Nov 24, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Phoenix Suns shooting guard Goran Dragic (1) passes the ball to power forward Channing Frye (8) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Phoenix Suns 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Play Comparison: Channing Frye and Jason Maxiell's Spacing

Modern NBA defenses have a few key goals that they work toward on every possession. Their first priority is to keep the ball handler out of the paint, and more generally out of the middle of the court. Tom Thibodeau’s scheme is notable for the way it forces point guards toward the baseline, walling off the paint with Joakim Noah acting like the wall.

Another way is just to stall the ball handler from driving at all by “blitzing” him; having the big man come up so far that the guard basically has to stop. This is how the lightning-fast championship Miami Heat teams played in the last few years, compensating for having their big man so far from the basket by having precise and quick rotations.

The second priority is preventing three-pointers, especially attempts from the corners. In the first example, with Thibodeau’s defense, that’s easy because you didn’t let the point guard penetrate close to the basket. By preventing that, you don’t have to engage in as much help defense which could leave shooters open. In other words, you defend two players — the screener and the ball handler — with only two players of your own.

This is all an oversimplification, of course, but the general idea is clear: don’t allow the best and most efficient shots a team can take. A possession ending in a midrange shot or an end-of-the-shot-clock desperation move is an ideal outcome. So how do offenses overcome this? Well, one way is to have somebody supernaturally good at driving and finishing around the basket…like, I dunno, a LeBron James. You could also have somebody so good at shooting that it doesn’t matter how they’re defended or who’s defending them or even where they’re shooting from. Kevin Durant comes to mind.

May 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports


I have a feeling that the majority of teams, however, don’t have a Kevin Durant or LeBron James. Having a ringer helps a lot when you want to beat a defense, but for most teams you have to out-scheme the defense. That’s where spacing and role players make the difference.

Last week I talked about the kind of “threat” offered by these role players, and in particular the kind that Channing Frye poses. I also compared him to Glen Davis, a player who doesn’t have a lot of perimeter threat. Now, being a shooter isn’t the only way to be threatening. Glen Davis was more useful as a screener, and a player who rolled toward the basket. His threat was strongest closer toward the hoop. Other players are excellent cutters, and some get their best work done by exploiting a good matchup, like a big man posting up a much smaller player.

For the Magic, however, they need the shooting threats, maybe now more than ever before. Drafting two non-shooters in Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon could strangle their spacing, especially after trading away their best perimeter player, Aaron Afflalo. Channing Frye might be the only way to juice the offense to semi-respectable levels.

I previously described numbers showing how Frye boosted his teammates’ efficiencies substantially. You can see the opposite effect with the likes of Glen Davis or Jason Maxiell for the Magic. Check out the three-point percentages of the Magic’s returning young trio of perimeter players (data courtesy of

Davis ON

Davis OFF















You can see a similar effect when Jason Maxiell leaves the court:


Maxiell ON

Maxiel OFF















For Davis, the data was taken from the beginning of the season until he was bought out, on February 21st. For Maxiell, the data goes until January 13, at which point he mostly fell out of the rotation. Also, Tobias Harris shot TEN PERCENT FROM THREE playing with Maxiell. TEN PERCENT!

By the way, improving that offense doesn’t just mean improving their outside shooting. Space-creators can also effect players’ abilities to get to the rim. Davis actually did improve the Magic’s scoring within three feet of the basket, probably because he’s a decent screener, but Maxiell was as unhelpful generating good close shots as he was with long-distance ones. Not only did the the Magic as a whole shoot close shots better when he was off the court — 56.1% to 58%– , they also took a bigger share of their shots near the rim without him — 25.5% of all shots to 28.6%.

By way of illustration, lets take a look at how Maxiell inhibited the Magic’s perimeter players from getting good looks. Here’s a play from the second quarter of Orlando’s game against Washington on December 2nd. The main action gets started on the far side as Maurice Harkless tries to enter a pass to Andrew Nicholson on the far end of the court. Nicholson’s having trouble being fronted, however, so Maxiell slides over toward that end of the court, presumably to set some kind of screen:


maxiell 1


The problem is, Maxiell quickly crowds that side of the court:


maxiell 2


There are four Washington defenders on that side of the court, three of whom are in the direct path from Harkless to the hoop. Pay special attention to Nene (in the gold circle), who never has to leave the paint the entire play. Harkless has been left in a situation with no good options. He certainly can’t drive to the hoop, and there’s nothing to do except reset the play by passing it back to Ronnie Price around the top of the arc. Even if he makes that difficult cross-court pass to Aaron Afflalo on the opposite side, Afflalo’s man probably has plenty of time to recover.

