NBA Film Study: The League’s Best Backdoor Cutters

From a young age, basketball players are taught not to get beat backdoor and give up layups, yet this still happens at the highest levels because the art of cutting is emphasized just as heavily.

A few months ago, I published an article here regarding The Anatomy of a Backdoor Set, detailing all the necessary movements, requisite defensive coverages and precise details that go into making a backdoor play successful.

One area that article fell short was in detailing the players who make the cuts and how they can be so good at getting open. So let’s dive into four of the league’s premier back cut artists.

All four are perimeter-oriented players and high-level scorers, which dictates the first principle needed for any of this to matter: The backdoor cut must actually be open.

Typically, either within a defensive gameplan or an individual personnel assignment, over-pressuring is what leads to backdoors. Since it only makes sense to pressure a strong player and prevent them from getting the ball, we rarely see backdoors work for non-scoring threats.

Nonetheless, while exhibiting some of the same traits needed to be a great cutter, each player in this breakdown scores in a drastically different way.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Jan 20, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives in the second quarter against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is an All-Star, hands down, and one of the game’s best scorers. Averaging 26.5 points and 6.3 assists, Booker sports a sweet jumper, deep range on his 3 and the ability to create on his own. He’s also the Suns’ lone high-caliber scoring threat, making him the target of every opponent’s defensive gameplan.

That makes his scoring output all the more impressive, especially considering he’s shooting over 50 percent from the field.

Booker fakes his defenders out so well. He’s got impeccable timing, waiting until he knows the ball will find him and his man jumps into position to play on his top-side. Once there, Booker shifts his weight to his top foot or takes one half-step towards the ball, which would signal a cut to receive a handoff or come off a screen.

It’s just a fake, though, and Booker quickly moves his hips and takes a burst towards the bucket:

The window for deception is razor-thin against the league’s premier athletes, and Booker has mastered fitting his burst to the rim inside that window.

All that sounds good, but we also have to appreciate how difficult it is to even recognize the window is open.

The game is played so fast that we can become numb to the pace with which these decisions are made. We’ll slow it down a bit to acknowledge those decisions where Booker breaks off the called play based on how his man plays him. Every time a defender cheats, Booker can sniff it out and find his way to the rim—from the corners or the middle of the floor:

Suns coach Monty Williams has spread things out in Phoenix, (particularly in the absences of center DeAndre Ayton), and has opened the lane for these slips. As Ayton returns, the spacing may change a bit and clog some of Booker’s freedoms to roam and receive a layup.

In the last clip above, Philadelphia 76ers guard Josh Richardson employs a defensive strategy called “top-locking”, which is to deny a player from using a screen. It’s face-guarding a player at a specific instance in order to blow up their ability to use a screen, and it’s common for great shooters.

Kevin Durant mentioned this concept in a highly-praised Q&A last Spring when the Golden State Warriors took on the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.

Well, those same stingy Clippers have used top-locking against Booker and the Suns as well, but Williams and his team were ready. See if you can spot, at full speed, the defenders for the Clippers jumping high-side to top-lock any time a screen comes for Booker, then note his adjustment to go backdoor:

Brilliantly quick.

The Suns also capitalize on how Booker is played by running a play that includes a face-cut coming from the corner, a concept I’ve called “Blade”.

By placing Booker in the dead corner, defenders only have two ways to play him when they’re staying attached and not providing standard help. They can top-lock, which would allow him to back cut along the baseline to the rim. However, during set plays, with plenty of time to scan the defense, this coverage can be easy to spot and lead to layups.

The defense’s other option is to stand next to Booker on the baseline-side, hoping to do the opposite of top-locking and force him away from the hoop. But the Suns blade that defender’s face by sending Booker right over the top and to the rim…

It’s the same concept as a backdoor cut, but really is like walking in the front door and punching a guy in the face:

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

This one is a taste of unadulterated basketball violence.

Zach LaVine is such a great cutter due to the sheer force with which he does everything on the court. He is bouncy, quick and covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Those are all the ingredients for thrashing the hoop in one fell swoop.

LaVine is the center of attention from other defenses, so he gets pressured on the perimeter as they try to deny him the basketball. Even in the center of the floor, particularly in semi-transition, defenders will start to cheat up to prevent the ball from reversing through him. He’ll just back cut to the hoop, and somehow the Bulls have enough spacing around him to make it work:

Head coach Jim Boylen has been a big fan of using screening actions within the offense. Any time a high-level player is ready to use a screen, they have to be ready for all the different ways they can be defended.

LaVine will face some top-lock coverage, though sometimes teams will switch onto him with a lankier defender. Either way, it’s Zach’s job to read these situations on the fly. Boylen has made his job easier by clearing out the lane whenever a screen happens. That way, if LaVine is overplayed at all, he’ll just refuse the screen and slip to the rim.

