How Jarred Vanderbilt went from playoff poser to Curry Chaser

May 2, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles past Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt (2) in the fourth quarter during game one of the 2023 NBA playoffs at the Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
May 2, 2023; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles past Los Angeles Lakers forward Jarred Vanderbilt (2) in the fourth quarter during game one of the 2023 NBA playoffs at the Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Jarred Vanderbilt looked completely out of place in the first round. But he may be the answer to the Steph Curry problem for the Lakers.

After spending the regular season capturing the hearts of many with his unmatched effort and intensity (even garnering comparisons to Dennis Rodman in the process), Jarred Vanderbilt dropped a playoff dud in the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies.

After averaging 24 minutes per game in the regular season, Vanderbilt’s minutes dwindled down to 19.8 per contest through his first six postseason games (a time when starters are theoretically supposed to see a bump in playing time). On top of that, he would often spend the waning moments of games on the bench, with the pleasantly-surprising Rui Hachimura entrusted to close things out with the big dogs.

Okay, so Vanderbilt is an excellent regular-season energy guy who struggles to carve out a meaningful role for himself in the playoffs. There’s no shame in that. He’s still a millionaire! Just not a playoff player. Now that that’s squared away, let’s move on to the next basketball problem that needs solving.

But wait just a second. If Vanderbilt’s not a playoff player, how do you explain what happened in Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors?

Styles make the fights in the NBA Playoffs

Matchups are everything in the playoffs, both for the teams and for the players. This is especially true for role players. Generally speaking, stars will always find a way to get theirs, and if they don’t, their coach will do whatever they can to help them figure it out because, without them, the team’s chances of victory decrease significantly. Role players don’t have that same leash. If they don’t have it in a particular series, coaches won’t hesitate to go to someone that does.

That’s what happened to Jarred Vanderbilt last round. Vanderbilt is not a good shooter (28.8 percent 3-point shooter for his career), so your team takes a hit in spacing whenever he’s on the floor. The idea is that what you lose in spacing on offense, though, you gain in versatility on defense.

The problem with that is Memphis’ offensive style coincides with Vanderbilt’s only real shortcoming on defense: his frame. The Grizzlies’ offense focuses on a ground-and-pound paint-centric approach. During the regular season, they were first in the NBA in points in the paint per game (58.4).

The best way to counter an offense like that is to deploy as many big bodies as possible, have those players sink into the paint to take away driving lanes, and force Memphis to beat you from outside (23rd in 3-point percentage this season).

Since their backcourt is littered with frailer fellows (Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, and Dennis Schroder), the Lakers really needed to make their frontcourt as beefy as possible. So, it made sense that the chiseled Rui Hachimura be the one to flank LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Vanderbilt still provided defensive value guarding Ja Morant at the point-of-attack, but that, on its own, wasn’t enough to outweigh his negative offensive contributions.

But the defense he theoretically provides against the Warriors is enough to make the tradeoff worthwhile. Golden State doesn’t pressure the paint the way Memphis does (28th in points in the paint per game). Instead, they play a fast-paced, movement-heavy offense that emphasizes constant off-ball action.

Vanderbilt’s best quality as a defender is his ability to chase targets up and down the court and follow them around an obstacle course of screens. This makes him the perfect candidate to take on the Stephen Curry assignment.

Guarding Morant at the point of attack isn’t all that valuable in the grand scheme of things because he’s so fast it doesn’t matter who you are. He’s going to teleport past you. The key against him is making sure that the interior is loaded up after he navigates through the first line of defense.

But if you can tag the greatest off-ball player in the history of the sport and disrupt his (and, in turn, the entire offense’s) rhythm and flow, you become an immensely useful piece on the chessboard.

Back to the Jarred Vanderbilt spacing problem

Okay, so what about the spacing problem? That still exists with Jarred Vanderbilt. What are the Lakers going to do about that?

In the first round, Memphis would put Jaren Jackson Jr. on Vanderbilt and have him sag off him and sink into the paint. The reason they could do that is because they also started Xavier Tillman — another burly brawler who could bang with Davis on the interior.

If Golden State wants to run the same type of setup with Draymond Green on Vanderbilt, they also have to play Kevon Looney alongside him because they need someone who can hinder Davis from dominating in the paint.

The difference between the Warriors playing Green and Looney and the Grizzlies playing Jackson and Tillman is that Jackson can shoot. So, Memphis only theoretically had one non-shooting big (Tillman) against the Lakers’ two non-shooting bigs (Davis and Vanderbilt). Inversely, Green and Looney are both considered non-shooters, so the Warriors’ two non-shooters cancel out the Lakers’ non-shooters.

To try and counter this, Golden State tried to play single big lineups where the center would guard Davis, and Curry would guard Vanderbilt. The problem there is that Vanderbilt is such a frenetic off-ball mover that it means that Curry has to now chase him around instead of getting the mini-in-game break he so desperately needs.

Just look at this play down below. Initially, Curry sags off Vanderbilt, so Vanderbilt counters by sealing him inside. When James fails to make the entry pass, Vanderbilt comes up to set a screen, thereby forcing Curry into the immediate action. It ends up being a miss, but Curry’s endurance is getting put to the ultimate test.

Is Steph Cooked?

Unfortunately for the Lakers, if it were that easy to put down one of the greatest players ever, somebody would have done it by now. Curry is far from finished leaving his imprint on this series, and the fourth quarter of Game 1 may have given us a glimpse of what is to come next.

These next two clips encapsulate what the offensive strategy should be for the Warriors and Curry moving forward in this series.

In the first clip, Curry is on-ball instead of running around off-ball. He runs a pick-and-roll with the screener (Looney) being the player that Davis is defending. Davis has been great defensively in these playoffs, but he’s older/slower than he was during his reign of terror in The Bubble. He can’t backpedal as quickly as he used to, and as a result, the Lakers don’t like for him to come up too high on screens.

Of course, being the greatest shooter ever, Curry is the master of burning defenses in pick-and-rolls when they give him space coming off a screen. So, Golden State should keep spamming this action: 1) because it will give him some separation from Vanderbilt, and 2) if they burn the Lakers enough, Coach Darvin Ham will be forced to double Curry on the screens (creating an automatic 4-on-3 advantage for the Warriors).

Jarred Vanderbilt loves to crash the offensive glass. That proclivity comes with the drawback of making you slower getting back in transition. Vanderbilt usually does a great job of hustling enough to mitigate the tradeoff, but every once in a while, he takes a little too long to get back into position, as you can see in the second clip. If Curry can push the pace in those situations, Golden State can get a clean shot off before Vanderbilt can get back to wreak havoc.

On defense, the Warriors can limit Curry’s step count while still taking advantage of the Lakers’ spacing by running more zone defense (which they began experimenting with more in the fourth quarter of Game 1). This enables them to both pack the paint (you usually always have three guys on the back line in most zone configurations) and throw a wrench in Los Angeles’ mismatch-hunting endeavors (it’s really hard to target certain players when the defense is in a zone).

Still, executing all these adjustments is going to be a lot of work, especially for a 35-year-old fresh off a seven-game series where he averaged 39.1 minutes per game. Yes, he’s got world-class conditioning on his side. But even Curry’s stamina has a limit.

What is that limit? That’s what the Lakers intend to find out. And Jarred Vanderbilt is the perfect test subject to run this experiment with.

It looks like he really is a playoff player after all — in the right series.

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