The Strength of the Weak Side
In the NBA, where every minute detail matters, the weak side of the floor is a perfect encapsulation of the game’s finer edges
It is the blurry outskirts of every offensive possession, a place where role players often reside while stars conduct their symphonies in the forefront. It’s the weak side, basketball’s form of an ancillary piece within a more cosmic ecosystem that either enables peak offensive performance or reduces scoring efforts to a type of unsustainable drudgery. It is the area where rotating help defenders lurk, seeking to disarm a threat, while supplementary offensive players delve into their specialized bag of tricks to either dissuade assistance entirely or at the very least delay it. Ace shooters suck defenders out of orbit simply with their presence and natural gravitational pull. Others major in alternative curriculum, prioritizing the study of angles and timing. Coaches are the overseer of it all, charting varying weak side alignments and movements while also scaling the cause and effect of placing a player into each role. Although it is often overlooked, the dynamics of a team’s weak side alignment can act as a steroid juicing up the vigor of a primary set or a depressant, short-circuiting a would-be scoring binge
For example, take the most basic and most common form of weak side rotations — those that come when defending the pick-and-roll. The scene is a reoccurring one. A screener smacks the ball handler’s man, prying him loose, before turning and rumbling toward the rim. As the screened defender tries to recover to his man and the big attempts to find the elusive middle ground to thwart both the ball handler and the roller, the weak side defender must leverage if it’s worth peeling off his man to offer emergency aid. Generally the weak side defender is slotted along the baseline, covering a shooter in the corner or a dunker in the short corner looking to cut to the rim the moment they’re abandoned. There are all kinds of independent variables in the situation as far as the pick-and-roll personnel, preferred type of coverage, angles, situation, etc., but that dude standing in that weak side corner awaiting a possible kick out may make or break the whole play for both the defense and the offense. If it’s Klay Thompson, defenders will be reluctant to leave his shooting space. If it’s Trevor Ariza, that defender will creep closer.
However, there’s another side to this theory of weak side alignment. Instead of inspecting the fibers that make up the offensive player, the microscope can shift its focus to the DNA of the defensive player. Maybe a defender consistently botches help assignments through laziness or unawareness, or perhaps that defender is so scrawny, they’re helpless to challenge a behemoth. Naturally, coaches will try to hide less capable defenders on more bland offensive threats. Opposing coaches can always counter by reshuffling the deck and forcing the defensive sieve back into the primary action, but then they are conceding a sacrifice as far as the skill level of those involved. For example, there’s a reason the Wizards have Marcin Gortat set screens and not Otto Porter; Gortat is more qualified. Swap out Gortat for Porter and a more inadequate defender may enter into the fray, but neither Porter nor Gortat are maximizing their chief resource. If offenses stick it out with players conforming to their more traditional roles and jam less-heralded playmakers on the weak side, the initial burden of finding crevices and mismatches in the defense may be harder, but if one can navigate through those thickets, the help side defense is now nugatory. Seek-and-destroy missions targeting shoddy defenders such as Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas emit value, but so does putting such ineffective defenders on the weak side. Irving suffers from languidness in his rotations, potentially bollixing a zone up on the weak side to give up an open 3 or arriving to a pocket pass too late as a roller slams. Thomas, meanwhile, is just so small, his closeouts risk being declared obsolete if he has too much ground to cover. And when Thomas, or a player of similar ilk, does stray from his assignment to offer aid, their impact borders on being moot if they arrive in the teeniest bit late., whether it’s due to size or a lack of force.
Other times, coaches foil defenses through different means, often by way of distraction with phony actions and movement. Sometimes it’s merely a simple weak side exchange between the two offensive players; the man in the corner lifts up to the wing and the man on the wing drops to the corner like the Bulls do here.
The weak side defenders can essentially switch without even moving or hardly breaking their concentration on the primary action, but that’s easier said than done. One assumed calculation gone bad, and an open triple could be the penalty.
In alternative cases, a pass and cut suffices when quickly followed by another scoring incursion. The defender will naturally track his man to the weak side, often trailing by just a bit, waiting to see if it’s a piece to a larger puzzle. Maybe it’s a team’s flex action, where the cutter will set a cross screen before receiving a down screen and popping out to get the ball back. Or what if he’s sneaking behind a defender for a backscreen to spring a lob? It could be motion weak, where the cutter jogs through the lane as a lackadaisical relocation tactic to the opposite wing as the ball is simultaneously reversed. There’s a bundle of possibilities, including simply hunkering down in the corner as a floor spacer, but the unknown of which is coming if often enough to garner the attention of a defender for an extra second or two.
More complexly-designed diversions include false flares, pin downs and hammer actions that swindle defenders into believing the play is actually devised to get their man a look, which can morph into the case if they don’t take precautions.
The offensive trade off, however, is more than just an arduous playbook; it also muddles the decision-making for ball handlers and risks leaving them with no clear option to pass to if they get in a bind. The timing has to be on point.
When implemented and executed sublimely, weak side actions yank at defenders in a multitude of directions, spurring snappy decisions. Just as in so many other facets of NBA basketball, hesitation is like digging one’s own grave. In this case, overthinking turns the defender into the rope in a game of tug of war; it endures a lot of strain, but ultimately stays stagnant in its movement, allowing the offense to choose at their digression which of the now-two open scoring options they prefer. A defender may be toast no matter what. After all, the secondary options offenses attempt to con a defender with are generally still enlisted as options. Commit to one’s orders and stay grounded in help defense on the weak side and the league’s most prolific passers burn you for your fealty. Focus your attention upon your own man transforming into a threat as they sprint off a pin down and your teammates shrug their shoulders seeking explanation for the nakedness of the help side. It may be a lose-lose game in theory, but not every route ensures failure. More novice ball handlers succumb to tunnel vision, barreling to the hoop with their peripherals clouded. Some don’t have the capability to whiz a pass on the move over layers of bodies as a shooter fades off a flare screen. Ball movement is so often viewed from the prism of the offense, an ode to the game’s purity where the ball travels faster through the air and involves all five guys to eventually snap a defense past its breaking point. However, that ball movement is a badge of honor for the defense as well; through effort and discipline, the defense prolongs the hunt for a quality look. Through that drawn out search, pressure mounts on the offense. Each dot in an offense’s connective, ping-ping ball movement brings with it the need for a hasty decision, an on-target pass and a clean catch, all while decoding the haywire rotations of a scrambling defense. Sticking to one’s help responsibilities puts the onus on the offense to recognize it and execute the next sequence to find a decent shot.
All of the minutia involved in trying to tailor the weak side defense to the offense’s preference is evaporated with careful planning and keen play design that leaves the weak side vacant. Motion sets can flow their way into a stuffed strong side and a barren weak side often in the form of side pick-and-rolls (PNRs)and dribble handoffs (DHOs). Defensive principles are ironed into law to absolve of this albatross, often through ICE coverage. As the defending guard sets himself high on the ball screen, ICE funnels the ball handler into the small side of the court and escorts his passing target back into the middle of the floor, where gobs of defensive reinforcements await. If the defense is slow in its recognition or spotty in its coverage and gives up middle in these scenarios, extra defenders are available to dig down and help, but doing so often means disengaging from a player spotting up just one pass away — a big no-no. Through the lens of the weak side, giving up middle leaves the backside void of assisting defenders, manufacturing a clean cavity for pops or rolls to the rim.
Dribble handoffs have become vogue across the league with bigs that possess even a pinch of ball skills to combat ICEing strategies. It’s much more difficult for defenders to halt the momentum of speedy guards sprinting from the corner hellbent on penetrating into the middle of the floor. Defenders simply don’t have the lateral quickness to consistently lunge to the high side of the screen to deter a ball handler from his will when NBA-level athletes are darting into a handoff scenario.
Sure, defenders try to take precautions, such as latching onto their man and cheating to the high side, but it leaves them liable to backdoor counters. Guards are acute at feigning toward the ball with a jab and shifting the defender’s mass in that direction, before planting and zipping toward the hoop. And with an influx of passing wizards posing as 7-foot towers these days, those previously sealed up passing windows have been pried open.
To compound the already-complicated issue, copious amounts of DHOs are the climax of motion sets that have already goaded the defense into unfavorable switches or put them slightly behind the play.
The trendy outfit of DHOs make traditional weak side clearouts seem antiquated and stale, but stuffing one half of the floor with four players and leaving the other as a dance floor for one of the league’s solo artists still has a seat at the NBA table.
All of the clutter on the weak side, where players almost overlap, creates a breeding ground for defenses to blitz the iso situation with a help defender if they feel the need as the remaining three defenders can zone up the weak side without bending past their point of maximum ductility. The risk doesn’t seem too substantial for the defense (after all this is why offensive spacing is deemed so critical), but communicating which defender is declared the helper and the subsequent subtle shifts each of the other three defenders must execute can be a burden against such slovenly alignment that defenses rarely see. Sloppy weak side spacing often manifests out of botched sets or personnel deficiencies, but when it comes by design, defenses have to be wary of it existing as a decoy for something else. Potential cutters are on the lookout for defenses to send help, ready to flash to an unoccupied area and submarine the DEFENSE’S weak side spacing in its zone. Flare screens or seal screens for open shooters also threaten to sink unaware defenders. Perhaps the isolation was merely a way to enthrall the weak side defense, an overture preceding the real act. As they ball watch a screener may sneak behind them and form a barricade for a shooter as the offense suddenly punts on the iso and bandies the ball about on a reversal for an open triple. Of course, such apprehensiveness is the peril of overthinking. If aid isn’t offered to dispose of the initial mismatch because of what might happen in consequence, it’s a free pass for the offense; a failure to see if it actually has the chops to map out the blueprint on the weak side to attain a more elaborate goal.
The point, however, remains as both the theme of NBA’s weak side and its operation as a whole: Decisions are hard. Ones that seem correct may just be a facade, and the ones that actually are correct often only lead to a different branch with myriad others that need to be made.