NBA Film Study: Scouting for Opponents’ Tendencies

Scouting reports are especially vital at the highest levels of basketball.

They prepare players for personnel tidbits, identify an opponent’s best or most frequent sets, and unify the team in a direction for how to attack both. Those reports will have a video and written component most times, so different learners can digest the information differently.

With dozens of advance scouts, video coordinators and assistants looking ahead to future opponents, there’s a great deal that goes into these reports.

While these reports are glancing overviews that include only the most relevant information, some minutia is important as well. Games are won and lost in the details, so the teams that can best win those moments and be prepared for them gain an edge. That’s why player and team tendencies are so well-documented and thorough on websites such as Synergy.

Thanks to the help of Synergy’s technology, we’re able to bring you inside a few of the smaller tidbits that need to make their way into an NBA team’s preparations. Here are five tendencies from just the first two weeks that should be mentioned at some point within the detailed scouting report:

Lakers Tip Play

Scouting the Los Angeles Lakers for an upcoming game? The first thing assistant coaches should be screaming about is a lob play the Lakers run for JaVale McGee if they win the tip. Twice over the last week they have tried it, (and nearly succeeded):

Good grief, JaVale is still bouncy. The tip play is a fairly standard one that teams at high levels will run. McGee, the jumper at the circle, tips it backwards with his dominant right hand, bringing it to the Lakers attacking left wing.

Stationed at the top of the key in the attacking end is a shooter or smaller guard, likely someone checked by a point guard. His job is to try and force a switch with a physical back screen. After the tip, McGee takes off and curls over the top on the right side. That way he catches and finishes a lob with his strong hand.

It’s crazy a set like this works. Most players are so used to taking their time to get into the flow of the game that they aren’t ready for an action literally from the jump. McGee, a premier jump ball winner, gets on the board quick.

Of course, the easiest way to thwart this would be to win the tip. Second would be sprinting back to help as soon as the Lakers win the jump; it’s not that complicated of a play to stop if you’re ready for it.

It may sound silly, but if these two points can be controlled and negated, it will have an impact in the end. Scouts should bring this up when going over scouting reports with their team.

Grizzlies Backdoor ATOs for Ja Morant

Speaking of specific scouting situations, the Memphis Grizzlies have worked diligently to get Ja Morant going out of timeouts. When Morant is on, opposing point guards begin to crowd him and try to take away his rhythm. They jump dribble handoffs to deny him the ball, bump him on his cuts due to his slender frame and top-lock any screening actions for him.

Those defenders are gambling on the Grizzlies not having enough creation around Morant.

First-year head coach Taylor Jenkins prepares Morant well for these situations. As soon as he sees that physicality come at his rookie point guard, he’ll use the next timeout to dial up a backdoor set. These are now coming about once a game, a fair frequency for backdoors.

One is a misdirection out of the Philly, or Iverson, formation. Morant is in the weak-side corner, cuts along the baseline, and as a pass is made to the elbow, he fakes one way and goes the other:

Zero help-side defense is able to get to the rim fast enough. Morant sells these cuts with grace into a subdued explosion. He’s so damn quick and was already utilized in some Blind Pig-type actions at Murray State a year ago. His ability to go from zero to sixty makes him an incredibly dangerous backdoor cutter.

Another ATO is necessary to avoid the monotony of one set being a backdoor for Morant. So, the Grizzlies get the same type of finish (an elbow entry to a backdoor for Morant) with different moving parts to start things off.

Instead of a Philly cut and Morant roving the baseline, here he brings the ball up and watches a stagger turn into a Horns formation:

Morant is firmly atop all Grizzlies scouting reports. One line or tidbit must go into how they spring him free for backdoors out of timeouts or when he gets pressed. It’s vital the help-side be alive if opponents are going to continue squeezing Morant off the ball.

Marcus Smart: Switch to Mismatch Post

The inclusion in a pre-game report of this facet only applies to teams with severely thin or undersized guards.

If they are going to play against the Boston Celtics, Marcus Smart will hunt them down and find them. He’s targeted some of the shorter guards in recent games—Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry and Devonte Graham:

Smart targeted Graham three times in the fourth quarter of their game with Charlotte and found numerous ways to drag him into the post. Cross-match scenarios occur during those transition defense moments when teams scramble back after a miss or a turnover. Smart can walk into the post and have his way with a runt if he gets the right matchup.

Brad Stevens and the Celtics haven’t waited for those opportunities, though. They let Smart screen and switch, walk his new man down to the post and go at him one-on-one.

Running sets for Smart to isolate down low is nothing new for Stevens and the Celts. They played through him a fair amount last season, too, including from some nifty formations:

The Celtics are clicking. Everyone knows their role and the offense looks the best it has since I.T. was running the point. Now that Gordon Hayward is out, we’ll likely see a little more Smart, which means more post-ups against those guys that can’t match the strength of the Oklahoma State product.

Glenn Robinson III, the cutter

No Stephen Curry. No Klay Thompson. No more Kevin Durant.

Where do the Golden State Warriors generate offense from?

Steve Kerr is continuing a movement-based attack, hoping that more pure motion and tons of screen-the-screener actions cause a defensive lapse along the way. (Most teams are having no issues guarding these Warriors, which is why they’re the worst team in the NBA.)

The year is young, but Glenn Robinson III has at least proven nifty at reading the defense and making timely back cuts on the baseline. While movement takes place around Robinson, his man will be attuned to any screens or actions he may need to help on. That opens up Robinson to make some backdoor cuts and leave his man in the dust:

The cutting is made more potent when surrounded by great shooters and elite players. That obviously isn’t the Warriors right now but is likely who they will be again.

Thompson and Curry will resume their role as elite-shooting backcourt next season. Draymond Green will quarterback the offense from the top, and a likely high draft pick could add another scoring punch. Robinson is auditioning for a long-term role with those guys, and playing as a sensible cutter makes him a candidate to stick around for one more go ’round in the Bay Area.

Hornets Play to Get A Three for Point Guard

No team relies on its set plays to generate offense more than the Charlotte Hornets. They’re under-manned and lack a lot of shot creators. The sets run by coach James Borrego matter so much to this team, so opponents that key into their playbook can shut down some of their easy production.

One such play that should be (theoretically) easy to see coming is a Philly set that leads to a screen for the point guard. Said point guard has been open all season long for catch-and-shoot threes.

Eventually, someone has to see this coming:

Whether its Graham or Terry Rozier, the Hornets have run this to perfection. Let’s see if anybody starts to take this away and guards the Philly sets in a more unorthodox manner.