He’s caught some bodies in these situations, and the violence of his cuts are on full display:

The Bulls love staggers, particularly in early offense as they transition down the floor. A staggered screen occupies three defenders: the guys guarding the two screen-setters as well as the one using the screen. If they pay too much attention to the stagger, they are in no position to help at the rim.

While the stagger itself is important for Chicago to score from, LaVine also cherishes it as a decoy. When the ball is advanced up the floor by a point guard and the stagger occurs, LaVine will put himself in the ball-side corner, then execute a wicked backdoor cut and find himself unopposed at the rim.

The action happens so fast, but the result is almost always positive:

LaVine’s timing on these is impeccable. He swims past his man and fakes him out, but he’s so darn quick that no weak-side defender even has a chance to recover.

Boylen gets a lot of flack for the outdated offense at times, but the versatility for how he uses LaVine within the Bulls’ early offense staggers is impactful. Send LaVine off the screen and he can read the defense to get an alley-oop. Put him in the corner away from the screen and the screens serve as a decoy to spring their top scorer free.

That is high-level stuff.

Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

While LaVine is known for the aggression of his cuts, the Jimmy Butler’s strength is what propels him towards the hoop. When given the choice between pushing Butler to the rim or the 3-point line, teams will always choose the perimeter. He’s that dangerous of a finisher and too savvy in tight spaces.

Now Butler has the advantage of playing within the Erik Spoelstra offense, which is spaced greatly and has shooters at every position.

The gravity of those other players can open up opportunities for Butler to slip to the rim, where he’s shooting 60.4 percent on non-post-ups. Some of the actions Spoelstra puts Butler in are called “slip-splits”, where two players converge at a spot on the floor.

During a normal screen, one player is designated to seek contact with a teammate’s defender. In a slip-split, the convergence is meant to happen quickly, where no contact is made with a defender.

The speed of these split actions means a wise cutter can slip past the defense and to the rim while they anticipate a screen or try to read where their man will go. Butler has mastered how to read these situations, (particularly against switching defenses), and get himself to the hoop:

In some instances, Butler has utilized the same blade concept from the corner as Devin Booker, cutting across his man’s face while stationed in the corner.

Spoelstra usually recognizes this coverage and will clear out the low part of the rim so Butler can get a dunk or layup:

It’s been a great season for Butler thus far, and it’s rubbing off on the Heat. If he continues to get open avenues to slip to the rim, Miami is a dangerous team to face.

They all shoot it well, and when their best player’s scoring is enhanced by the auxiliary guys, it’s difficult to take any main option away.

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Just how does a career 32 percent 3-point shooter get so many backdoor opportunities?

Andrew Wiggins’ savvy play is partially responsible, as are the offensive play calls of Ryan Saunders. The Timberwolves’ second-year head coach knows Wiggins is a delightful cutter and finisher while moving to the hoop. He also understands how the two offensive threats in Minnesota—Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns—are to be placed in two-man games for dribble handoffs or ball screens.

If the ball is in Towns’ hands—or at the elbow with a big while Wiggins is in the corner—defenses will start to anticipate the handoff coming to Wiggins. That’s where Saunders is one step ahead.

The Wolves run designed backdoor plays for Wiggins out of timeouts or dead balls just to spring the Kansas product free. An elbow entry out of a timeout will usually lead to Wiggins going backdoor:

The first three clips in that video are of the same play: Minnesota’s go-to call to get Wiggins backdoor. But the principle is solid if writing a scouting report on the Wolves: When the ball goes to a big at the elbow, the former top overall pick is trying to go backdoor.

Saunders has also borrowed a Princeton concept to help Wiggins: backdooring as the second cutter.

Usually, when one guy cuts through the lane, another will raise to take his place. That’s a fundamental concept for floor balance and spacing. The defender of that replacement can start to cheat, however, and that’s who the Wolves are targeting. They put Wiggins in that position, and the cheating opponent is once again trying to prevent a clean entry to a Wiggins dribble handoff.

Andrew catches him every time:

When we think of backdoors, we think of cuts from the corner or the wing.

Much like LaVine with the Bulls, Minnesota will empty out one side of the floor in transition for those quick cuts out of the corner. But Wiggins has gotten great at not just the cuts from the wings but also slipping right down main street from the top of the key. He’ll routinely hit an elbow, fake like he’s going over the top for a handoff, then dart straight down the center to the rim for a layup.

It’s a glorified give-and-go but has some of the most epic uses of a shoulder shimmy and a one-step cut. Before you know it, Wiggins is at the rim:

Check out time and score in many of those examples. They are indeed designed plays for Wiggins out of a timeout or to start a game.

The Wolves love to get Wiggins going with a quick layup, and he’s proven worth the investment. He’s a brilliant cutter and has found ways to utilize those skills without being a premier 3-point shooter.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of January 27, 2020.