Breaking Down the Signature Moves of NBA's Top Stars

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2020

Breaking Down the Signature Moves of NBA's Top Stars

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    NBA players have given us plenty of unmistakable signature moves during the league's history.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the sky hook. Kevin McHale's up-and-under seemed unstoppable. Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake was unfair from a 7-footer. Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway was critical for the Dallas Mavericks' lone title run.

    In today's game, the biggest stars have their go-to moves as well. They may not be quite as legendary as those already mentioned, but they're on their way.

    To break each down, we'll go to the tape.

Kevin Durant's Fadeaway

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    Kevin Durant may well be the most versatile, complete scorer in league history.

    Among players with at least 10,000 career minutes, Durant trails only Michael Jordan in career points per 75 possessions.

    And among the 16 in that group with a career average of at least 25 points per 75 possessions, KD trails only Curry in career true shooting percentage.

    He can get all the way to the rim. He can drill pull-up threes. He can score from the mid-range. So, as was the case with others, there are probably a few possibilities for Durant's so-called signature move.

    His post fadeaway, which looks to be equal parts Dirk and MJ, gets the nod.

    Regardless of who's defending him, Durant can comfortably turn out of the backdown, drift backward on the shot and effortlessly flick the ball into the rim like he's playing on a Nerf hoop in a dorm room.

    It's hard enough to contest the 6'10" KD's regular jumpers. When he adds that little lean, it's borderline impossible.

James Harden's Step-Back

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    James Harden hit a whopping 191 step-back threes this season.

    Plug that total into the leaderboard for all pull-up threes, and it would rank third, behind only Harden and Damian Lillard. There were 11 teams that made fewer than 191 pull-up threes this season. And again, we're just looking at step-backs for Harden.

    He's become so good at that shot that a team unironically decided to guard him from behind in an effort to prevent the step-back.

    At this point, Harden seems to feel he can get this shot off against anyone. And he's usually right.

    It doesn't matter how tightly he's being guarded. It doesn't matter how long the defender is. Harden's so quick on the launch back into his shot that defenders rarely have time to react. And when they do, they often end up fouling him.

    Even without free-throw attempts, Harden generated 1.11 points per step-back three-point attempt this season. The league average for points per shot on all attempts, including layups, was 1.06.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's Eurostep

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    Fast forward the video above to around the 42-second mark to see the first example of Giannis Antetokounmpo's Eurostep dunk.

    Even in today's largely positionless game, with plenty of big men exhibiting guard skills, that kind of movement from Giannis is hard to believe.

    This is a 6'11" player with a 7'3" wingspan who's changing directions mid-gather to completely avoid another large human (Danilo Gallinari, the defender in the aforementioned clip, is 6'10").

    There are times when Giannis sort of telegraphs the move. Brave defenders who are willing to be wiped out can get in front of that step to draw a charge (Giannis averaged over one offensive foul per game this season).

    More often than not, though, this Greek's freakiest move gets him enough space to send his go-go-gadget arms to the rim for a dunk.

Stephen Curry's Secondary Assists to Himself

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    This one is more commonly referred to as relocation, give-and-go or off-ball movement. Technically, these shots by Stephen Curry are the product of secondary assists from...Stephen Curry.

    The league defines a secondary assist as follows: "A player is awarded a secondary assist if they passed the ball to a player who recorded an assist within one second and without dribbling."

    Some of the makes above stretch that definition a bit, but plenty don't.

    Curry's ability to scramble from wherever he passed the ball to an open spot on the floor is mesmerizing. And the amount of attention he commands during those scrambles spreads the floor in a way no other player does.

    Curry can hit from anywhere, and defenses know that. So, whichever player he runs by is influenced. And as that off-ball movement bends the opposition, shots open up for all kinds of Warriors, including Curry.

Kyrie Irving's Spin Move

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    You could go in a bunch of directions with Kyrie Irving, much like his ball-handling when isolated on a perimeter defender.

    Irving has devastating crossovers, pull-ups and up-and-under finishes, but it's his lightning-quick and compressed spin move that stands out the most.

    He times his spin brilliantly against on-ball defenders. If you lean one way or reach for a steal, you're likely to get dusted. And he can deploy it as if he's in a phone booth or busting out of one, depending on what the possession calls for.

    Just as important as the move itself, Irving is a master at going into his shooting form or a layup as soon as the spin is done. It would be easy to be off-balance coming off such a fast movement, but Irving almost always seems to get his shoulders square before heading into the scoring attempt.

Anthony Davis' Jab Step

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    Once upon a time, Carmelo Anthony was the king of the jab-step hill. And despite Melo's solid effort in the bubble to reclaim his place there, Anthony Davis may have the crown.

    Whether he's in the short corner or the high post, AD is plenty comfortable turning to face the basket as soon as he catches the ball. From there, he often deploys a jab step (or series of jab steps) in an effort to get his defender off balance.

