You’ve probably seen the video a hundred times. The violence is so sudden, so shocking, and yet performed so casually, it can’t help but take your breath away. As a man lies on the floor, gasping for breath, probably contemplating how he could possibly summon the will to stand up again, let alone live out the rest of his life, the innocent bystanders watch. Some are celebrating, pumping up the even larger crowd around them. Others are moving slowly, overcome by the brutality, trying to make sense of what they just saw.
You probably remember how the video starts — DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom are bunched tightly at the 3-point line as Chris Paul brings the ball over halfcourt. Odom moves to set a screen for Paul, both Pistons’ big man defenders take a step towards the screen and Jordan slips into the space behind them.
Paul recognizes the opening instantly, as does Jordan. Probably a few people sprinkled among the thousands in the stands see it as well. Brandon Knight sees it. He’s assigned to cover Matt Barnes, who is standing in the corner, but as Jordan rolls free he becomes Knight’s responsibility. Knight sees the lob, he knows it’s coming, he moves towards the paint to do his defensive duty, not realizing the full ramifications of making this simple defense rotation.
Then there is an explosion, a collision of bodies. Knight is on the floor. Paul is screaming something primal and guttural to the heavens. Caron Butler is scratching his head and wondering what to do with the rest of his basketball career. Jordan is pretty pleased with himself.
This is an alley-oop and it may be the finest examplar ever performed.
As of Friday, Jan. 26, DeAndre Jordan had completed 65 alley-oops during the 2017-18 season, an average of more than 1.5 per game. For his career to that point, he’d completed 800 alley-oops in 715 career games. Nearly a quarter of his shot attempts this season had been alley-oops. We think of alley-oops as a unique and rare occurrence but for Jordan, they are life on a basketball court.
If you’re as big and as bouncy as DeAndre Jordan, the elements of the alley-oop are fairly simple — a teammate throws the ball near the hoop, you jump, you catch and you dunk. But the mechanisms that create the opportunity require precision and can create incredible stress on the defense.
In the picture below, Austin Rivers and Jordan have run a high pick-and-roll. Jordan immediately rolled to the basket as his defender sagged off of him trying to contain both Jordan and Rivers. At this point Rivers could simply slip a pocket pass through the two defenders but that would require Jordan to catch around his waist and coordinate a step towards the basket without traveling. A pass over the top is simply the easiest means to the end.
Once the Clippers have forced the Hawks into this position, there is no good decision. If the big defender steps back towards Jordan he may still get dunked on, or simply concede a layup to Rivers. If either of the two weakside defenders come down to try and impede Jordan, they’re giving up an open 3-pointer. Sometimes all you can really do is jump and try to tip the pass. Which means all Jordan has to do is the aforementioned steps — jump, catch and dunk.
Today’s NBA is dominated by the 3-point shot, but the rim-run and alley-oop is the perfect complement to the outside shot. Spacing is an invaluable variable but you have to actually, you know, do something with all that space. This play works because it manipulates space in three dimensions — the area on floor and the air above it. The alley-oop both creates and openings and uses them. It is a hammer and a nail.
Alley-oops are not always a pick-and-roll rim-run. Sometimes it’s just beating your man down the floor in transition.
Sometimes it’s a well-timed cut into open space.
Sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time.
There are many practitioners of the alley-oop in the NBA, especially as this tool and vertical spacing have become an integral part of optimizing the pick-and-roll. DeAndre Jordan stands out because of the enormous role that the alley-oop plays in his offensive repertoire. He stands out because of his size, strength and leaping ability, because of the precision and fury he brings to his aerial craft.
But mostly, he stands out because of The Obliteration of the Foolish Brandon Knight, because of the face that launched a thousand memes and because of he completed an alley-oop that will live forever.