Miles Plumlee steps into the path of Kyle Lowry as he comes off a screen, impeding his progress for just long enough for Jeremy Lin to recover. He then quickly shuffles back over and picks up Jonas Valanciunas, getting vertical to challenge Valanciunas’ shot after Lowry hits him with a bounce pass. Given that Kevin Huerter can’t really afford to tag the roller, as he’s guarding one of the best corner three-point shooters in the league in Danny Green, I’d say the Hawks did a decent job of covering this pick-and-roll. Lin fought through the screen fairly well, Plumlee did a good job of cutting off Lowry and then recovering to contest Valanciunas.
It doesn’t matter, of course, Valanciunas scored anyways. Using his bulk to move Plumlee out of the way, Valanciunas powered the layup right through him. This skill has made Valanciunas a consistently excellent roll man throughout the years, he might not have the above the rim explosion to go up and get tough alley-oops, but he makes up for that by being able to power through contests, opening up scoring opportunities even against solid defense.
Contrast that with another play from last night against the Atlanta Hawks. DeAndre Bembry gets bumped way off his path on a Serge Ibaka screen, and so John Collins steps up to impede Fred VanVleet’s route to the rim. With Ibaka wide open in the short midrange, VanVleet puts his head down and charges to the rim, throwing up a harmless contested layup.
VanVleet is very charitably listed at 6 feet tall, but is likely a few inches shorter than that. Even with exceptional craft around the rim players of VanVleet’s stature tend to struggle as finishers. VanVleet does not possess exceptional craft. He’s shot just 54% in the restricted area throughout his NBA career. BBall Index’s Player Grades have him as a “D” finisher for his career.
Only a few feet away from VanVleet is Ibaka, who, to this point in the year, has been a ruthlessly efficient interior scorer. Ibaka has consistently shown the ability to finish in traffic; he’s shooting 80% in the restricted area on the year despite a high volume, often powering through contests as Valanciunas does in the first clip. He has a feathery touch from short midrange, he’s hitting 62% of his hook shots so far this year, again on a fairly high volume. As a result, he remains a threat to score even if his defender picks him back up too far from the basket for him to lay it in.
So why, exactly, is VanVleet taking the shot?
The difference between these two plays is that Lowry understands his own weaknesses and his teammates’ strengths. He’s willing to acknowledge that there are aspects of the game his teammates are better equipped to handle, and defers to them when the time is right. VanVleet, on the other hand, either doesn’t grasp what he’s good and bad at, or he knows, and is forcing things anyways.
It’s worth remembering that both Lowry and VanVleet are in shooting slumps right now. Lowry, a 40% three point shooter over the past three years, is shooting 35% from distance, and just 29% from behind the arc in the month of November. VanVleet is shooting a shade under 30% from deep on the year after hitting 41% of his three pointers in his sophomore campaign. For both players three-point shooting has historically been their strongest skill, but their respective shooting struggles have not affected each player equally. Deserted by his signature skill, VanVleet has seen his impact slip enormously. Lowry, meanwhile, has found ways to mitigate his shooting drop-off.
Despite his shooting slump, Lowry has been one of the most impactful players in the league. He’s among the league leaders in several impact metrics, including being top ten in both Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM and ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. The Raptors are dominant when he’s on the floor and they go to pieces when he’s off it.
Simple plays like this are a huge reason why. The Lowry/Ibaka/Valanciunas pick-and-roll isn’t just extremely efficient, its highly scaleable. The Raptors can essentially keep running it ad-infinitum, because it doesn’t rely on the defense making a significant mistake. Both Ibaka and Valanciunas can score over contests, provided they get to the right spots on the floor. This pair of pick-and-roll combinations has been crucial to the Raptors’ success when Kawhi Leonard rests, as it gives them a constant source of quality shots in the halfcourt.
VanVleet, on the other hand, is one of the main reasons that the Raptors go to pieces when Lowry comes off the floor. With Lowry off the floor, VanVleet typically becomes the de-facto lead ball handler, and the Raptors have posted an abysmal 94 offensive rating with VanVleet on and Lowry off (for reference, the Raptors have a 113 offensive rating as a team). He’s been forcing things when given the reigns to the Raptors’ offense. When he plays with Lowry he’s content to fit in the gaps of the offense, posting just a 13% usage rate in the minutes he shares the floor with Lowry, but when Lowry comes off that jumps all the way to to 22%. This isn’t remotely necessary. When Lowry is on the bench VanVleet is still almost assuredly sharing the floor with either Ibaka or Valanciunas, as the Raptors have made sure to keep one of the duo on the floor in essentially all meaningful minutes.
VanVleet’s volume of shots at the basket nearly doubles when he plays without Lowry. VanVleet has shared the court with Lowry for 185 minutes this year and attempted 18 shots at the basket in that time, compared to 35 shots at the basket in the 188 minutes he’s played with Lowry off the floor. VanVleet is shooting a horrific 42% at the basket with Lowry off the floor, as the added attempts are almost ubiquitously difficult driving layups. Again, these are totally unnecessary shots. Simply put, there is absolutely no reason for VanVleet to attempt difficult shots at the rim, like the one shown in the clip above, when he could instead defer to Valanciunas or Ibaka, both of whom are much better equipped to make those kinds of shots.
It’s not as though Lowry is some LeBron-esque passer, who makes these plays because he can throw passes harder and more accurately than anyone else. These aren’t complex reads that need extremely high level vision either. The pass VanVleet needs to make is just a simple pocket pass to the roll man. Valanciunas and Ibaka are talented enough big men that they don’t need to be put in a perfect situation. They can create shots for themselves themselves if given the ball near the basket. VanVleet just needs to move the defense temporarily out of position with the threat of a drive.
This is what Lowry understands better than any of the other Raptor ball-handlers. When he comes off a ball-screen all he’s looking for is the position of the opposing big man. If they’ve blown the coverage and haven’t shifted over, then he takes the ball right to the basket for an easy layup. But if the opposing big has moved over to provide help, then Lowry will make the pass to his big man every single time, knowing that his big is better equipped to create shots around the basket than he is. This is a large reason why he’s shooting nearly 60% on two-point attempts and leading the league in assists per game. He only tries to finish the easiest drives to the rim and passes up everything else to his big. Of his 200 assists on the year, 90 of them have been to either Valanciunas or Ibaka.
Conversely, only 17 of VanVleet’s 66 assists have been to either Ibaka or Valanciunas. The Raptors’ bench is a lineup where both Ibaka and Valanciunas should be considered offensive centerpieces. Yet, when they play with VanVleet both big men see their usage rates drop. Paradoxically, they take a back seat with the bench, and see their role grow when they join the starters. This phenomenon is driven by the respective mindsets of Lowry and VanVleet. Lowry prioritizes involving his bigs before looking for his own shots, VanVleet tries to do things himself.
Rather than aggressively trying to force his way out of his slump, VanVleet needs to take a page out of Lowry’s book and limit himself to shots that he knows he can consistently make. He’s in a uniquely beneficial position in this respect. There are lots of tough shots that VanVleet can comfortably pass up; he’s surrounded by talented teammates who are perfectly capable of making those shots in his stead.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and BBall Index. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports.