Term: Split Cut
Definition: A two-man, off-ball screening action between the post feeder and the next closest perimeter player during a post-up.
Explanation: In traditional post-up basketball, a guard on the wing enters the ball inside to the 4 or 5. After the entry, the post feeder cuts through to the weak-side underneath his teammate — that is, closer to the baseline.
The purpose of this clear out is to remove a comfortable dig — a type of perimeter help in which the nearest perimeter defender lunges back and forth between the ball and his man. Once the post feeder cuts through, the post player has a one-on-one opportunity on the block.
In the era of dominant back-to-the-basket players, this type of isolation basketball was remarkably effective. Leave the 5 alone and he scores. Send help and he hits a cutter or standstill shooter.
Today’s game lacks this type of dominance on the block, and the post is therefore more frequently used as a vehicle for assists. Aiding this transition has been the proliferation of “split cuts,” a popular two-man screening action that replaces the post feeder’s weak-side cut-through.
The advantage of the split cut is three-fold: It fosters the same one-on-one post dynamic as the through cut, it gives the post feeder greater kickout optionality, and it wrestles control of the post up action back into the hands of the offense.
In the past, post-ups were characterized by one-on-one play and four players standing around on the weak side. This allowed the defense to dictate to the offense, giving them free rein to dig, double and appropriately rotate.
The split cut, however, locks two defenders into a screening action that must be guarded, as it can easily create a backdoor layup or open three-point shot. And since it involves the two perimeter players closest to the punch action, it narrows the areas from where help might come.
How To Split Cut
One of the main advantages of the split cut is in the way it removes potential diggers. Although the through cut accomplishes this task, it is not nearly as effective. This boils down to a matter of spacing. After the through cut takes place, the offense naturally slides over along the perimeter to recreate floor balance. Given that the through cutter is moving to the weak-side corner, this means that everyone is moving over one spot. Look at how, from the play above, Dwight Howard of the Charlotte Hornets is not completely alone on the strong-side. Despite the through cut by Jeremy Lamb, Nicholas Batum’s presence near Howard brings a replacement digger — Thaddeus Young of the Indiana Pacers — into the fold.
The genius of the split cut is that it neutralizes replacement diggers, leaving no logical alternatives. Instead of Young becoming a possible digger, a split cut would have brought Lamb and Batum together. This in turn would have occupied both Young and Lamb’s defender, Cory Joseph, in the screening action and left Howard alone to work.
In terms of a split cut’s actual execution, the process is more nuanced than it might initially appear. After the post feeder throws it inside, one of two things occurs: either he screens away for the nearest perimeter player, or the nearest perimeter player screens for him. As a result of this action, ideally one player dives to the rim while the other pops out to the three-point line.
The unpredictably of who goes where forces the defense to remain on its toes. The natural reaction, therefore, is to lock in on the screening action and shut it down. Unfortunately for the defense, this forces the post feeder’s defender to turn his back to the post action and lose sight of the ball, removing him as a possible digger.
Here’s an example of this consequence in which Trevor Ariza of the Houston Rockets turns his back to the post player, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, because his man, Gary Harris, engages in a split cut with teammate Jamal Murray. Although Ariza’s concentration on Harris prevents the split cut action from hurting Denver directly, it completely eliminates his digging help.
Had Harris cut through and pulled Ariza away, his teammate, Chris Paul, would have slid over as the next logical digger. Instead, Paul is dragged into the split cut and cannot deal with the post action. With one screen, Denver completely occupies two players. Free from secondary defenders, Jokic is able to capitalize.
The other most common way of guarding the split cut is trying to keep track of both the screening action and the post action. While this might sound appealing, invariably it leads to mistakes in what amounts to a problem of physics. In order to keep both ball and man in his vision, a defender must drop to a deeper depth: the split cut action happens closer to three-point line, while the post-up occurs closer to the baseline. Even with the proper body orientation — meaning, not turning your back to the post — staying high up the floor forces a significant head swivel that is difficult to maintain. Dropping lower, however, alleviates this issue by keeping ball and man in front.
The consequence of this depth is that it drags the defender farther away from the three-point line, and therefore the split cut action as well. This leaves one defender to guard two players in a screening action, which is usually a recipe for disaster.
Here’s an example of just that as Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans posts up on the left block. After entering the ball inside, Nikola Mirotic screens away for teammate Ian Clark. Gorgui Dieng of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who is guarding Mirotic, tries to track Davis and Mirotic at the same time.
Dieng, however, gets separated from the split cut going on at the top of the key as he drops his depth to maintain dual vision. Clark, recognizing that Mirotic has been left alone, backdoors to the rim. Mirotic takes one step back and is left wide open.
Clark’s screen slip is just one of numerous split cut possibilities. Clark could have actually used the screen to wrap around the three-point line toward the ball, or Mirotic could have dove to the basket himself. No matter the course of action, the key lies within the read.
In a typical split cut, offensive players are judging two things: whether or not the defense will switch, and how tightly they are being guarded. If the defense appears to communicate a switch, the offense will look to slip the screen. With the defense’s switch predicated on an anticipated direction of movement by the offense, a quick slip can leave a defender a step behind. The slip is also commonly used against a relaxed defender. If he is not ready to move, a quick burst of energy in one direction can catch him sleeping.
Film Study: “Split Cut”
Below is a video compilation of split cuts from NBA games. Take note of who screens for whom, how the defense reacts and why the offensive split cutters respond as they do. The possibilities for split cuts are endless, and this is only a small sampling.