Without a doubt, the name of the game is scoring. The NBA is witnessing the fruits of the removal of the illegal defense rule. The game is spaced out for heliocentric playmakers to attack the rim, hit a stepback three, or draw a foul. But what about the others? Not every player has the green light to pound the rock and take a difficult shot. Often, it’s these other connector players that make or break a championship contender.
Look at the 2020 NBA champions Los Angeles Lakers. They had multiple guys who filled in the gaps on offense and defense. “Playoff Rondo” comes to mind, as well as Alex Caruso. Both are smart ball-movers, don’t turn the ball over, and pick up rotations on defense.
These players help an offense flow from one action to the next and supplement playmaking. Their role doesn’t require them to expend as much energy as LeBron James or Stephen Curry on offense. Because of that, they can focus on defense.
Some examples of high-level connector pieces are guys like Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons, and Draymond Green. They move the ball and elevate the rest of their team on both ends. While individually they may not raise the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder to a playoff spot like Russell Westbrook, they can help increase a talented team’s ceiling from playoff contender to championship contender.
Lonzo Ball hasn’t lived up to his number two overall selection in the draft. At that range, a team probably expects at least a borderline All-Star caliber player, which he hasn’t proved to be.
Ball isn’t a scorer by nature. He’s great at being a connector for a winning team. His willingness to move the ball rubs off on all his teammates. Players cut harder and run the lanes in transition because they know Ball will get them an easy look. It’s not common to find a player that can invoke that feeling for his team.
Instead of fitting Ball into a primary ball-handling role, he could bode well as an off-ball player. What Ball needs is someone to scramble the defense and create an advantage. If he catches the ball in that scenario, he can quickly identify the holes on the court and exploit that. Last season, he showed he could be a knockdown shooter even off a bit of movement, which helps his off-ball value.
Getting him off the ball will allow him to use his vision in secondary actions when the defense is out of place. It’s rare having an off-ball player who can also make high-level reads. Scaling him to a third or fourth player on a championship-level offensive hierarchy would make him elite in that role.
On defense, he can switch between wings and guards because of his height and can read the floor well as a help defender on defense. He makes quick and decisive decisions on that end. Ball also brings more value as someone who can rebound and lead the fastbreak.
Lonzo Ball seems like a player who wants to win and doesn’t care about the individual accolades as much. If he can find his way onto a contender at some point, that will best employ his skillset.
Even if he doesn’t shoot the ball, there is most definitely a place on title contenders for a 6’10 coordinated player who has excellent vision, handle, and feel. Like Ball, he is unselfish and plays the right way, which rubs off on his teammates. He’s one of the five most dangerous players in transition with his speed, length, and vision in transition. By the way, he’s also going to be a perennial All-Defense team selection the rest of his career.
His points this season are at a career-low at 12.9 per game. His attempts are also at a low at 9.2 per game. At the same time, the Sixers have come out the gate as a championship contender. Instead of forcing him to be an on-ball creator, let him play as a cutter or attack off-ball movement.
In this role of a tertiary creator, he might be the best in the league. When a defense scrambles, Simmons can attack the gaps. When he gets to the rim, defenses have to decide whether to try to stop a 6’10, strong, ambidextrous finisher or Joel Embiid lurking by the rim. More often than not, the defense can’t stop either.
The occasional midrange shot wouldn’t hurt, but the hypothetical that people use about him hurting spacing skips a lot of what basketball is about. An easy counter to defenders leaving him is to cut into open space. The defense has to keep track of this massive target in the lane, and it takes attention off Embiid. He can also screen for Seth Curry or Danny Green and force the defense to respect the action.
The cutting and screening action he provides makes him a connector on offense. What increases his threat is that Simmons is a 6’10 coordinated target and is hard to stop once at full speed going to the rim if he gets a slip or dives off a screen.
Despite how unique his offensive skillset is, his defense is where he best helps a team. Simmons can guard positions 1-5 on an elite level. He can guard the best on-ball players in the league and fit in as a roamer to pick off passes or defend the rim. His versatility allows teams to protect a guy like Seth Curry from unfavorable matchups.
It’s a blessing for a roster to have a defender with this level of flexibility. Don’t let lack of shooting take away from the other things Simmons does.
Out of all the connector players, Draymond Green is one of the most highly regarded. He was able to win at a high-level for a sustained period and maybe even more with the next iteration of the Warriors.
Green is an example of a true connector who truly elevated a team to championship heights. He knows the nuances of screen angles to free up Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He also operates as a ball-handler and allows the Warriors shooters to fly off multiple actions to get open shots.
Toss Green into the post where he can read the Warriors signature split-screen action where the player that throws the entry pass screens away for a shooter. There’s an option to backdoor the screen or for the screener to slip to the rim.
Defensively, he can guard multiple positions despite not being athletic as Ben Simmons. In a sense, his defense on traditional centers comes from his offense. He runs these types of bigs off the court since they can’t keep up with the switching teams are forced to use to keep up with the Warriors movement.
He’s become the most well-known connector piece. However, what separates him from similar player archetypes is the emotional connection he brings to a team. Anthony Slater tweeted about Steve Kerr’s response to a concern about how Green’s stats “are down across the board.”
Kerr’s quote about “automatically [making] us better just by being on the court” summarizes what separates Draymond as a connector. His leadership is key to the Warriors’ success.
Role is Key
There is probably an alternate universe where Draymond Green isn’t even in the NBA. If the Warriors didn’t draft and develop him, and he went to a team that asked him to do more scoring or play as a spot-up guy, he would look like an immensely worse player.
Instead, he found a situation where the organization saw a real winner and brought a niche skillset. The Warriors had the foresight to see what Green could become.
Out of Green, Simmons, and Ball, Green is probably the least talented. Scouts identified Simmons and Ball as top lottery picks at the youth and collegiate level. Now imagine those two were put into the right role. Ball or Simmons shouldn’t be running a high dosage of pick and rolls. Instead, allow them to play off a primary scorer and use their vision to take advantage of a softened up defense. Additionally, value them on defense for their versatility and ability to see the floor on that end. Fit is key and could unlock their talents.