The secret of the Cuisinart
The screening game sharpens the Warriors offense
BY DAVID THORPE
Even after a couple of short-handed stumbles against the Mavericks and Pelicans, the Warriors are an incredible 29-9 without Klay Thompson or James Wiseman. As John Hollinger pointed out the other day, a lot of the best play has come from players who don’t make much money. They have something going that will matter in the playoffs.
2022 kicked off with two of the West’s best going head to head in Utah: the Warriors and the Jazz. Of course the Warriors feature Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr’s clever offense that we like to call The Cuisinart. The Jazz counter with one of the best defensive tandems in the NBA. Rudy Gobert—to me, arguably the best defender of all time—and Mike Conley, who has spent most of his career with some of the league’s best advanced stats at his position. Ask Curry to describe what kind of guard can give him problems and I’d bet he’d use words like ultra quick, experienced, and expert. That’s Conley, who has the smarts and speed to harass guards into the mistake of attacking Gobert, who makes paint shots as tough as can be.
Curry opened the game with three misses that had to make the hardworking Conley and Gobert Jazz happy. He missed a 21-foot pull-up jumper, a 16-foot jumper, and a 27-foot 3-pointer. Then he hit a 3, had a turnover, and hit a 16-foot pullup jumper. That’s when this play happened.
Kevon Looney, maybe the slowest player on the court, gets a dunk, putting the visiting Warriors up nine even though Stephen Curry isn’t having a great night. Conley and Gobert are visibly miffed, and go on to lose badly as the less-famous Warriors rolled.
How does this happen?
I am delighted to explore with you. The Jazz competed extremely hard and succeeded at taking easy shots away. But there’s something that goes unseen and unspoken about the Warriors brand of offensive basketball. And it is bone-crushing. Recently we discussed the pass as the key skill of 2022.
Now, let’s talk about screening.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same”
–Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
When Steve Kerr first took over in Oakland he determined that the Warriors would use screens–a lot more screens. It was an idea from the 1920s. Under their previous coach, Mark Jackson, Golden State focused more on ball screens, Kerr came up with a plan to better utilize his “Splash Brothers” backcourt with more off-ball screens. “I’ve always been a big believer in off-ball screens because it occupies the defense,” Kerr told the Washington Post in 2018, citing John Stockton’s ability to generate the powerful Utah Jazz offense when Kerr was a player with his famous cross screens for Karl Malone. In the same article Kerr praises Curry’s screening ability as his most underrated gift. (Curry’s Masterclass wasn’t on shooting, it was on using screens.)
The best screens are set by the biggest men. Once upon a time, these men had huge, lumbering bodies. They could own the area around the rim and that’s about it. They looked as if they were made of concrete. But concrete makes a very tough wall. Solid and immobile doesn’t work for much in basketball, but it’s amazing as a screen. Kevon Looney has been among the best in the league at this for years.
In 2010, I was lucky enough to attend the Wizards training camp–John Wall’s first–at George Washington University. The late, great Flip Saunders told me that his longtime player, Kevin Garnett, was the best screen setter in the NBA. It wasn’t because he was built like a Mack Truck—KG was always extra lean. It was because he made his legs borderline illegal wide, and held the screen for as long as needed to make maximum trouble for the defender. KG was not a slipper.
I’ve been teaching it that way ever since. It works. That wide base causes the chasing defender to have to take an extra step to avoid tripping or just slamming into the screener. Holding it is what causes the first domino to fall, adding pressure to the remaining four defenders to solve the just-created problem of an open man attacking off the screen. If KG ever teaches clinics on this, every NBA player would be wise to attend.
Now watch that Looney screen above one more time. Looney is the slowest player on the court, and it makes me want to hug him when we see how long he holds a position that totally stymies Conley. The result: Gobert absolutely has to commit to guarding Steph. This creates a panic attack for the whole Jazz defense—and Looney just waltzes to a dunk. All because of one great screen.
The 3-point shot now dominates the game, which has reduced the league’s supply of concrete. For all kinds of reasons, teams field big men who are far fleeter, more nimble, and skilled. Consider what Gobert had to do in that very same play. Nowadays, even centers have to stop and start quickly while changing directions as they run shooters off the line before trying to contest shots inside. Instead of concrete, today’s big men are more like water, fluidly moving through the gravitational pull of the game's best marksmen.
A lot of defenses today handle screens by switching. If Conley switches to guard Looney, and Gobert just slides over to guard Curry, at least everyone knows where to be, and no one is left open.
Such nimble big men, like Knicks star Julius Randle have a trick to deal with that. He can do a lot more than hold a screen. He can shoot 3s. He can put the ball on the floor. He is a threat with or without the ball. The way to punish switching defenses is to set up like you’re setting a screen, then just as your defender starts to focus on the ball-handler who is about to become his man, you stop screening entirely and slip away just before contact. There is an art to it–you can really make defenses anxious with the right mix of screens and slips.
