How Denver's Old Dribble-Drive Offense Could Be the Perfect Fit for the Revamped Pelicans
This has been an offseason filled with change for the New Orleans Pelicans. The franchise not only ditched its nickname but also overhauled its personnel through two trades and one surprising free-agent signing. Out with the Hornets moniker were Robin Lopez and Greivis Vasquez — two players responsible for more than 60 combined minutes a night last season. Taking at least some of those minutes will be All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. With such a shift in the roster, finding a scheme that can incorporate both the Pelicans new acquisitions and holdovers (Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, and Ryan Anderson) is priority no. 1 for head coach Monty Williams.
Before speculating on what changes could be made, it’s important to assess what Williams and the Pelicans lost. Though many didn’t notice because of the team’s place in the standings, Vasquez was the driving force behind a surprisingly competitive offense last season. The team’s offense finished in the middle of the NBA despite getting virtually no production from the small forward position, a disastrous rookie season from first-round pick Austin Rivers, and no real outside shooting aside from Anderson and Roger Mason Jr., who averaged only 17.7 minutes a night. A large reason for that was Vasquez’s emergence as a playmaker capable of soaking up a large chunk of possessions with better than average results. He put up a career high in PER (16.34) even though his usage rate — a metric used to calculate the number of possessions a player uses when he’s on the court — of 24.2 put him just behind eternal gunner J.R. Smith, and just ahead of more celebrated offensive centerpieces like Chris Paul and Manu Ginobili.
While Holiday and Evans can easily assume the same responsibilities, it’s how Vasquez spent the majority of his time on offense that may necessitate a change in Williams’s scheme.
Vasquez spent most of his time operating out of pick-and-rolls, an area in which both Holiday and Evans aren’t overly effective. The NBA’s staple action accounted for 42.6 percent of Vasquez’s total possessions. The newly arrived Holiday relied on the pick-and-roll almost as much — 38 percent of his total possessions — but the former Sixer wasn’t nearly as productive. Holiday finished in just the 68th percentile of all NBA guards according to Synergy data. Vasquez was in the 74th. Evans, on the other hand, ran less than half the number of ball screens as Holiday and has never been a successful high-volume pick-and-roll player at any point in his career. With the exception of a weirdly awesome 2010-11 season with the Clippers, Gordon has a similar pick-and-roll history as Evans (though subjectively, he is probably the best of the current New Orleans trio).
The three Pelicans (that sounds like the start of a children’s book) have strengths in different areas. Holiday and Evans are at their best taking players off the bounce, and Gordon was a monster both spotting up and attacking closeouts for the Clippers (though his past two injury-filled seasons have been less than stellar). To effectively use the individual skills of his three guards — and of Anderson and Davis — Williams needs to find an offense that allows those players to be at their best, and to find such a system, he needs to look no further than a conference foe.
From high school to the pros
Under George Karl, the Denver Nuggets ran an offensive scheme that perfectly mirrored their head coach’s philosophy of battering teams with an endless series of forays into the paint for layups and free throws. In order to obtain his goal of 30 combined layups and free throws every game, Karl sought to utilize an offense that played fast, but was based off equal-opportunity dribble penetration in the half court. What he found was an innovative system called the dribble-drive motion, or DDM. In order to implement the offense properly, Karl even recruited the man who invented it, Vance Walberg. A high school and college coach for most of his life, Walberg spent the past two seasons in the NBA (2012 being the first year he was an assistant in an official capacity) helping Karl turn the Nuggets into a relentless, attacking force with concepts from a system he created in the high school ranks nearly two decades earlier.
“Back then, I called it AASAA [which stood for attack-attack-skip-attack-attack],” Walberg says. “When I created this, I never expected it to get to this level. I just did it for my own team.”
With the AAU system equipping the vast majority of American players with the ability to break down players off the dribble, and NBA teams focusing more and more on finding new methods to get high-value shots — free throws, layups, and corner 3s — Walberg’s dribble-drive concepts are something that teams like New Orleans should be open to implementing. The Nuggets used Walberg’s principles to finish fourth in the league in half-court free throw percentage (the number of possessions they drew fouls), despite lacking the star-caliber players who typically draw a high volume of calls.
Despite what the name implies, this isn’t a 1990s-style offense that requires one player to handle in isolation while the rest of his teammates just stand around (“It’s not ‘my turn, your turn,’” as Walberg puts it). The basic premise of the offense calls for players to use motion and cuts off the ball in order to create gaps for teammates to attack the heart of a defense. Once the dribble penetration starts, players are looking to get to the rim, drop it off to a big man working the baseline (called the rack zone), or kick it out to a teammate on the perimeter who can then attack against a shifting defense.
Single, double, and triple gaps are the terms used to describe the size of the alley a ball handler can find to attack the rim in an attempt to create one of the high-value shot types wanted by basketball teams across all levels. Even though they didn’t use Walberg’s exact terminology, the goal for the Nuggets was to create as many of the bigger driving lanes as possible with their cuts, on-ball screens, and movement — like this play against the Suns in April last year.
According to Walberg, the Nuggets only ran the true dribble drive about 5 percent of the time, but their ball screens, or in this case Wilson Chandler slipping the screen, basically acted as the version of the cuts he originally designed to start the cycle of movement and penetration in the half court. As Chandler slips and moves toward the rim, his defender — who would otherwise be occupying a help position on the nail (middle of the free throw line) — is forced to stay with him, opening up a huge lane into the paint of which Andre Iguodala takes advantage. The distance between Iguodala and Evan Fournier is roughly free throw line extended to free throw line extended. In the lingo of the dribble drive, that amount of space is a double gap, the bare minimum amount of space Walberg wanted his teams to create before looking to attack the rim.
