows.