NBA Film Study: The Stagger Twirl Action

How do great shooters get open when everyone in a 20,000-seat arena knows they are looking to snipe from three?

Some are fantastic cutters, some are able to change direction quickly and others are simply low priorities for defenses based on their teammates. But in most instances, choreographed offense helps get them open in ways they need.

Off-ball screens are prevalent at high levels of basketball, and shooters are frequently used in down screens. Put two screeners together and the action is called a stagger, where both teammates stand one in front of the other to help free up their fellow shooter.

You can watch any NBA game and see a stagger run at some point.

Most teams will teach defending a stagger in the following manner:

  • The man guarding the first screener is back to prevent any slips, not hugging his man and giving his teammates room to get through the multitude of screens. Six bodies moving in a tight area is difficult, so his job is to remove himself a bit and make it five.
  • The man guarding the top screener can extend the screen a bit to buy time, but he is tasked primarily with preventing a curl, keeping the cutters to one side of the floor
  • The final defender, who is chasing his guy off the stagger, has to get through differently based on personnel. If he’s guarding a shooter, he’ll try his best to stay attached and go around the screen. If he’s guarding a non-shooter, or if the scouting report dictates, he’ll go underneath and force a pop-back

To get a feel for it, watch the Chicago Bulls do a pretty good job guarding JJ Redick and the initial stagger action from the New Orleans Pelicans:

If almost everybody guards it the same way, offenses should (and do) adjust to create counters that attack that specific coverage.

The most basic attack for countering a stagger is what’s known as a Twirl action. Essentially, it sees the first screener and the cutter switch places by looping around each other.

The Twirl is intended to thwart regular coverage on staggers where the man guarding the first screener drops to protect the rim. Here’s an example of how the Bulls’ exemplary coverage is held against them by the Twirl action:

Twirling a stagger is nothing new. For as long as off-ball screens have been occurring, teams have thrown in wrinkles to play with the defense, using the initial offensive threat as a decoy.

The first time I remember seeing a prevalent twist on staggers that involve screening was with the Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics. Ray Allen would serve as the first screener in the stagger, then pop off a curling Paul Pierce towards the rim. The decoy of Pierce and the screening of the other big involved helped spring Allen open more than a regular stagger would:

In the video above from Half-Court Hoops, you can notice the variations with which they run this play: Multiple curls, splitting or refusing the stagger before it occurs and legitimate screens from the initial cutter are all commonplace. As the league has featured more three-point shooting and spacing around the line, sets have gotten wider—farther from the rim and closer to the corners.

Those staggers have moved a bit, and the result is more ground to cover for the defenders involved.

Now every team is running an action like this, as it’s proven so difficult to guard and is filled with important counters that produce wide-open shots. Curls and re-screens, double screens and even rejecting the action altogether create a sped-up version of the twirl. A great deal of movement and options put enough pressure on the rim that overzealous defenses get beat for layups.

Run enough curls or twirls and defenses become complacent with their original help responsibilities.

In a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, the Bulls start to worry about the Twirl by the Indiana Pacers below, and leave their original responsibility of protecting the rim:

That’s the danger of the twirl action: Take one thing away and another option comes open.

Particularly, the help defender may attach himself and see the twirl action coming, so he tries to trail the single down screen. That leads to a curl to the rim, and a nice-two man action off the down screen:

Not every set results in a shot or a scoring chance, so coaches need to work on how the play will flow into offense. The standard tag after a twirl action has become a give-and-go pitch between the guy that came to the top off the twirl and the original passer. The big man will reverse pivot and set a sideline-leading ball screen, then roll to the rim.

It’s an awful lot of movement and action to guard in a short amount of time:

NBA coaches are starting to get fancy and imaginative with how they utilize the twirl.

Luke Walton has run the stagger twirl as a way to get into a backscreen lob for the big man. The second screener lets the action happen around him and then darts to the hoop for the alley-oop.

It’s a screen-the-screener for the second screener by the guy who curled the first screen (I have a headache just thinking about that), and it is insanely effective:

In a copycat league, actions that work and have a robust amount of counters get stolen frequently. The trend during recent years has led to more options off a stagger being normalized and built into the playbook.

Flowing into a ball screen at the end allows coaches to know that there’s a strong ability to score if the initial set does not work–the contingency can be as effective as the original plan.

With so many shooters and skilled playmakers all over the floor, complex sets like this are really fun to watch.