The best offenses in the NBA move. They move the ball, they move players and—most critically—they move defenses.
These days, the professionals that populate the league are so long and have such quick reaction times that there is almost no way to get buckets at a high rate if you just let them dig in, hold position and defend. If shot-blockers can plant in the paint and long-armed wing defenders can comfortably patrol passing lanes, shots will be disrupted and passes will be deflected.
That completely disrupts all attempts to score.
To combat this, the goal of a good offense should be to force those long-armed defenders on pogo sticks to always be adjusting, always be moving, always be relocating.
An offense becomes so much more dynamic if it can consistently present such an ever-moving, ever-changing threat.
Much of the common NBA debate centers around which superstars can make mano-a-mano plays that overwhelm the competition. But those plays are hard to create. It is much easier to convert open shots created out of good old-fashioned ball movement.
Most of the best teams in the NBA make this a fundamental tenet of their attack. It is becoming a prerequisite.
And the San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are three of the best.
San Antonio Spurs: Crafty Motion
The San Antonio Spurs arguably have the best offensive movement in the NBA. This is one key reason why their ongoing injury woes may have a less-than-expected impact on their early-round playoff performance.
To make it to the NBA Finals, it really, really, really does help to have guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at peak condition. You will inevitably need their creativity and individual brilliance to make those all-important late-game plays when transition stalls, the game grinds to a halt and somebody just needs to make a great shot.
But in the earlier rounds, it should matter less who is on the court.
Why? Because most NBA players can make open jumpers and layups, and the Spurs have a systematic offense that creates both of those in spades.
So if San Antonio can keep its offense functioning near its optimal level, there shouldn't be all that many important late-game possessions anyway. The Spurs should be up by eight points in the final seconds of their wins.
Look at the play in the video above for an example.
As the undermanned Spurs tried to mount a late comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder in early April, they looked to their offense more so than any one player.
San Antonio starts the play with Nando De Colo feigning a strong-side pick-and-roll with Boris Diaw. The action is actually used to set up a ball reversal to the opposite wing.
As that happens up top, Kawhi Leonard cuts through the lane off a Tim Duncan screen. In a best-case scenario, Leonard will generate enough separation there to turn this play into a layup. But there is nothing there, so Diaw sets a down screen to free Duncan at the top of the key. As Duncan catches the swing pass, Diaw is sure to stay out of the lane.
This is critical, and San Antonio has the Thunder just where it wants them.
With no shot-blockers protecting the rim, Diaw sets a simple screen on Russell Westbrook to free De Colo, who curls off the pick and races into the vast open space in the paint. Duncan, whose size and savvy make him an ideal passer in this position, drops an easy assist to De Colo, who has such a carefree lane to the hoop that even Serge Ibaka can do nothing to bother the finish.
Ultimately, this easy hoop relied on Westbrook making a pretty bad read on a screen and failing to get into position to stop De Colo's cut.
So you can call this bad defense.
But that's the point.
The Spurs move around enough and pass the ball around enough all game long that blunders like this become much more frequent.
It is very hard to defend a good NBA offense for 24 seconds.
San Antonio knows this and just keeps moving until that mistake occurs. And given the fluidity and positioning of coach Gregg Popovich's system, whenever that defensive error occurs, the team is always in position to take advantage.
New York Knicks: Stay Moving, Stay Shooting
The New York Knicks are the Eastern Conference movement champs, and when the New York Knicks have a full 24 seconds to set up their half-court offense, they can be deadly.
As seen in the clip above, one play shows why.
In the second quarter during a Knick win over the Miami Heat in early April, Raymond Felton brings the ball up court. The lineup's three wings spread out widely across the foul-line extended area. Carmelo Anthony and Iman Shumpert set up outside the arc while J.R. Smith hugs the strong-side elbow near Anthony.
What starts everything off is a simple, effective use of movement: Felton dribbles toward Anthony/Smith and abruptly reverses the ball to a trailing Tyson Chandler who reverses it to Shumpert.
This is where everything becomes unguardable.
Using a Smith screen, 'Melo flashes toward the opposite high post. Often, the Knicks will just dump him the ball here and let him go to work. But Shane Battier does a good job preventing an easy pass.
The key here is Shumpert's quick decision.
He wastes no time trying to force it to Anthony, knowing that there are many ways his team can create vulnerabilities if it just continues to move the ball.
Instead, he waits for Felton to resurface to the top of the key, which he is able to do so well due to a double screen set on Norris Cole by Smith and Chandler. Felton catches and makes some space as Chandler comes up to set the ball screen.
Another key here is Chandler's mobility.
The fact that he is able to start the pick-and-roll so high (some eight feet above the arc) allows Felton all the space in the world to make a play.
And what a play it is.
Felton is unfazed by Chris Bosh's hard hedge and is able to cross over and rush the middle of the court. At this point, it's essentially a four-on-three fast break, and with the disciplined, ideal spacing of Anthony and Smith, there is no way the Heat can even consider covering everyone.
Both are wide open, and Felton chooses Carmelo.
Anthony buries a three-pointer as Battier helplessly lunges toward him.
Through both ball and player movement, the Knicks decimated a Miami defense that really made just one mistake on the possession (Bosh allowing Felton to attack the center of the court).
Denver Nuggets: Never Stop Advancing
The Denver Nuggets don't so much move as they do advance. That's basically their whole scheme: never stop trying to get to the rim. It's embracing that classic "go get a layup" mentality that is severely underutilized in this league given how quickly it can help a team establish a real identity.
With the personnel on this Nuggets roster, they are suited to play this way, and when the athletes get running, devastation often follows.
The clip above shows one particularly daunting onslaught the team put on the Thunder in March. This was back when Denver was playing at its best, winning 15 straight.
With the Nuggets, it's less about breaking down how precisely the players move than it is just watching them move. Thus, the extended clip above features several plays that show how well they advance forward as soon as they get the ball.
It's one thing to prioritize creating fast breaks.
Most good teams take advantage of opportunities to get out in transition.
But Denver really creates those changes. It manufactures them out of thin air at times. Even after a made basket or when there isn't any clear numbers edge, they just try to rush the rim anyway.
Here, against the Thunder, you can just sense how each and every player is embracing that mentality.
Ty Lawson pushes everything.
Kenneth Faried is always stalking the rim, lurking for a pass or follow.
Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala bee-line to the front of the iron in hopes of a dunk.
Andre Miller's first thought is to dribble all the way to the cup.
In two instances in the video above, you see Miller bringing the ball up into a half-court set. In the first, he just goes by his man with determination and forces his way into the restricted area for a layup. The other sequence shows him setting up on the far wing and waiting for JaVale McGee to run for a lob.
Then he throws that lob. And JaVale throws down that lob.
With abandon. Just like on the fast break.
Even during the supposedly slower, duller half-court parts of the game, Denver's DNA tells it to attack the rim immediately.
It certainly is a different style of motion than some of the other teams that rely less on full-court movement. But that's what makes it so frightening—and the most relentless attack in the whole league.