The Whiteboard: Bruce Brown, Gary Payton II and the beautiful back-cut

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

The back-cut is among the simplest but most spectacular plays in basketball. Gary Payton II and Bruce Brown are two of the best practitioners of this art form.

There is something aesthetically captivating about the back-cut and the way it unfolds. Time slows for a second. From the bleachers or our couches, we can see five defenders moving in one direction as that single offensive player splits in the other, sprinting for open space. There’s that brief moment of anticipation — will the ball-handler see in time? Can they get the ball there before the defense realizes they’re vitally exposed? For my money, it’s one of the most beautiful plays to watch in basketball and, functionally, it’s an incredibly important component (actual or implied) of many of the best offenses.

Among the pure perimeter players who finished the most possessions off cuts last season, Gary Payton II and Bruce Brown both stand out because they’ll be on new teams this season where their off-ball awareness will be absolutely key.

Gary Payton II signed with the Trail Blazers in the offseason and will likely be the first guard off the bench, spending time in the backcourt with both Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Payton II is a fairly shaky outside shooter (35.8 percent on 1.7 attempts per game last season, 32.0 percent for his career) but he still provides tremendous value from the corners because of his cutting ability.

With the Warriors, he spent a lot of time stationed in the corners and along the baseline but repeatedly punished the defense when his man tried to crash actions in the middle of the floor, or even just lost track of him for a second.

Payton II is an excellent finisher — he made 82.5 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket and finished in the 97th percentile in scoring efficiency on cuts. The Warriors also often used him as a screener for Curry and he showed an innate sense for rolling to the rim, finding seams in the defense and making himself available. It’s no wonder the Warriors averaged a robust 1.13 points per possession on plays with Payton II screening for Curry.

You wouldn’t normally think of a low-volume, 35-percent 3-point-shooter as someone whose gravity stresses a defense from the corners. But watch how Damian Lillard sticks with Payton rather than crashing down on Draymond’s drive here (although laziness could arguably be a factor as well).

Payton II is going to have the benefit of playing with some frontcourt players who also stretch the defense (Jerami Grant, Nassir Little, Josh Hart) or are excellent passers (Jusuf Nurkic, Grant) and will be able to find him moving as they come off short rolls. Between setting screens for Lillard and Simons, or cutting from the corners around pick-and-rolls with he should have plenty to contribute to Portland’s offense, even if his jumper isn’t falling.

Bruce Brown actually finished more plays off cuts than any other perimeter player last season and while he’s nowhere near the finisher Payton II is, that skill is going to be essential in lineups with Nikola Jokic. We already know Jokic is an exceptional passer who makes a living hitting cutters from the elbows with mind-bending angles and impeccable timing.

According to NBACourtOptix, Jokic made 130 passes last season from the elbows or the top of the key that went to the paint or the baseline. Thirty-four of those passes went to guards, resulting in 17 assists. Those cuts from perimeter players are an integral part of the Nuggets’ offense and Brown’s existing skills and experience with Kevin Durant means he is well prepared to take advantage of the gravity and passing Jokic provides.

Brown’s strong passing skills give his cuts another dimension, making them not just an endpoint but a connective action that can lead to additional kick outs or dump-offs if the defense collapses.

Brown is mostly going to function as connective tissue in lineups with Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He’s not an elite spot-up shooter but he’s still an extremely valuable off-ball weapon who should elevate Denver’s offense.

— Ian Levy

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