NBA Playoffs: The value of secondary creators is on full display

Utah Jazz players (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Utah Jazz players (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

Taking a closer look at the value of secondary creators in the NBA. 

In the NBA, stars who can dominate the game on the offensive end run the league. It’s why front offices are willing to sacrifice draft picks, depth, youth, cap space, and essentially their whole long-term future to bring in multiple elite offensive players and make a run at a championship (i.e.: Nets, Lakers, Clippers, etc.)

But even though the NBA has never had more elite offensive engines and high-difficulty shot makers, there still aren’t enough of those guys for every team to have two or three like they’d prefer. Their scarcity is what makes them so valuable, and that value is what makes them nearly impossible to acquire for a majority of NBA teams.

So what is a team to do that can’t acquire more than one of the best 10 or 20 players in the NBA? Take their ball and go home? They could, and some do, but the playoffs have shown that those who have opted for more creativity in their roster construction can still compete at the highest level, even when operating at a deficit when it comes to top-tier offensive talent.

The Golden State Warriors’ GM and President of Basketball Operations, Bob Myers, gave a high-level overview on this type of roster construction at the 2019 Sloan Conference in response to a question about where the league is going with all of its perimeter shooting talent (14:05-16:35 in the video below).

Myers mentions “checking boxes” a couple of times in this video. Essentially saying that you want players who can do a lot of different things well. Shoot, pass, dribble, defend, rebound, etc.

That seems like a common-sense approach to building a team and something every team would do, but if you watch the games you know it’s not the case. A lot of teams, especially those trying to surround a star player, bring in specialists – the most common being “3-and-D” players who can hit an open shot and hold up defensively.

But if a player can only do those two things, if they only check those two boxes, do they have as much value as we think they do?

In the right situation – absolutely they do. But in a situation where a team doesn’t have multiple stars driving all of the offensive creation, the skill set of a specialist becomes far less valuable than that of a secondary creator.

The impact of a secondary creator in the NBA 

Building a contending team around one star player is certainly more difficult than the task of surrounding two or three stars. The margin of error is smaller, but it’s not impossible with the right type of roster construction.

The 2020 Miami Heat is the most recent example of this. They had a top 15-ish player in Jimmy Butler and surrounded him with a versatile arsenal of offensive creators and “box checkers”, riding that all the way to an NBA Finals appearance. And we’re seeing it again this postseason, most notably with the Utah Jazz.

The two plays in the video above are a great example of why the Jazz was a top 3 regular season team in offensive efficiency, and still top 5 in the postseason despite playing many of their games without Mike Conley, who would typically be initiating the offense when Donovan Mitchell is not.

These two plays are from back-to-back possessions from Utah’s Game 5 win over Memphis in the first round. In the first play, you’ll see Bojan Bogdanovic abort a drive to the basket by passing out to Rudy Gobert and then flowing right into an unscripted dribble hand-off with Gobert setting a screen and rolling to the basket. Bogdanovic reads it well and makes a crafty pass fake and finishes the play with a nice mid-range runner.

In the second play, you have Joe Ingles operating in a similar action, handling a dribble hand-off with Gobert. This time, Gobert slips the screen and Ingles makes the nice touch pass over the top for the easy dunk.

Those two plays aren’t flashy and usually go unnoticed, but their value can’t be overstated. Possessions like that allow Donovan Mitchell to play off the ball rather than having to shoulder the whole offensive load, and having a supporting cast of high IQ secondary creators capable of running simple actions to create high percentage shots without Mitchell’s help creates multiple layers for their offense that are difficult to defend.

Here are a couple more examples, this time from Atlanta – another team who has surrounded their star (Trae Young) with multiple secondary creators who are capable of getting quality looks without Young spoon-feeding it to them:

Both of these clips show plays that are far more valuable than just two points, they present wrinkles to the game plan that aren’t available without having secondary creators.

It’s no secret that Atlanta wants to target Seth Curry in this series, but when Solomon Hill is on the floor, Curry can hide on him and have a much better chance of surviving on defense. But this first lineup, featuring Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter makes that impossible.

Curry is guarding Huerter in this play and instead of bringing him up to set the screen and trying to force a switch onto Young like a lot of teams would do, Atlanta just takes the matchup they are given and allows Huerter to operate in the pick and roll against the undersized Curry, where he’s able to pretty easily get to his spot and hit the jumper (I guess the bank was open that day).

