Connection Vs. Creation

Published: January 12, 2020

In October, I wrote in detail about Lonzo Ball and his potential role on the Pelicans. While my main point of contention was around the antiquated positional label, “Point Guard”, I touched briefly upon how I view playmakers in two different categories: Connectors and Creators. I want to expand upon this idea a bit and illustrate how it applies to the Pelicans.

On the surface, assists are the result of a made basket following a pass. However, the mechanism by which the assist is generated can vary greatly. Assists can come in transition, they can come in the half court, they can come off ball movement, they can come off isolation – the possibilities are near endless. The way James Harden generates assists via the attention drawn from his individual offensive skill isn’t the same as the way Draymond Green generates assists in an up-tempo system with world class shooters.

This is where our above designation of Connectors and Creators comes in. Creators are those who “create” shots for their teammates by finding a way to leverage the defense. The ability to generate this leverage is tethered closely to the individual’s scoring ability or perceived threat. If the opposition doesn’t respect your ability to score in the mirco-environment of that possession, they won’t divert additional resources towards preventing it. The more they fear your ability to score, the more the defense will leverage themselves in an effort to thwart it, exposing vulnerability on other areas of the court.

There are multiple ways to leverage the defense. Typically, high volume Creators like Harden are relentless in attacking the rim, forcing help rotations to occur in an effort to stop them. Harden thrives off this defensive attention and is master at kicking out to shooters or finding the open roll man for lobs. Every possession the defense is left with a choice of what to take away, and the best Creators are those who leave the defense feeling like they made the wrong choice every single time.

Connectors are players who take advantage of an already leveraged defense. This can be the function of another player’s pressure on the defense, or as we see frequently with the Pelicans, in early offense and transition where the defense is scrambling to set. Among connectors, Lonzo Ball is basketball switchboard. Few players download the defense’s vulnerability and punish it as quickly as Lonzo. While this frequently manifests itself in transition, Lonzo thrives when making reads off the Pelicans’ Creators. Let’s take a look at some of his assists from the most recent game against the Boston Celtics.

Notice how in each of these instances Lonzo serves as a relay between one teammate to another. He sees where the Celtics are most vulnerable and deftly delivers the ball in the most damaging place. This ability to serve as a nexus between players is perhaps his most valuable skill trait, and one an Alvin Gentry offense values highly.

Where Lonzo’s greatest area of improvement lies is as a Creator. Thus far Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram have shouldered the lion share’s of creation responsibility. As I mentioned above, creation ability is directly tethered to a player’s scoring ability. Teams recognize that of all the possible threats on the floor, Lonzo Ball in a driving situation isn’t a fire they need to rush to put out. For the year, only 29.9% of his drives have produced points, and he is shooting a paltry 34.3% in those situations. This limits the range of looks Lonzo can create for his teammates to basic reads out of the pick and roll. Let’s take a look.

In each of these situations Lonzo was able to to find the the open teammate and it resulted in points. This is good and necessary for both his and the Pelicans success. But pay close attention to how much the defense really shifted in these plays. Were they truly leveraged? If you are having some difficulty determining this, let’s take a look at how the defense is bent when Brandon Ingram is driving.

There is a rather huge difference in the quality of shot created. The easiest way to observe this is to look at how the defense organized at the point where the player’s passing motion begins. On average, Lonzo Ball began his passing motion at about this point in his drive.

All 4 Boston defenders ahead of Ball are in position and ready to close out to any shooter. They have successfully walled off the paint and not one rotation was forced. In contrast, Ingram’s point of release often looks like this.

The difference is staggering. All of Boston’s defenders are focused on Ingram while none of them are in position to defend the coming Alexander-Walker three. Defenses know how much of a scoring threat Ingram is and sell out in order to prevent him from scoring at the rim. This creates opportunities for the Pelicans shooters, but it also creates opportunities for the best Connector in the league – Lonzo Ball.

Lonzo capitalized off the attention the Moore and Hayes pick and roll generated, finding a very open Frank Jackson in the corner. Very few players in the league can make those decisions as quickly as Lonzo can.

Creators and Connectors both serve important roles on successful offenses. At any given time, there is a network of shots available, and it’s important both types of players work together to maximize the offense. Both Creators and Connectors take advantage of a leveraged defenses, it’s just the initiating process that is different.

The Pelicans are allowing Lonzo to thrive in his Connector role and his recent stretch of strong play just reinforces that he doesn’t need to be a Creator to be effective. It remains to be seen what development Lonzo will have down the road in his creation abilities or if he will ever get there. The development of his catch and shoot jumper bodes well for his continued efficacy in the half court in his role as a Connector. There won’t always be opportunities to find the next man and Lonzo will find himself as the intended recipient of a shot. In those situations, he needs to let it fly with confidence. Sometimes the path to success is simply strengthening your existing strengths.


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