X’s and Mo’s: Why ‘corner crashing’ for offensive rebounds is back in style

Oh, hi there! You might have heard my voice over the years on the various podcasts of The Athletic NBA Show network, but this is my first written piece for The Athletic.

But just in case you haven’t listened, my name is Mohammad Dakhil. You can call me Mo. For more than eight seasons, I was an NBA video coordinator for the LA Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. I also was the first video coordinator for Team Australia, from the 2010 FIBA World Championships to the 2012 London Olympics. Before that, I was a junior college lead assistant and the USC head manager (Fight On!). After my NBA career, I entered the media world, and here I am.

Before we get to the basketball part of the conversation, I wanted to share what I hope to accomplish in this space. I plan to use my past experiences to shed light on some interesting strategies and trends in the NBA.

My love for X’s and O’s started when Phil Jackson became the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1999-2000 season. As soon as he was announced as the coach, I immediately bought a book on the triple-post offense, also known as the triangle offense. I studied it and even had it signed by its author: the great Tex Winter. That book is what started it for me. I have always loved basketball, but that book brought me into the world of coaching and strategy. Through my articles, I hope to share that love with you all.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the hoops! And let’s get to the hoops from the corners.

There was a time in the recent NBA when teams were more focused on getting back on defense than getting offensive rebounds. It was more important to stop the fast break and force teams to play in half-court settings than fight to get another possession.

Those times have changed. It is an opportunistic change now to exploit defenses that are too spread out.

During the past few seasons, there has been a renewed vigor for crashing the glass. Two teams currently average more than 18 second-chance points; the NBA average is 13.8. Offensive rebounding percentage also has climbed. The Brooklyn Nets entered Wednesday’s games ranked 15th this season, grabbing 29.2 percent of their missed shots. That mark would have ranked second in the same category in the 2020-21 season.

More interesting than the uptick in offensive rebounds is exactly where some of these glass crashers are coming from. It is not the big man in the paint grabbing these extra boards. It’s the players crashing from the corner opposite the ball — or “weak side” in basketball parlance.

The weakside corner is the perfect position from which to crash the offensive glass because of the way most defenses rotate when the ball is on one side of the court. With most NBA offenses being pick-and-roll heavy, the man defending the weakside corner shooter is often pulled toward the rim to help on the roller.

If the defense’s pick-and-roll strategy involves putting two defenders on the ball, there is an even more significant need to have at least one of the other three defensive players in the paint with a second one zoning up the weak side.

This Fastmodel diagram shows the basic rotation in these situations:

Fastmodel Diagram 1

In this instance, defender two (x2) is zoning up the weak side. When the shot goes up, x2 cannot box out (never mind that no one boxes out anymore) both offensive players. This opens the opportunity for the corner crash, which is the four in the following illustration.

Fastmodel Diagram 2

In the recent past, that weakside corner player would be getting back on defense to stop any transition runout instead of crashing the offensive glass. Today, more and more teams are using the corner crash.

On this possession in the Nov. 12 game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers, Lakers forward Rui Hachimura generates a critical offensive board by crashing from the corner. Portland center DeAndre Ayton rotates to Anthony Davis, leaving guard Shaedon Sharpe to zone up the weak side. As the shot goes up, Hachimura crashes. Sharpe does not connect on the box out, leading to two points for the Lakers.

The Milwaukee Bucks also are using the corner crash regularly, including on this possession when they secured two offensive rebounds on the same trip against the Chicago Bulls. First, rookie Andre Jackson Jr. comes crashing in from the weakside corner on this Damian Lillard 3-point shot, eluding DeMar DeRozan’s attempts to face-guard him to earn the Bucks an extra possession.

On that same play, Bobby Portis grabs an offensive board and a putback on a corner crash of a Brook Lopez 3. Milwaukee gets three looks at the basket on one trip, all thanks to the corner crash.

Here’s a great corner crash from Michael Porter Jr. After the Denver Nuggets get Aaron Gordon a post-up right in front of the rim, Porter runs right by an unaware Chris Paul for the board and putback dunk.

The corner crash is a great way for offenses to steal extra possessions while taking advantage of most teams’ rules for defensive rotations, which require leaving the weak side to help on the ball (strong) side. Defenses must be much more diligent when rotating to locate the corner crasher early and put a body on him sooner.

Good play, poor situational awareness

First, let’s talk about the good play. Last Friday, the Lakers and Phoenix Suns were engaged in a competitive duel in the In-Season Tournament, and Suns coach Frank Vogel drew up a beautiful play from an awkward inbounding position. Inbounding from the deep corner can always be tricky, but it is even more complicated in a “need a bucket” situation.

Nevertheless, the Suns ran a beautiful set that got them a great look. It starts with Bradley Beal going from the strongside block to set a cross-screen for Kevin Durant who comes to the ball. Then Beal turns and sets a post split-screen for Grayson Allen, who sprints off it. Lakers wing Cam Reddish stays attached to Beal, and fellow guard Austin Reaves is behind Allen, who has an open look at the layup off Durant’s pass. That is, until LeBron James rotates over, forcing Allen to kick the ball out to Keita Bates-Diop for a wide-open corner 3 that doesn’t fall.

That’s a good, well-executed look. Vogel can’t ask for much else.

Now, let’s get to the poor situational awareness. Watching it live, I was stunned that James left the corner shooter so open to stop the Allen layup. At the end of games, teams’ defensive rules have to change. What hurts the Lakers more, a 2 or a 3? With them up four, a 2 does not hurt them as much as a 3. We are going to play out two scenarios.

The first scenario assumes Allen does not kick it out and scores on the layup. The Lakers would be up two and have the opportunity to knock down two free throws to keep it a two-possession game with fewer than 10 seconds left. That’s an excellent spot to be in, assuming they make their free throws.

The second scenario is the scarier one. What if Bates-Diop 3 falls? The Lakers would be up just one, so even if they make both of their ensuing free throws, it is still a one-possession game with Phoenix having a timeout to advance the ball and set up a game-tying 3.

James’ rotation is correct in the first 47 minutes, but at the end of close games, he must make a different calculation. It did not hurt the Lakers this time, but it could be costly in the future. Situational awareness is essential, and the Lakers needed better situational awareness.

(Photo of Immanuel Quickley: by David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images)

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