Dear NBA Coaches: Please Stop Running So Many Isolations

Isolation plays are the running game of the NBA: stale and ineffective.

Only the unimaginative rely on the clear-out, mano-a-mano action. It’s a common play in gyms all across the world, but pickup basketball is where it should stay.

I know, I know. Your best player brings the ball up the court and notices he has a distinct advantage over his defender. He flaps his arm like a toddler first learning how to swim and clears out his teammates. The other eight people on the floor stand in the corners, four of them with their hands ready to catch and shoot, but they know they will never get the ball. The alpha-male then attempts to take his man off the dribble, and the play ends in one of two ways: a contested shot that clanks off the rim, or the rare shot in which the ball miraculously finds its way into the hoop for a bucket.

At the NBA level, the play is a little smoother, however, the overall premise is the same. Isolation is supposed to be an easy play to let your star take advantage of a mismatch and get your team quick buckets. Yet it’s become one of the most difficult and inefficient plays in today’s game.

Last season, nine teams ran the play on at least 8 percent of their possessions, and only five finished with winning records (Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers). The other four (Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers) averaged 49 losses.

The Cavs used isolation possessions the most, accounting for 11.9 percent of their total possessions. They were also the most efficient, racking up 0.99 points per possession (PPP) with a 48.8 effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). Overall, Cleveland recorded 12.7 points per game from these plays. But while those numbers stand atop the isolation chart, they pale in comparison to other types of plays.

Based on the league-wide averages you can see below, is it any wonder the best teams have steered away from ISO-ball and toward cut-heavy offenses spaced out by spot-up marksmen?

Average points per possession (PPP) by play type


Kyrie Irving and LeBron James leading the Cavaliers in calling their own numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They each had 5.1 chances per game, and Irving was a lot more efficient (1.12 PPP) than his forward counterpart (0.97 PPP).

The ISO can be a beautiful set, however disengaging for the rest of the team.

On the following play, Irving is able to take his man off the dribble and score an easy layup. What really makes this play is his team’s spacing. Three players spread out along the three-point line, and Tristan Thompson slides from the elbow to the block. Thompson is actually the key, because he puts himself in scoring position on the left block, which ensures Draymond Green isn’t able to help on the drive without giving up an alley-oop over the top:

This next result, even for an ISO maestro such as Irving (94.9 percentile), occurs much more frequently on clear-outs.

Irving quickly brings the ball up the floor while his three teammates move to the other side of the court. He gets the advantage on his man, but he ends up dribbling the ball off his foot while trying to turn the corner:

The Clippers, who were next on the frequency leaderboard, ran the ISO 11.3 times per game—10.6 percent of their possessions. They didn’t display nearly the same efficiency as the Cavs, unfortunately, as they only scored 10.4 points per contest with a 45.1 eFG%. Los Angeles took a bit of a different approach to the clear-out, operating as an equal-opportunity isolation team. Four players (Jamal Crawford, Chris Paul, Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin) averaged 2.3 ISOs per game. Paul was most effective, as he averaged 1.09 PPP with a 52.7 eFG%.

But the other end of the spectrum looks even bleaker.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies were the three worst isolation teams, and each averaged below 0.8 PPP while registering eFG%s worse than 40 percent. Although these three teams ran it infrequently (fewer than 7.5 percent of the time) it was still a part of their game plans. They fell into the one-on-one trap that slowly but surely sucked them in like quicksand.

Unsurprisingly, the best teams stay as far away from the ugly individual play as they can.

The San Antonio Spurs (5.9 percent), Golden State Warriors (5.7 percent) and Boston Celtics (5.5 percent) ranked Nos. 26, 27 and 28 in isolation frequency last season. Notably, they served as three of the four teams in the conference finals. These squads showed time and time again that ball movement, cutting and screening is the easiest way to get buckets. They approached their offense in unique fashion, but they were able to construct a flow that was equal parts lethal and inclusive.

The Spurs relied heavily on ball movement to create spot-up opportunities. They ranked third in the NBA by having their possessions end in these shots 22.7 percent of the time. They were also the most dangerous team on these plays, generating 25.7 points per game.

As you can see below in a play emblematic of the unselfish system, quick ball movement from Jonathon Simmons to Dejounte Murray allowed the rookie point guard to get a step on his man and penetrate deep into the lane. Murray then utilizes a beautiful jump stop and ball fake before kicking it back out to Patty Mills on the perimeter for a wide-open three:

The Celtics also frequently relied on spotting up, finishing just behind the Spurs in frequency (22.3 percent). However, Boston used other methods to create easy scoring opportunities, as well. It mixed in off-ball cuts and screens in order to generate baskets around the rim.

This is a great example of how Boston uses a high-low entry into the post and multiple cuts to open up the center of the lane. Marcus Smarts hit Tyler Zeller at the elbow, who then fed Al Horford on the left block. After the entry pass, Zeller cut to the opposite block while Smart slid up top. This movement, combined with Thompson falling asleep for a half second, allowed Avery Bradley to cut down the middle of the lane for a layup:

The Warriors had the most diverse offense in the NBA last season, using a little bit of everything to spread the wealth among their plethora of talented players. While Golden State relied less on spotting up (16.4 percent), it mixed in off-ball screens and cuts better than anyone, allowing it to keep its four All-Stars happy with their roles.

More importantly, however, the offensive hodgepodge allowed the Warriors to keep the ball moving at an astronomical rate. By passing the ball 317.2 times per game (No. 5 in NBA) they constantly kept the defense on their heels. This beautiful display generated 30.4 assists per game—the most in the league by a wide margin. In fact, the gap between the Warriors and the No. 2 Celtics (25.2) was larger than the chasm between Boston and the No. 28 Utah Jazz (20.1).

Golden State’s constant movement on offense wore its opponents down.

This play began with David West feeding Green in the post. West didn’t stand still, however, as he then moved to set an off-ball screen on Thompson. Before that happened, one of the guards cut down the lane off a screen. Thompson then had the option to pop off the West screen or cut down the lane if his man was overplaying. He decided on the latter route, where Green found him for a lefty layup.

Given the wealth of easily accessible technology today, no legitimate excuses exist for teams failing to find more organic ways to run offense. Basketball is an adaptive game, ever-changing and never waiting for others to catch up. We’ve seen many brilliant minds get passed by as they fail to acclimate to the constantly renovated style of play.

Now, in order to avoid the current trap, coaches must adapt to the death of isolation.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brianball0.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or