While creating triple gaps (think ball handler at the top of the key driving toward the side with only one offensive player, positioned in the deeper corner) is ideal, the most vital part of the system’s success is resisting the urge to attack single gaps. Driving into a single gap — about eight to 12 feet of space — is something Walberg always wanted his teams to avoid. In the following clip, Chandler tries to drive from the corner against the Dallas defense, despite having no more than a few feet of real estate on either side of him.
That turnover is precisely why cuts and movement are needed to bring about the space necessary to make this offense truly productive. “To me, single gaps are like 50-50 passes — it might get there, it might not,” Walberg says. “If you attack that single gap, your turnover ratio is going to go up.”
Despite directives like that, the offense itself — especially the version molded by Karl — remains very simple. Players have the freedom to create when the opportunity is right, but when it’s not there, they can simply move the ball and cut to open up opportunities for a teammate to put pressure on the defense with a drive toward the rim. Standing and ball-watching don’t belong in this system. The concepts are easy enough to get players to understand and commit to them, creating a fluid system that suits the modern day preference for shot efficiency over hero ball. But just because it sounds great on paper doesn’t mean every team should run it. You need the right personnel.
Lighting up scoreboards in the Big Easy
In most respects, the Pelicans lack players with traditional skill sets. Neither of their best bigs is a great post-up player, and their guards lack the nuanced expertise required for top-notch pick-and-roll play. But for the dribble drive, the Pelicans’ best five players (and even some of their reserves) are a perfect match. For the dribble drive to work it needs two shooters to man the corners (Gordon and Anderson), two players who can drive it up top (Evans and Holiday), and a big man that’s a Tyson Chandler–esque threat to cut to the rim and finish with a lob (Davis). In this system, every core player on the Pelicans should be able to play to their strengths and, in some cases, have their weaknesses mitigated.
The key to it all is Anderson. His outside shooting makes the system a true four-out offense — something that eluded the Nuggets most of the season because their big men were the more traditional pair of Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos. Anderson’s outside shooting will make life easier on everyone (and yes, I realize that’s true in most offenses). But for Evans in particular, Anderson will provide something that’s been a foreign concept for Evans since the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins in Sacaramento: space.
In his rookie season, free of the Cousins fiasco, Evans averaged 8.4 attempts at the rim per game, according to HoopData. The season after Cousins arrived, that number immediately dropped to 6.2 and has not been above 7.0 attempts per game since. Evans, who ran the dribble drive at the University of Memphis, has always possessed an elite ability to break players down off the dribble but has rarely had the chance to work with a frontcourt partner who could pull an opposing defender away from the basket. In a system that combines Anderson’s shooting ability with an emphasis on dribble penetration, Evans could finally take the next step in his career. And with the way the system is structured — multiple players acting as de facto point guards with lots of opportunities to drive and create — the gripes Evans supposedly had about playing the 3 full-time may become a non-issue, allowing Williams to potentially move him into the starting lineup.
Anderson’s shooting will be his primary asset, but his limitations as a driver could become less of an issue since proper execution of the gap principles make even middling ball handlers more effective.
“When you have a player who is not a great driver and you give him that triple gap,” says Walberg, “you’re gonna be surprised at how much better he is than what you originally thought.”
There is also some flexibility in the system to allow for Anderson to be a pick-and-pop player — like Wilson Chandler was for the Nuggets — should he get matched up against a quicker defender or still prove unable to beat opponents off the dribble.
As for Holiday, whose poor free throw rates contribute to his ghastly true shooting percentage of 49.6 percent, Walberg points out that moving to a system with the spacing and movement the dribble drive provides could allow him a greater chance to draw more fouls. In Philadelphia, Holiday faced a similar situation to the one Evans saw with the Kings — a roster devoid of frontcourt (or really any) shooters. By adding as many as three or four more trips to the line per game, Holiday could improve his overall effectiveness as a scorer. Holiday’s backcourt mate Gordon, meanwhile, gets to go back to his strengths of being a nightmare for a closing defender forced to choose between letting the sweet-shooting Gordon pull up from distance or cruise by on a drive to the rim.
No player, though, would stand as much to gain from a shift to this system as Davis. The long, lanky dunk machine could be a nightly fixture on SportsCenter highlight reels, thanks to a cast full of guards driving to the paint, sucking in a help defender, and lobbing the ball up to Davis to finish at the rim. Reading penetration is something Davis is better equipped for right now than putting pressure on opposing defense with post-up or isolation play. With his frame, the physicality of battling in the post on both sides of the ball isn’t something Davis is suited for yet (or maybe ever).
Walberg, who already is inclined to keep his bigs out of wrestling matches in the paint, agrees. “To me, especially in the NBA with how much pounding there is down there, you have to worry about it,” he says.
Besides, as Tyson Chandler proved with both the Mavericks (who dropped from eighth in offensive efficiency in 2011 to 20th the year after he left) and Knicks, the ability to finish boosts an entire offense as much, if not more so, than a dominant post player. Walberg says bigs in the dribble drive read help by taking one step toward the rim for every step their defender takes toward an oncoming teammate. Opposing bigs will be less willing to help if every step means Davis is one step closer to slamming down a lob.
As Williams attempts to push the Pelicans into playoff contention in a brutal Western Conference, it will be interesting to see how he integrates his new personnel. For a coach, it’s always about getting the most out of your players, and Williams has to find concepts that fit his eclectic group. Walberg’s dribble-drive system seems to be the right choice for the New Orleans head coach to do just that.