On Monday, as the Sixers were in the process of getting completely out-executed by the masters of execution, the San Antonio Spurs, former Spur Malik Rose offered a silver lining from the broadcast booth.
“It’s been a clinic on the offensive end for the Spurs,” Rose said. “But if you want to take away a positive from that, and it’s a loose positive, the Sixers run the same system. So at least they’re seeing what could be possible if they stay diligent and execute their offense.”
Sixers head coach Brett Brown understands the intricacies of the motion offense that’s come to define the second half of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili era. Unsurprisingly, the former Spurs assistant has brought the successful system to Philadelphia and his youthful corps.
Simply implementing the motion principles won’t turn the Sixers’ offense into a top unit. The roster lacks the firepower and familiarity with each other necessary to execute with Spursian precision.
That’s why Brown has championed a watered-down approach. Basically, the Sixers’ two goals are to push the ball and get to the rim. On both accounts, they’ve been successful so far. Among all teams, the Sixers are playing at the fourth-fastest pace and taking the third-most shots within 5 feet.
Even after the Sixers’ offense has come back down to Earth after a hot start, they’ll still push the ball and attack the rim. But like Rose noted, Brown has also installed the basic elements of the Spurs’ motion attack in the half-court.
We’ll take a look at the offense’s basic “4-out, 1-in” alignment, and the three major sets that the Spurs, and now Sixers, run out of it.
This is the Spur/Sixer motion offense’s standard alignment. A ball-handler (1) picks a side of the floor and brings the ball up the wing, Michael Carter-Williams in this case. Two interchangeable wings line up in the strong-side (2) and weak-side (3) corners, Evan Turner and James Anderson respectively.
For clarification, the numbers in the screen grab are only meant to identify the specific players; within the offense, all three perimeter positions are thought of as interchangeable. For example, Carter-Williams lines up in the corner on plays where Turner has been the primary ball-handler.
Also interchangeable are the two “big” spots, the post (5) that operates on the strong-side block and trailer (4) that camps out around the top of the key on the weak side. On this play, Spencer Hawes is stationed on the block and Thaddeus Young is the trailer, but last week’s post discussed Hawes’ success from the trailer position.
The first set we’ll look at is “Strong,” which the Spurs run in the video above. The action is initiated when the point guard swings the ball to the trailer (1). On that pass, the post player cuts from one block to the other and posts up. If he has the defender sealed or a favorable matchup, the ball can be entered to him.
If the post-up doesn’t work out, the ball is swung from the trailer to the weak-side wing (2). After the pass, the trailer joins the ball-handler in setting a staggered down screen for the strong-side wing.
After the ball is passed to the strong-side wing at the top of the key (3), there are a few options if he’s not open for a shot. On this particular play, Kawhi Leonard decides to run dribble-handoff with the trailer.
There are plenty of different ways to attack the defense within the framework of “Strong.” Below is a video of the Sixers utilizing a couple of them.
The next set is “Weak.” This action is initiated when the ball-handler passes ahead to the strong-side wing (1), as Tony Parker has already done before the camera focuses on the play. Notice how the post player and weak-side wing are still running to their initial positions.
When the strong-side wing passes the ball to the trailer (2), the ball-handler is just about to finish his cut to the weak side. On that pass, the weak-side wing sets a cross screen for the post player. If a post-up opportunity is available, the offense can take it.
After the trailer passes the ball to the ball-handler (3), he runs to around the foul line and sets a down screen for the weak-side wing to finish up a “screen the screener” action. Often, the Spurs’ post player eschews a post-up opportunity to run a sideline pick and roll with the ball-handler, as Tiago Splitter does with Parker here. Danny Green eventually ends up with an open three on this play.
The Sixers also feature this set and have had success in multiple ways. Here are a few examples.
The last set is “Loop.” The action is initiated when the ball-handler dribbles up the strong-side wing towards the corner (1). The strong-side wing “loops” around the post player toward the top of the key, essentially replacing the ball-handler in the original alignment. Simultaneously, the weak-side wing moves toward the block, and the trailer follows.
When the ball-handler swings the ball to the strong-side wing at the top of the key (2), the post player sets a back screen for the ball-handler. After that, there are a few different options, but more often than not, the weak-side wing and trailer set a staggered screen for the ball-handler. Here, the ball eventually finds Green in the corner, which is deadly for a defense.
Similar to the other two sets, the Sixers have run “Loop” a decent bit in the early season. Often, Evan Turner is the ball-handler in these sets, as Brown looks to take advantage of his ability to shoot coming off of screens like the Spurs do with Parker.
The Sixers don’t run these three sets every trip down the floor. Many times, they’ll run something as simple as a high ball screen out of the “4-out, 1-in” look. Surely though, Brown makes sure to mix them in, like last night when James Anderson made a three-pointer against Houston after coming off the down screen in “Weak.”
For an even more in-depth breakdown of the Spurs’ motion offense, I highly recommend checking out this site, which is a great learning tool.
Bob Cooney has been at the Daily News for more than 20 years, working in the sports department for the past 15. This is his third season on the Sixers beat. He has covered just about everything, but mostly college basketball, where he was the La Salle beat writer for six seasons. E-mail Bob at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.