Isolation basketball refuses to die.
In the face of statistical evidence proving its inefficiency and plenty of anecdotal proof of its hit-or-miss nature, many teams continue to rely on the age-old formula of putting the ball in the best player's hands and replacing strategy with the phrase "go get 'em."
It's not uncommon to see one-on-one attacks at any point during an NBA game, and as the clock winds down in the fourth quarter, you're almost assured of seeing some old-fashioned iso-ball.
The larger, league-wide data is hard to come by, but we can see from a couple of examples that the so-called "hero-ball" model may be losing popularity. The New York Knicks, long pilloried as the biggest advocates of one-on-one sets, are actually using isolations on just 13 percent of their possessions. Last year, that figure was 16 percent, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Still, you can't walk a block in New York without hearing fans begging for Mike Woodson (or Carmelo Anthony) to do something besides clearing a side for a low-efficiency one-on-one battle.
Let's not get away from the question at hand, though. This isn't an argument that isolation basketball is some kind of spreading epidemic. It's merely an examination of why it continues to exist in an era when we know it to be a sub-optimal means of scoring.
We know it's not the best way to play. So why is it still such a key part of every team's repertoire?
We won't go too deep into the statistics here, as this is more of a philosophical discussion. But there are some numbers worth noting from the outset.
TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote an exhaustive analysis of isolation sets and their pervasive use in late-game situations for ESPN The Magazine in 2012. Here's an excerpt that offers the raw data:
The goal of basketball, in its simplest form, is to turn possessions into points. And on that basis, when Synergy began breaking down NBA plays by type in 2004, what it found would have made Wooden smile: Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.
Perhaps as a result of that dismal track record, of the 10 play types Synergy identified, isos are only the fourth most frequently run, accounting for just 12% of all plays in an average game. But in crunch time (defined by Synergy as the last five minutes of regulation and close overtime situations), their usage rose to 19 percent, second highest behind spot-up plays.
Simply put, there are many better ways to score than isolation plays. The numbers prove it, and it makes intuitive sense even without statistical backing. By definition, isolation shots are going to be off the dribble, contested or both.
That's not an ideal scoring situation.
A Safety Net
It's an unfortunate reality that many coaches would prefer to make the safe decision instead of the smart one.
Despite what we know about isolation play, you won't hear critics calling for Erik Spoelstra's head if he entrusts a late-game situation to LeBron James in a one-on-one matchup. Scott Brooks won't face questions about his crunch-time strategy as long as he gives the rock to Kevin Durant with the game on the line.
Those are extreme examples, but they're emblematic of the thought processes that allow iso-ball to exist.
It's an old-school way of thinking: You go down with your biggest gun firing. And really, it's hard to fault coaches for making decisions they can expect their owners and top-level executives to understand.
I don't care how dialed into the numbers Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob is; he'll be much happier if the Dubs fail in the clutch on a heavily contested Stephen Curry step-back jumper than if Mark Jackson draws up a brilliant, complicated set to get Harrison Barnes an open spot-up three.
Maybe It's Not So Simple
One thing isolation sets have going for them is their simplicity. And with that simplicity comes a level of predictability that other offensive sets lack.
Basically, isolations are a two-step process:
- Best player gets the ball.
- Everyone else gets out of the way.
That's it. That's all there is to it.
Once Carmelo Anthony has the ball on the wing, Woodson doesn't have to worry about a slow-developing play taking too long. The worst thing that can happen in a must-score situation is a complete failure to get a shot up. For the most part, you can expect Anthony to get a look at the rim before time expires.
With an isolation play for Anthony, Woodson can sit back and watch his star go to work. There's no danger of the opponent sniffing out a pet play, anticipating a pass or denying first and second options on a more complex series of moves.
And perhaps we see an uptick in isolation plays as the game goes on because defenses dig in a little extra when the stakes are higher. They're well aware of the offense's tendencies by then, which makes using more complicated offensive variations dangerous.
Smart defenders know which spots to cover—they shut off the corners and barricade the lane. With just seconds to execute, a deflected pass or rerouted dribbler could completely blow up sets that require action off the ball.
To some extent then, isolation basketball is really about taking what the defense is willing to concede. Although, the next layer in the analysis should involve asking the question: If the defense is giving up isolation sets so willingly, should teams really want to "take advantage" of that generosity?
Based on the numbers, the answer would seem to be a resounding "no."
Ultimately, though, iso-ball assures the offense will get a shot up. That's critical in final possessions.
Sometimes, plays break down and isolation sets are the only option left. In those situations, we probably shouldn't be so critical of a one-on-one attempt. When there's no alternative, hero ball isn't such an illogical mode of attack.
After all, it's better than a shot-clock violation.
But certain players seem particularly fond of doing it alone. Anthony gets plenty of flack for his "selfish" tendencies. Rudy Gay has been crucified time and again for his long twos off the dribble. And guys like J.R. Smith, Jordan Crawford and Jamal Crawford seem to engineer mano-a-mano possessions to the detriment of sound statistical basketball.
Those guys are walking iso sets.
The prevalence of AAU basketball—where players learn the value of showcasing their individual skills above everything else—might be to blame. A sweet one-on-one score gets you noticed, efficiency be damned.
In addition, the continuing existence of unnecessary isolations is probably a symptom of the elevated confidence levels most professional athletes possess.
Ask almost any player in the league if he thinks he can get a good shot off in a one-on-one situation, and the answer will almost certainly be "yes."
Of course it is; NBA players didn't get this far by entertaining self-doubt.
Here's a perfect example of the mindset that gives rise to iso-ball, courtesy of Kobe Bryant (via Abbott): "If you're asking me if I'm going to shoot less, the answer is no. It starts with me. I do what I do. We play off of that, and that's not going to change."
'Melo, care to offer your thoughts?
"Of course I want to take the last shot, let's be quite frank: I've been doing it for nine years already, and I've made a ton of them."
NBA players, especially the ones who take on scoring responsibilities themselves most often, don't lack confidence.
So when players like that use up entire possessions yo-yoing the ball, setting up their defender and trying to score on their own, just know they're doing it because that's how they've been taught and it's how they're wired in the first place.
It's hard to fight nurture, especially when nature is on the same side.
Here to Stay
The death of iso-ball isn't coming anytime soon. And actually, it's probably not wise to wish for its extinction.
After all, it's fun to watch the best athletes in the world go at one another. Plus, isolation still might be a necessary component of a complete NBA offense.
It'll always exist as a bailout option, and it's probably not realistic to rely on getting great catch-and-shoot or pick-and-roll opportunities on every possession. If it was easy to devote an entire playbook exclusively to high-efficiency shots, every team in the league would already be doing it.
But it's reasonable to expect a decline in isolation possessions.
An increasing number of fans and analysts now have the knee-jerk reaction that an isolation shot is a bad one. It's only a matter of time until that mode of thinking bleeds into the NBA community at large.
Iso-ball won't ever die. But we should probably expect it to live a slightly less healthy life in the future.
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