    If it's a bigger guy, Davis has the explosiveness and agility to blow by him and score in the paint. On smaller, more mobile defenders, he's able to shoot over the top.

    Davis certainly isn't the first big to possess guard skills like these, but few in history combine them quite as effectively.

Damian Lillard's Bombs

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    Curry's unlimited range went a long way toward securing his two MVP awards. In 2014-15, he hit 27 threes from 28 feet and out. The next season, that number jumped to 50.

    Fast forward to a pandemic-shortened 2019-20. In just 66 games, Damian Lillard hit an eye-popping 101 threes from that range, and 72 of those were unassisted.

    The "guard him as soon as he crosses half court" phrase gained popularity during Curry's peak. And rightfully so. But it's even more true when applied to this version of Lillard.

    Seventy-two unassisted 28-plus-footers in 66 games. Just think about that.

    Whether he's coming off a ball screen or simply dribbling up the floor at the start of a possession, Lillard can stop and pop from seemingly anywhere on the floor.

    His release is as quick as a twitch. And he's become incredibly adept at sensing when his defender lets his guard down for a split second. When that happens, Lillard can get to his efficient jumper in a heartbeat.

    Even from that 28-plus-foot range, he hit 40.1 percent of his attempts.

Nikola Jokic's Sombor Shuffle

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    It seems fitting that the move that's slowest to develop on this slideshow belongs to Nikola Jokic.

    His Sombor Shuffle (named for the city of Jokic's birth in Serbia) often starts with him glancing down and taking a rhythm dribble. He then casually leans back onto one foot before hoisting a "jumper" into a high-arching trajectory to the hoop.

    It almost looks like he's just messing around between games at a mid-afternoon run at LA Fitness. It's a shot few others would dare to try. And yet, Jokic has turned it into a very real weapon.

    With the 7-footer's size and touch, the Sombor Shuffle has become one of those nearly unblockable shots in the mold of Kareem's sky hook or Dirk's fadeaway. And Jokic can hit his from beyond the three-point line.

Kawhi Leonard's Baseline Pull-Up

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    The most famous example of Kawhi Leonard's baseline running pull-up was obviously his series winner in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.

    With 4.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Kawhi caught an inbounds pass from the sideline on the left side of the floor and above the three-point line. He took four purposeful dribbles in front of Ben Simmons and eventually Joel Embiid on the way to the baseline on the right side, where he rose up for the iconic shot.

    But that's far from the only time Kawhi has gone to his right or left for that shot.

    If you pull up his 2019-20 or 2018-19 shot charts and click on any of the makes around that same range on the baseline, you'll find more examples of that leaning pull-up.

    Kawhi is a master at getting to his spot on the floor and rising up at the exact right moment. And regardless of how off-balance he may appear on the takeoff, his shoulders are almost always square to the rim for that high release.

Luka Doncic's Change of Pace

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    As is the case with Kyrie, there are plenty of options for Luka Doncic.

    He's not quite as accurate or prolific as Harden, but Luka did hit 91 step-back threes this season. He's ahead of schedule with the vet move of controlling defenders with his hips after coming off a ball screen. His vision and accuracy on skip and wraparound passes may already be unrivaled among current NBA players.

    If you spend a little time with the highlight reel above, you'll see a few examples of all of those things. The common thread, though, is simply Doncic's ability to change pace in a heartbeat.

    Now, you may be thinking that's more of a skill than a move. And for most players, you'd probably be right. But this really is a go-to move for Luka.

    Throttling down to lull defenders to sleep is common among so many Luka highlights. Whether he's dribbling up the floor, coming off a screen or operating in isolation, Doncic is a maestro at using his speed (or lack thereof) to get defenders to relax.

    As soon as they do, he has a nasty first step that puts him in front of or alongside the defender. From there, the 6'7", 230-pounder is big enough to control his matchup all the way to the bucket, take pull-up or dish it.

LeBron James' Look and Launch

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    Ten years ago, a list like this would've included LeBron James in freight train mode in transition. A little later, it might have been his spin move in the lane.

    One of the underrated aspects of his career is his willingness and ability to evolve. He doesn't fly up and down the court or float through the air quite like he used to, but he's added other moves and skills to offset that.

    For the first time in his career, he averaged double digits in assists, leading the NBA with 10.2 per game this year. Passing more has saved his body from taking some of the hits he absorbed as a younger player. And this signature move he's relied on much more of late may have a similar effect.

    Instead of constantly going to the rim, LeBron sometimes deploys a little trickery before launching pull-up threes.

    It generally happens when he's dribbling to his right. He'll take a glance down toward the ball, as if he's getting ready to call a set or collect himself. Instead of doing either of those things, he goes straight from the look to a launch.

    It may not be his most effective move (LeBron shot 32.7 percent on pull-up threes this season), but the more you can mix into a repertoire, the less predictable you are.