In the Bronze Age of basketball, when Oscar Robertson was the star, isolation ball was all anyone knew. I implore my readers to watch highlights of old games. What you will notice is, generally, players took turns attempting to score. Passing was simply used to switch who was isolating from the perimeter or to feed the team’s big man in the post.

Fast-forward half-a-decade, though, and ball movement and player movement without the ball is far more important than being able to score alone. Fans hear, when evaluating a player, “wow, they can really create their own shot.” Frankly, however, a player who can create his own shot is irrelevant. For example, Kyle Korver scores 9.4 points per game with a 57.7% true shooting percentage. 92.4% of his shots are assisted. That means, essentially, Korver only creates 7.6% of his own shots.

On the other hand, J.R. Smith scores 12.6 points per game with a 53.9% true shooting percentage. 70.8% of his shots are assisted whereas 29.2% are unassisted. Thus, while Korver is more efficient, if individual shot creation was truly valued than Smith would be viewed as a superior offensive player. Yet, if you polled a statistically significant number of NBA fans, you’d believe (neither wrongly nor rightly) that Korver is a vastly superior scorer to Smith.

So why is this? Effectively it boils down to the prescribed value of ball movement. Let’s look below at Synergy’s point per possession averages on each play type.

Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page. Ranked by frequency of isolation plays.

Thus, in Figure 1 I looked at the average points per possession for each play type, overall finding that isolation possessions are tied for the second least valuable scoring play. Now, let’s look at the points per one hundred possessions for the five teams who isolate most frequently.

Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com's Stats Page. Ranked by frequency of isolation plays.

Figure 2 provides some interesting data. First, the five most iso-heavy teams are well-below the average offensive rating in today’s NBA. This suggests teams that isolate too much suffer from stagnant offenses. On the other hand, secondly, when the field is expanded into the top-ten iso-heavy teams, the offenses actually score more than the average NBA offense.

Consequently, a contradiction is present. Therefore, what explains why certain iso-heavy teams are ineffective while others are beyond effective? The answer boils down to talent. The five most iso-dependent teams are the Lakers, Rockets, Clippers, Knicks, and 76ers. At most, two of those teams have arguably “good” NBA offenses. Whereas the next five teams are the Cavaliers, Raptors, Thunder, Bucks, and Blazers. All of those are superior to every one of the first five, sans outliers such as the Clippers and Bucks.

This would seem to suggest that more talented teams are better apt to utilize the iso as their primary method to score. Nevertheless when the Warriors and Spurs have the first and third best offenses in the league respectively, and tons of talent to boot, why would a team seek to run isolation offensive sets as opposed to other, motion-based plays?

For example, the Cavs score 1.14 points per possession on pick-and-rolls that go to the roll man, most in the NBA; yet, they only run those plays more than nine other teams. When compared to their isolation possessions, which result in .86 points per possession on 9% of all possessions, one scratches their head asking “why?”

The answer is that certain players such as Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Damian Lillard are best utilized in isolation sets. It’s not that these players are ineffective at other roles, generally the opposite is true, but that putting them in isolation best utilizes their potential while stressing the opponent’s defense.

For example, keeping with the Cavs’ theme, in a vacuum, if every possession was a Kyrie Irving isolation, the Cavs would score 105 points per one hundred possessions. This results in the Cavs scoring more points than what an opponent would want to allow, consequently, the defenses adjust. What then happens, effectively, is that the ball defender slightly backs off of Irving while the big men attempt to clog the paint, opening up a variety of other holes for an offense to attack.

In essence, while the Warriors have a group of eight ball handlers that excel at playmaking via passing the ball, most teams do not. In fact, it’s arguable that twenty-seven out of thirty teams lack that type of roster. Thus, for these teams, isolation possessions are a superior way to bend an opponent’s defense and, in doing, perfectly execute one’s offense. So while isolation plays may not be as much of a necessity for every team, they do fit in today’s NBA better than many pundits would have readers believe, and therefore will continue to be used at high degrees throughout the league.

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