Welcome to Atomic Wonder, where we break down one tiny thing with big ripple effects. This week, we’re talking about the behind-the-back pass.
It’s June 19, 2016. The world is Stephen Curry’s oyster, the ball’s in his hands with just over five minutes left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s dribbling up the open floor, his playground of choice, where he is an unpredictable orb of pure possibility. The only pertinent question in that moment, in that year: What will he do next?
The answer: Turn it over. Oops.
Curry’s former coach Mark Jackson provides the subtitles on play-by-play: “That’s a bad play. And he knows it. A bad decision. These are the plays that he’s gotta eliminate, especially closing out games.”
Jackson sounds like he’s pleading, like he’s temporarily sucked back into the life of a coach holding his breath on the sideline, living and dying with Curry’s decisions. I felt bad for him. Our world had only just begun to revolve around Curry, despite the Cavs winning the game and the title. Jackson had more experience.
The pass was ridiculed, considered a flashy extravagance in a moment that called for anything but, a conclusion based on an assumption about one of the NBA’s most ubiquitous moves, so common it goes largely unnoticed unless it dazzles or ends in disaster: the behind-the-back pass.
It’s easy to say Curry should have made the simple pass. But simple isn’t always good. A simple pass doesn’t give Klay Thompson the extra millisecond he needs to set his feet, and sweating the extra millisecond is how those Warriors won 72 games. Simple, in this case, means slow. The truth is closer to the essence of what makes Curry so fun: flash is rarely just flash. Style is rarely just an aesthetic. In a competitive ecosystem, nothing nonessential survives.
The behind-the-back pass has staying power, dating back to the days of barnstorming basketball when the hottest ticket in town was Pistol Pete Maravich at the Cow Palace.
It was just as effective then as it is now, for many of the same reasons.
In some cases, it actually mitigated risk. A pass behind one’s body is a pass away from encroaching arms. Maravich let opponents think they were forcing him in one direction, then redirected that momentum in a snap, passing the ball exactly where the defense didn’t want it to go.
It likely isn’t a coincidence that this play was a staple for one of the most heavily guarded players in history.
The deception inherent to the behind-the-back pass, the ability to manipulate attention and divert it, has been Curry’s (second) greatest weapon. There is little a defense won’t do to get the ball out of his hands, a fact he uses to create points for his teammates.
The behind-the-back pass also allows for a seamless transition from dribble to pass, making it hard to predict. Curry never picks up his dribble here, so Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry has to honor the drive.
This is the result Curry likely envisioned against the Cavaliers in Game 7.
Trae Young, James Harden and Jamal Murray evolve behind-the-back pass usage
As defenses get more sophisticated, it’s never been more important to tilt them, to get the ball from strong side to weak side as fast as possible.
Passing over and around traps is dangerous, while passing behind the back disarms traps safely, but behind-the-back passes can be thrown without committing the cardinal sin of picking up your dribble against a double-team.
It's a staple of the NBA's high-usage creators.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, a behind-the-back savant, even added a wraparound overhead pass to pass over traps despite being just 6 feet tall.
It’s hard to trap Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden when this is how easy it is for him to find a release valve. Harden has eyes in the back of his head. Passing behind his back is how he uses them.
Perhaps the best case for the behind-the-back pass can be made by its absence, which brings us to Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.
The ICE coverage popularized by Tom Thibodeau soft-traps guards toward the sideline, where it’s presumably easier to bring help defense. The rise of pick-and-pop bigs and intrepid cross-court passing has minced this strategy, but here the Milwaukee Bucks get the intended result: a contested midrange miss.
As it stands, every time Murray dribbles deeper into the lane, he cuts off the options behind him or makes it harder for them to be effective.
I won’t sound the alarm bells for an absence in an offense that shreds the NBA to the tune of 115.8 points per possession. But they are leaving easy opportunities on the table.
Take this play.
Nikola Jokic makes the shot because he’s Jokic, but the second Murray picks his dribble up, everyone knows what’s going to happen next. Before the ball has left Murray’s hands, multiple eyeballs have turned toward Jokic. The second it takes Murray to gather the ball, turn and throw it with two hands gives Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes time to contest.
Murray makes 20 passes a game to Jokic, one of the league’s biggest pick-and-pop threats, but only one of them ends up in a 3-point attempt. For context, that pass-to-three conversion is similar to what Young generates for John Collins, a great player who is decidedly not a sniper MVP candidate. Jokic, on the other hand, dishes to Murray 29.5 times a game, with 2.9 leading to 3-point attempts.
It’s not like Murray’s game is bereft of flair. He knows fun plays can be useful, like he knows how to do a 360-degree spin in the air before laying it up. It’s only natural to assume there’s a cost to everything good, but that’s the beautiful thing about basketball: The most entertaining play is often the most effective one.
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