Coach: The Value of Shooters
Shot-Making Against Closeouts
Ray Allen to the Miami HEAT and Steve Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers: If this week of free agency has taught us nothing else, it is that shot-making still matters. Both situations serve as an excellent reminder of the value of shooters, even if they are on a steep slope with regard to other skills.
A central reason that players such as these still provide teams value, even with limited or severely limited skills, is the effect they have on opposing defenses specifically as it relates to closeouts. A closeout is when a player catches the ball on the perimeter and a defender reduces the distance between his help position and his on-ball defensive position.
The vast majority of closeouts require defenders to approach in a low stance with short, choppy steps. This allows the defender to be prepared in case the offensive player attacks off the dribble. In some cases, closeouts are hard, with defenders getting well up into the body of the offensive player. In others, the closeout is softer, sometimes with an arms-length or more of space between the two players.
Closeout intensity is typically governed by the quality of shooter (or, alternately, their ability to penetrate). If a player is a fair or mediocre shooter, but a good to great penetrator (Rajon Rondo), the closeout is usually soft. The better the shooter, the more aggressive the closeout.
Really special shooters change this equation entirely. When a shooter with the reputation and historical background of Steve Nash or Ray Allen are placed into the equation, it puts defenses in the awkward position of having to either close out even more aggressively (what is known as a fly-by) or of changing their typical alignment in help defense to prevent such long closeout distances.
Both the Miami HEAT and the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on their opponents to make adjustments such as these next season. Consider this: Allen positioned in the corner on the weakside as LeBron James receives a pass at the elbow area in Miami’s horns alignment. James turns to attack. Allen’s defender, wary of being late on his closeout, takes a half step toward his mark, opening up a crease for James to engage. The play ends with James absorbing a foul as he looks to complete a layup.
Beyond his value as a spot up shooter like Allen, Nash will also force teams to protect against his probing penetration. Those talents tend to confuse and stun defenders, and by moving off the ball with backdoor cuts by Kobe Bryant and duck-ins from Andrew Bynum (not to mention the savvy of Pau Gasol), the Lakers offense could be extremely hard to guard.
Of course, there are limits to the soundness of this theory. The effectiveness of Allen and Nash is limited by their physical deficiencies: if they become unable to shoot, or if the threat of their shooting ability is neutralized, they become liabilities on the court rather than assets. This change in status will happen quickly, and unfortunately for both the HEAT and Lakers, is typically exacerbated toward the end of a grueling season, around playoff time.
The reality is that both teams have chosen to accept that risk and are willing to live with the consequences, hoping that it gives them an opportunity in the here and now. Sometimes, fortune favors the bold.
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Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Macri is a consultant to the ASEAN Basketball League (the first regional pro sports league in southeast Asia), offering strategic analysis on basketball and business development, league operations, and marketing. Previously, Macri served as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, as the business manager at the IMG Basketball Academy, and has coached at two nationally ranked high school programs. The Coach’s Notebook is a weekly feature on HOOPSWORLD.