Imagine then, if you will, that Maxiell wasn’t clogging up the paint, but instead occupied that other blue diamond on the picture, out on the wing. Imagine if he could actually shoot from there. The whole picture changes, because Nene has to respect that threat. Now the main paint defender is gone and Harkless might be able to get something better going with Nicholson.

Alternatively, maybe Harkless passes the ball and it goes around the arc back to Afflalo. If Nene has to stick to the perimeter to guard this imaginary Super-Maxiell, that basically leaves Afflalo with only one man between him and the basket. If he drives, he might force Nicholson’s defender to help guard the paint, which leaves Nicholson open around the corner area. If somebody rotates to help guard Nicholson, then somebody else is open. You get the idea. The point is, this new reality is filled with promising possibilities, whereas the real-life version is stuck in a quagmire.

Harkless tries a little drive anyway, doesn’t get anywhere, and has to pass out to Price. Price actually does get past John Wall, but meets a crowd in the paint:


maxiell 3


Again, Nene has not left the middle of the court. Price finds Harkless in the corner, but Wall recovers out to him and contests the shot. It didn’t end up being a terrible look in the end, but a more open shot would have been even better.

Contrast that with how the Suns get open using Channing Frye’s spacing. Here’s a play from March 12th against the Detroit Pistons. It starts off with a standard high pick-and-roll, and Goran Dragic quickly gets past Kyrie Irving thanks to the Miles Plumlee screen:


frye 1


Note Frye at the bottom of the screen, waiting for a kick-out pass from Dragic. With Plumlee screening and Frye on the perimeter, there’s a lot more space in the paint for Dragic to drive. Frye’s defender, Tristan Thompson, has sunk into the paint for the moment to try to help on the drive, but…


frye 2


He begins rushing back toward Frye before Dragic even lets go of the ball. It’s a little hard to tell just in the freeze frame, but Thompson’s legs are already poised to spring out to Frye as soon as Dragic gathers the ball. Dragic is still in the paint and Thompson’s already running away from him. Having one less committed defender in the paint is helpful, both for scoring and passing near the basket.

Thompson is in Frye’s shoes right away, but Dragic keeps going toward the corner:


fyre 3


Here’s why this play works: Once Dragic beats Kyrie around the screen, Spencer Hawes has to guard him. In fact, because Dragic never has to stop running, Hawes has to follow him all the way from the top of the key, to the paint, and out to the corner. The subtle effect Frye has in this whole situation is that he removes Thompson as a help defender on Dragic. If Frye were waiting closer to that high-post area, Thompson probably could have slowed Dragic’s drive much sooner and more forcefully. Even if Dragic passed to Frye in the high post and ran to the corner, Thompson might have been able to recover out to the corner instead of Hawes (while Hawes recovers to Frye). It’s still bad for the Cavs, leaving a forward to guard Dragic, but they don’t immediately give up an open corner three.

One other subtle thing: the pass to the corner is a little easier for Dragic to receive coming from the side (where Frye actually was) versus coming from behind him (the post). If the pass is coming more from behind him, he needs to turn around more fully before he can catch it and set himself for the shot. That means the passer (Frye) would have to probably wait a half-beat or so before passing, which gives Hawes a little more time to contest the shot, or even get in the way of the pass itself.

That’s Frye’s power, though. He took an advantage Dragic gained on the pick-and-roll, getting past his initial defender, and amplified it by giving Dragic more room to make decisions. All he had to do was throw a single pass. There’s plenty of possessions where he might not even touch the ball, but he’ll still have an effect. If he can find ways to provide opportunities to the likes of Oladipo, Harkless, and even Elfrid Payton, then the Magic’s offense might actually be halfway decent.


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Tags: Channing Frye Goran Dragic Jason Maxiell Maurice Harkless Orlando Magic

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