Moving the ball on offense is one of basketball's most basic tenets. It keeps everyone involved and engaged on both ends of the floor and ensures that the defense can't simply focus on a single player.
But more than that, ball movement—particularly of the side-to-side variety—gets a defense moving. Now, swinging the ball for the sake of swinging the ball serves no particular purpose; swinging the ball with the threat of attacking off the dribble is what gets a defense in trouble.
The Miami Heat are one of the best ball-swinging teams in the NBA. It's remarkably impressive considering their personnel, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh significantly more talented than the rest of their teammates. In their first year together, we all saw what happened: The ball stuck in one star's hands at a time, dismantling any sense of continuity or ball-sharing.
By year two, Miami figured out how it could utilize its significant talent advantage without going one-on-one: pass the ball quickly and often. A typical defense—defenses that Miami faces take this to an even greater degree—protects the paint with help defenders. It often does this preemptively, packing the lane before a dribble-drive even occurs.
When LeBron James attacks in transition on this play against the Indiana Pacers, Luis Scola slides to the right elbow to protect against the drive. Roy Hibbert, who is guarding Chris Bosh in the deep corner, floats to the block as a secondary level of rim protection.
This is where the ball movement kicks in. LeBron, in order to loosen up the defense, throws a skip pass out to Bosh. Because Hibbert must respect Bosh's jump shot and cannot sit in the paint as he usually does, he heads out to guard the ball. All of the Pacers shift appropriately but must get on their horse a bit more due to the skip.
Scola scampers into a new help position guarding against Bosh going left, while Paul George slides back toward the nail (the center of the free-throw line).
When the ball reaches Bosh's hands, he immediately swings it back toward Rashard Lewis at the right wing. Though Indiana's defense is disciplined and quick, this immediate change of direction leaves Scola and Hibbert a step behind. Hibbert must lumber back toward the paint, and Scola must get back to an on-ball position against Lewis.
Lewis is a deadly three-point shooter, and Scola is late; he therefore rushes out a bit quick, leaving him vulnerable to a dribble-drive. Lewis chooses not to attack this closeout, instead swinging it again back to James. But Scola has now closed at a high speed, and is not in a good position to help against the new possibility of a LeBron drive.
The rest of the play unfolds in an instant. Lewis goes for the "throw-and-chase," setting the on-ball screen, with Scola trailing late—he's been rotating quite a bit in only a few seconds. Lewis then slips the screen, with George and Scola not communicating. James is able to throw an easy pass between the two defenders, and Hibbert is late as the final layer of defense. The result is a layup.
Indiana is the best defense in the league, and Miami shreds it without a single dribble. This is beautiful basketball and the way offense should be played.
Here are a few more examples, this time with Miami attacking the closeouts.
Check out Alec Burks guarding Dwayne Wade at the top of the key here. Wade is far out on the perimeter, and Burks isn't very concerned with him. But then the ball quickly changes sides, coming into Wade's hands. Burks is slow to close out and get in a guarding position. Wade, instead of holding the ball and waiting, immediately capitalizes on Burks' flat feet to slice into the lane for a finish.
Slower ball movement would have given Burks time to react. But Miami's excellent pace of play creates an opportunity which otherwise would not have been available.
Here's a different type of ball swing, initiated off the dribble-drive. With players like Wade and James, Miami has the luxury of personnel that can beat their men one-on-one. Most teams, however, are always waiting with help, making it extremely difficult to finish at the rim.
Wade runs into trouble on this play against Utah, as the help defense attacks him hard on the baseline. He therefore makes the sound basketball play, swinging the ball to Norris Cole in the corner—the open man. And that's where it begins: ball swing, ball swing, ball swing, attack closeout.
When Wade gets the ball again, Burks is scrambling at him way too hard. The entire Jazz defense is out of position, meaning the help from Enes Kanter is late. Wade is therefore able to contort his body around the moving Kanter for an easy finish.
(Even if Wade didn't have that elite athleticism, a finish through Kanter would have drawn a blocking foul since his feet were moving.)
Here's another dribble-drive-to-ball-swing example. Mario Chalmers makes the right pass when he feels pressure from the Cavs' hard hedge, lasering a pass over the defense to the other side of the court. Because the Cavs had loaded up on the strong side, their recovery leads to them going into scramble mode.
When Wade attacks a late closeout, LeBron cuts to the rim from the other side of the hoop. No one picks him up because Cleveland is in all-out defensive chaos. Blowing by a closeout usually has this ripple effect, with backside defenders responsible for too many players. Here, LeBron takes advantage before Kyrie Irving can react.
There's nothing flashy or schematically ingenious about sharing the basketball. Swinging the ball from side to side simply gets a defense's feet moving, and eventually a crack opens up. The better defenses are able to masks these seams with great interior rim protection. But even great defense can't stop perfect offense, and that's what Miami is doing here.
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