As someone who loves X’s and O’s and the tactical side of basketball, I’ve always been fascinated by one point: If most teams in the NBA all run the same plays, why are they still so successful?
The answer to that question lies in how the versatility of a set design takes away defensive pressures that can be levied upon it. Perhaps no portion of an action that’s been implemented by nearly every team league-wide is more versatile than Slash.
No folks, this isn’t the guitarist for Guns ‘n Roses. Slash is a common NBA term that refers to a pick-and-pop where the player who catches the ball off a pop immediately dribble handoffs to the opposite side.
Slash is less of a call and more about teaching NBA players how to space the floor, read their teammates and organize themselves when a play breaks down. It’s an element of a play, not a play itself.
Last year, Brett Brown appeared on an episode of The Lowe Post and mentioned that the game is essentially broken down into thirds: offense after makes, offense after misses and offense after dead balls in “special teams” situations:
Some interesting thoughts from Sixers coach Brett Brown on how coaches can have a large impact on the X’s and O’s of a game pic.twitter.com/CToGvCcLRN
— Adam Spinella (@Spinella14) March 26, 2019
Brown’s methodology seems on-point, but it’s a fascinating way to think about the sport. Coaches control the special teams part directly. So how do they organize their squads in a manner that allows them to be efficient and avoid anarchy during the other two-thirds? Teaching Slash is one way to do so.
The play starts with a pre-designed pick-and-pop which leads the ball handler to the wing and the screener to the top of the key. The purpose is to flip to the screener, who immediately dribbles to the opposite side into a handoff. It’s a quick-striking action that creates movement, touches for three different players and places them in scoring opportunities.
Oftentimes, teams will score off the simple dribble handoff portion of Slash and have the freedom to break off the action so they can isolate advantages:
Basketball spacing can be broken down into two layers: a three-man side and a two-man side.
In order to properly provide driving lanes and make defensive rotations difficult, this concept is almost necessary. That means when the dribble handoff portion of Slash takes place, the other three players are on the opposite side of the court. Usually, the biggest player is in the short corner stationed inside the dunk box, where he can get an easy slam if dribble penetration occurs.
What happens next is the importance of how Slash is evolving to accommodate the spread pick-and-roll schemes common in the NBA. Think about a pulley system, where the ball goes high and is swung to the three-man side. As it is swung, that raises the big from his station in the dunk box to set a ball screen:
In situations like the clip above from the Charlotte Hornets, the mobility of the big man predicates the success of the ball screen. Cody Zeller begins to post-up, which slows down his ability to sprint into the pick-and-roll. Should Zeller be waiting to sprint into it, his opponent will go from helping as the low-man at the rim to immediately having screen responsibilities.
Help defenders that must go from rim to pick responsibilities can get lost and fail to hedge properly.
The timing looks so fluid when it’s run with pace and can result in a wide-open lane for the ball handler. The Minnesota Timberwolves run the play below, trying to get rookie Jordan McLaughlin space in the paint, which was successful. Teague spaces himself properly, catching the ball high on the wing to then rip and attack the screen to make a play downhill:
That’s the gist of the play: open the lane with prior movement that can be scored out of, then run a spread pick-and-roll. It’s quick north-south that creates rim attacks, and it accomplishes what most teams want with the ball screen.
But everybody runs it. So from a defensive perspective, everybody is familiar with the action and has a basis for how to guard it and what to accomplish. The brilliance in a formation or set isn’t in how it’s used at its simplest, but how many wrinkles can be opened up that thwart all types of defensive coverages.
In that context, Slash is excellent.
First, think about the three-man side. Defenders that know the ball screen is coming will jump into the passing lane on any reversal, pinning it to the two-man side and killing the momentum of the sprint raise dead in its tracks. Even if it doesn’t result in a steal or a deflection, forcing the catch closer to half-court would allow the defense to briefly reset.
Well, there’s a counter for that. The Toronto Raptors started to jump on top of the Sacramento Kings when they ran Slash, and the Kings immediately recognized and ran a backdoor option:
X’s and O’s junkies will know this as a variation of the Blind Pig action so popular as a backdoor option in the Triangle Offense. The same action out of Slash prevents teams from just jumping high-side and constantly trying to jam the reversal or play passing lanes. It’s the most vital counter thanks to the necessity of being able to convert from two-man to three-man action.
On Tuesday, November 5th, Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks completed an unbelievable comeback, outscoring the San Antonio Spurs 38-22 in the fourth quarter to come from behind and win. Young had 28 of his 29 during the second half and was scorching hot from deep. As he got going, the Hawks began to run sets out of their Slash action, and Blind Pig became a necessity to keep Young active.
Lloyd Pierce’s playbook features some of the best wrinkles out of this formation, and his play-calling brilliance set the Hawks up to torture San Antonio:
Another favorite counter comes from Dwane Casey and the Detroit Pistons. Casey’s team runs Slash as much, if not more than nearly anyone in the league. They also need to generate easy buckets for shooters, since they don’t have many.
One way the Pistons get those shots is from a baseline double screen for a shooter, which essentially fakes coming back to the three-man side and darts a shooter off two bigs to get free:
You may see many elements of Slash throughout a basketball game and many wrinkles and variations of the action.
The NBA is a copycat league, so most everyone has some form of this in their playbook. Based on personnel and types of scorers, different teams will be able to leverage Slash in different ways, and the endless dance of offensive-versus-defensive-versus-offensive adjustments continues.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of November 10, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.