The Warriors aren’t perfect at creating good looks without Curry, but they are surprisingly effective at running the Cuisinart to create smooth looks. The Knicks are the opposite–they have a bottom-10 offense that has a hard time creating easy buckets for anyone. This play has clues that you can see repeated again and again. Randle starts to set a screen for Kemba Walker, but clearly would rather score. He slips away before it even looks much like a screen. (The Knicks only scored because they got lucky. Washington’s Raul Neto overran Kemba Walker’s right hand attack, and then ran into Mitchell Robinson on his way back into position.) This kind of bad screen setting is all over this NBA season.
Last week I heard two stories about what coaches have been stressing recently. Screens are the issue. I mentioned on BRING IT IN on Monday that Bulls coach Billy Donovan told his team that even through COVID restrictions and roster change, they can still set good screens. Another coach, I heard from a player, said the problem with our offense is that we don’t screen ANYONE!! I jumped on Synergy and confirmed both of their beliefs. It was as if the team’s big men were allergic to screens.
Long ago I read a Hubie Brown lecture about offense and he wrote “we set screens for one reason, to make defenders think.” This is what happened inside my head when he said it. To this day it stands as the single smartest basketball truism I’ve ever learned. In the 1920s, coaches started using screens to create better shots because man-to-man defenses had evolved into more effective strategies to prevent them. Nearly 100 years later we are witnessing a new evolution that has the game reverting back to sturdy bodies standing firm. Given the new allowances for defenders to play more physically, while being taller, longer, and more agile than ever across the roster, screen-setting is as important as ever. They create crises for the defense.
I remember taking notes as Mike Fratello, circa 1993, lectured for an hour on the “eight ways to defend the pick and roll.” Coaches today spend forever talking about things like hard hedge, flat hedge, ice, weak, trap, switch, jump switch, or go under. The defenders in the mix have a lot of choices to make. It only works well if both defenders make the same choice. If they don’t move in concert, they’re delivering the breakdown that the offense wanted. Just as Coach Brown suggested, the action of the screen forced the opponents to think, and getting five men to think the same possession after possession is deeply challenging in the fast-moving environment of NBA basketball.
Remember, that list was for defending ball screens, and as noted, teams like the Warriors utilize off-ball screens too. Pin downs, pin ins, wide pins, flare screens, zipper screens, the list is long and effective, as defenses have a similar set of rules and reads for these actions too. Slowing down well-conceived offenses can be dizzying and humbling.
The scheme of a screen is important, but they only win you games if someone commits to SET THE SCREENS. This is where the Warriors are bone-crushing. They’re so effective they ran the same play moments later against the Jazz.
This is how they attacked Gobert—make him show on Curry and the Jazz defenders behind him were toast, have him stay home near the point and a good screen allows Curry just enough time to get his shot off. It’s how Draymond Green adds so much value to their offense despite not being much of a shooting threat. When defended by rim protectors, he does just what Looney did.
The saying “the screener is always open” is especially true when you screen for Stephen Curry. When Klay Thompson returns, if indeed he shows he can still shoot on the move, the Warriors’ offense will only improve, because they know exactly how to capitalize. With Curry having his worst shooting season since 2012-13, the team has the a solid offense, even though two of their starters can’t shoot 3s at all. How do they do that? By having everyone on the roster take screening seriously. Warriors’ screens create meaningful separation. Even at 80 percent of his former self, Thompson can nudge them up the list of the league’s best offenses. If he doesn’t hurt their league-best defense, there’s no doubt the Warriors will be this year’s title favorites by playoff time.
The Warriors racked up 39 assists against the Jazz, then reached that same crazy total again at home against the Heat two nights later, despite Curry’s missing 14 of his 17 shots. Jordan Poole went off for 32 and everyone not named Curry made 42 of their 75 shots (13-28 from 3). If the 39 assists seem high to you, you are right. Those two games were tied for the second-most assists for any game this season. But here’s what is really interesting: Almost all of the biggest assist totals have been made since Christmas.
What is going on? In some cases, teams have started hitting 3s like they did last season. But I think we are seeing something else: replacement players on defense. Against a great defense, shooters don’t get open as often, and even when they do get open, they tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves to capitalize. There is no pressure like that when facing, say, this year’s Charlotte Hornets. Missing an open shot means less–another one is right around the corner.
There’s a lot happening on the court this time of year. Defenses have been allowed to be far more physical, while a lot of teams have been without stars owing to injuries or protocols. Both of those things are arguments to run a systemic offense, to move the ball more, to create opportunities with the pass.
New players are seldom part of great team defense. The best defenses move as one, on a string. It’s just not possible when a lot of those players are new to the league and the team, and haven’t had practice time. There’s plenty to read and react to on the defensive side of the court, both individually and collectively. There's also the matter of knowing personnel—teammates and opponents—which is a challenge to every new player to the league.
It’s a great time for assists. With Omicron breaking infection records throughout America and in the NBA, G-League call-ups and “old guy drafts” (hello Bismack Biyombo!) will likely be the norm for another few weeks. After the rosters and rotations firm up, it will be interesting to see if defenses regain the mojo they had to start the year. One thing is certain though: Teams who successfully preach and then execute great screen setting will benefit whether stars are back or not.
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