How slipping gives NBA offenses more control in the pick-and-roll

Welcome to Atomic Wonder, where we break down one tiny thing with big ripple effects. This week, we’re talking about the slip.

A few years ago, switching assignments on pick-and-rolls temporarily solved basketball’s most popular play, triggering an all-hands-on-deck emergency for basketball wonks.

At first, one-on-one scoring seemed like the only solution. The Houston Rockets, helmed by James Harden and Chris Paul, led the movement against ball movement.

Those days are over, though, thanks to the popularization of slipping, a cut into open space after setting a pick, an adjustment that has become so pervasive it has shifted beyond the vocabulary of coaches and scouts. The slip is a triumph of evolution, of collective necessity leading to collective problem-solving and adoption.

The name is true to its nature. There is a moment after every switch is called but before it’s executed that the pick-setter is configured between two defenders but guarded by neither. That’s when they can literally slip underneath the defense (the element of surprise is important) and cut to a juicy opening.

Slipping is not new. It’s a fusion of two popular, effective plays: pick-and-rolls and cuts. Chris Bosh loved to slip after setting picks for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but like most innovations spawned by the Heatles, the Golden State Warriors got most of the credit — small ball, switching, positionless lineups, anyone?

This happened for a few reasons.

The Warriors’ success, unlike the Miami Heat Big 3, didn’t have an easy explanation. Reporters searched for one, convening around coach Steve Kerr, hoping for scraps of insight through a smorgasbord of coach speak. But Kerr provided real answers right at a time fans were becoming more curious about X’s and O’s.

The slip, thanks to writer Nekias Duncan — whose eye is a gift to the conversation around basketball — has even become a meme.

The Warriors named everything they did, inspiring unprecedented copycatting. On defense, the Warriors switched. On offense, they started slipping. It was like they were having a conversation with themselves while the rest of the NBA wiretapped them.

Here’s Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis using the slip against the Warriors. Unjust, really. You hate to see it.

Ironically, it was the 2020 Heat that really vaulted the "slip" from an NBA hipster passcode to the vocabulary of announcers and fans. The Heat’s NBA Finals run — led by Jimmy Butler when his favorables were at their low point, a pair of late lottery picks and undrafted players — also begged for an explanation.

Miami’s rise was the product of so many things, but on the court, nothing exemplified the Heat better than their read-and-react game. Slipping became a signifier of their collective intelligence, their ability to think ahead of the play, the quintessential adjustment from the quintessential adjusters.

On the final clip, the Heat suss the Celtics out in their second attempt at a pick-and-roll. As soon as Celtics big man Daniel Theis preps to contain Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo slips to the paint. Like Klay Thompson, Duncan Robinson and Kelly Olynyk love pretending to screen before flaring out for three.

The Celtics eventually adjusted by tightly attaching a body to the pick-setter or sending help to the rim, but that just created openings elsewhere. Below, Adebayo slips, Jaylen Brown helps, Robinson splashes — a triumph for the passing big man.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert doesn’t slip a lot. He likes to touch opponents, rough them up and rack up those lovely screen assists, which makes it all the more potent when he does.

Defenses have become wise to the slip, which presents other possibilities.

When Bojan Bogdanovic slips here, the defense naturally overreacts. That just leaves Donovan Mitchell open, which leaves Royce O’Neale open in the corner. From there, it’s up to Mitchell to make the right decision.

Slipping isn’t a be-all and end-all. It can be neutralized. The best way to guard for the slip without sending help is to be physical, to keep your body on the screen-setter so you know where he’s going.

Slipping is just another possibility, but its emergence has reopened the possibilities that switches shut closed. Now, pick-and-rolls are back to being the unfair fight they’ve always been for defenders, who are perpetually at the mercy of reacting to an array of potential moves.

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