The second play is even more impactful. With the 76ers adjusting to have Ben Simmons guard Trae Young to start the game, their primary action of getting Young downhill via pick and roll is largely neutralized – Simmons is too big and too versatile defensively. But with secondary creators, Atlanta can use that against Philadelphia by running the offense through role players while the 76ers’ best defender is glued to Young away from the ball.

In this play, Simmons and Joel Embiid blow up the Trae Young pick-and-roll, forcing a pass over to Bogdanovic who flows into a pick and roll of his own. That action is again contained well, this time by Danny Green, but Bogdanovic is still able to create a late-clock jumper for himself and knocks it down. Great offense beats great defense.

Now keep all of those plays in mind while we look at what the other end of the spectrum looks like:

It doesn’t take a basketball genius to spot the difference there. For the Mavericks, when their primary action was contained, the offense can’t naturally flow into anything else. There’s no Kevin Huerter or Joe Ingles to get into an unscripted dribble hand-off and make a play.

When Luka Doncic gives up the ball, it immediately gets sent right back to him while the other four players stand around watching him. That lack of offensive movement and flow allows the Clippers to have all eyes on Doncic and swarm him to get the turnover. Doncic is incredible, but if the only way the Mavericks can win playoff games is with him putting on the cape then they’ll always have a capped ceiling.

Let’s look at another one:

Once Anthony Davis went down in the first round against Phoenix, the Lakers’ role players were forced into a role that frankly none of them looked equipped to handle. And to Phoenix’s credit, their defensive game plan flawlessly exploited that.

This clip starts similarly to the Dallas clip, with LeBron James operating in isolation at the top of the key. You can almost see LeBron’s hesitance before he even makes the drive because he’s smart enough to know exactly what’s about to happen.

Phoenix loads up on his drive, with all four help defenders sinking down to help Cam Johnson and force the Lakers to move the ball. And once the ball is out of LeBron’s hands the Suns have already won the possession.

They put on a closeout clinic, sprinting to the 3-point line and not even worrying about the supporting cast driving by them. In fact, they are inviting any of the role players to drive because none of them are comfortable in that playmaking role and they have Deandre Ayton roaming the paint to deter any easy baskets.

Eventually, Wesley Matthews takes the bait and is forced to put up a late-clock floater, a shot Phoenix will happily concede on every possession. Perfect game plan execution.

What it means for roster construction

There is no one size fits all blueprint for roster construction in the NBA, and I don’t intend to diminish the value of the 3-and-D specialists and others in that mold. They still have high value, but only if the team has enough offensive creation around them to maximize that skill set.

The Lakers are probably the best example of the fine line in finding that balance. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis healthy and able to carry the burden of all the offensive creation, the Lakers were up 2-1 against the Suns.

But once Davis went down in the first half of Game 4 and the supporting cast of players with limited offensive arsenals was forced into roles not suited for them, the Lakers couldn’t even really stay competitive.

So for that reason, the Lakers shouldn’t be tearing down their roster and filling it out with creators – they clearly have enough of that when their stars are healthy and their role players can thrive in that setting. But for the NBA teams who don’t have that kind of star power, it’s nearly impossible to make a postseason run without investing in secondary creators.

The Mavericks are a case study for that concept. If Kristaps Porzingis isn’t the star they need him to be and is relegated to what is essentially the role of a spot-up shooter, then he’s not as valuable to them as a secondary creator who can ease Doncic’s burden as the offensive engine, even if that secondary creator isn’t as talented as Porzingis in a vacuum. The fit outweighs the talent.

At the top, I talked about how the scarcity of star players makes it so hard to acquire them, and most teams are happy to just have one, let alone two or three. But for teams that can’t lure in a second or third star, finding secondary creators isn’t nearly as scarce.

Just use the handful of secondary creators we looked at today. These are players that can be found outside of the lottery every year, available in free agency for reasonable contracts, or even in trades for protected first-round picks.

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They aren’t hiding, and for teams with one star player already on their roster like Dallas, Portland, New York, the list goes on and on – it’s a much more feasible roster blueprint to invest in mid-level offensive creators who “check a lot of boxes” than going big-game hunting in free agency or waiting for the next disgruntled superstar to demand a trade.