Dylan Murphy
Oct 31, 2016 · 6 min read

Term: Stagger

Definition: Two consecutive screens set for a teammate away from the ball screens that face the same direction.

Synonyms: Double Screen, Double

Explanation: A stagger is essentially two consecutive, or staggered, pindowns set for a single player away from the ball. For the defender guarding the cutter, manuevering through a stagger can be even more difficult than the pindown. Instead of just one screener, he must now navigate through two.

For the offensive player for whom the stagger is set, his techniques for getting open identically match the pindown: He must change pace and direction, wait for the screen and come off of it shoulder-to-shoulder. Depending on the route his defender takes, he can curl to the rim, cut backdoor or fade to the corner. And with the addition of an extra screener, he has an even greater chance of wriggling free from his man.

Actually setting the stagger is subject to more precision. Although any two of the five players can be the screeners, staggers are more effective when the second screener has a greater size difference with the player for whom he is screening. If a guard is receving a stagger, the second screener is usually a big. If a big is receiving the stagger, the second screener is typically a guard.

The reason for this size discrepancy is to counteract a potential switch. If the second sceener is of a similar size, the defense can switch without consequence. With the proper screener alignment, a stagger will, at the very least, create a mismatch.

The distance between each screener is also of vital importance. If the players are too close to each other, they effectively function as one player and negate the advantage of a second screen. Because the second offensive player brings in a second defender, one defender can now guard two players.

If the players are too far away, the defender guarding the man receiving the stagger can weave inside and outside of the stagger to find the best defensive route. By keeping the screens close enough together, the second screener can anticipate the defender’s path — once he chooses, he’s stuck on that path through the whole stagger. This leads to an even better chance of the second screener making contact.

The stagger is an extremely common action that is part of every NBA offense. However, it does not appear as often as a single, isolated action. While an offense can easily flow into a pindown (particularly a wide pindown) as a quick hitter, the extra player required for a stagger makes this possibility less frequent. Teams more commonly attach it to a larger action, taking their time to set it up and arrange everyone properly.

Let’s take a look at an example in which Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves set a stagger for Andrew Wiggins.

(Note: There are no “wide staggers” or “middle staggers.” All staggers are simply referred to as “staggers.”)

As Wiggins bends around the first screen, his defender, Rudy Gay of the Sacramento Kings, mirrors his path. As Gay fights through the first screen, notice the congestion between Dieng and Towns. Because Wiggins is not a dangerous catch-and-shoot three-point shooter, it would be prudent for Gay to go over the first screen and slip underneath the second. But the Timberwolves’ bigs eliminate this possibility by not completely detaching from each other. Their closeness also allows Kosta Koufos and Quincy Acy, the Kings’ bigs, to clog up the gap as well.

With Gay now taking a wide turn around both screens, Towns quickly slides to his left to clip Gay — who now has absolutely no chance at catching up to Wiggins and recovering to a capable guarding position.

Acy is now caught between two players as he’s momentarily responsible for Wiggins and Towns. This two-on-one puts the defense in a difficult position, which eventually leads to a Wiggins layup.

Stagger Game

In a traditional stagger, two offensive players screen for a third with the intention of springing him open. Most staggers — to the dismay of the defense — are not nearly that simple. In fact, the variation of actions run out of a stagger are so numerous that cataloguing all of them here is virtually impossible.

Staggers aiming to free a player in the corner are particularly dangerous. Remember that, in a stagger, the first screener is an independent variable. For the sake of defensive confusion, it is often another player capable of making a play with the ball in his hands.

The enusing situation is one of infinite choice: What might appear to be a regular stagger due to alignment ilicitly shifts into a pindown, with the first screener slipping backdoor. Maybe the player for whom the stagger is set curls around the first screen and ignores the second. Or maybe the first screener sets his screen and follows the path of the player for whom the stagger is set, thereby creating a stagger followed by a pindown. Maybe the first screener doesn’t wait and just flies off the second screener. Maybe the bottom player sprints up to the second screener, flips around and becomes the first screener himself. Now the first screener is actually getting a stagger.

You get the idea.

Sometimes coaches diagram this action by applying a specific cuts. Sometimes they leave it up to the players to freelance. Either way, this three-man game preys upon the bottom defender by forcing him to commit to only one area of help.

In this stagger for Nik Stauskas of the Philadelphia 76ers, all seems normal on the initial look. As Stauskas prepares to clear the second screen from teammate Elton Brand, John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks — who is guarding Brand and is the primary helper — lies in wait to jump Stauskas should his defender, Giannis Antetokounmpo, not bust through the screens easily.

Antetokounmpo is not completely out of the play, and the play could still be bottled up. Despite not receiving the ball, Stauskas finishes his cut. Henson, as a natural rim-protector who does not typically venture outside the paint, glides toward Stauskas as he moves toward the middle of the floor.

It is at this moment that Robert Covington — the first screener — whips around and darts to the three-point line, using Brand as a screener as well.

Henson, however, is still at least partly responsible for Stauskas and completely responsible for Brand. Yet his momentum is now moving in the complete opposite direction from the primary action.

Johnny O’Bryant, who is guarding Covington, gets nailed by Brand. Henson is supposed to be the primary helper here, but he doesn’t diagnose the secondary action quickly enough — not to mention that he’s out of position anyway. The result is a wide open Covington.

The way in which this play attacks Henson with multiple actions in different directions is what makes the stagger so effective. A defensive stop requires defenders to make reads quickly and correctly.

If you watched staggers on film with an NBA player, he could position each defender properly with ease. But in the chaos of game action, thinking is replaced by instinct. Any hesitation or momentary error in judgment is fatal. All an offensive player needs is a defender to lean the wrong way to gain an edge.

The stagger counts on these defensive slips occuring due to the added complexity. Throw in a particularly lethal shooter and you’ve got quite the recipe to create mistakes.

Film Study: “Stagger”

Below is a video compilation of various examples of staggers in NBA games, including an array of the more common variations.

The Basketball Dictionary

How to speak basketball

Dylan Murphy

Written by

Previously: Atlanta Hawks D-League Scout, Fort Wayne Mad Ants Assistant Coach (NBA D-League). 2014 D-League Champion.

The Basketball Dictionary

How to speak basketball

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