San Francisco Chronicle
Cutting to rim gives forward a decided edge
Omri Casspi reckons he has the easiest job in the NBA. On a Warriors team loaded with All-Stars, the journeyman forward is free to curl off screens, race toward the rim and make layups.
“It’s mostly the system, man,” Casspi said. “I’m just playing hard. I’m really not doing anything special.”
His coaches and teammates disagree. In a league beginning to prioritize off-ball movement over isolation plays, they believe Casspi is one of the best at an increasingly valued skill: cutting to the rim.
He is a middling athlete by NBA standards, but Casspi is a master at running hard toward the basket the moment his defender turns away from him. It helps that, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant commanding opponents’ attention, Casspi tends to have plenty of
room to operate. By the time the defense can react, the ball is already rolling off Casspi’s fingertips.
Nearly 84 percent of his shots this season have come within 10 feet of the basket, and less than a quarter of them have required him to hold the ball for at least two seconds. On 59.8 percent of his attempts, Casspi hasn’t needed to dribble.
“In today’s NBA, it’s especially effective,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “Most teams in the league, ourselves included, have no idea how to guard a back-cut in the modern NBA.”
Casspi is shooting 60.5 percent from the field, nearly 16 points above his career average. The back-door cuts have been so effective that he hasn’t needed to do much else. Casspi is shooting 60 percent from beyond the arc, but his 0.6 threepoint tries per game are a career low.
With Draymond Green sidelined the past four games by a sore right shoulder, Casspi has averaged 13.5 points, nine rebounds and 2.3 assists in 26.8 minutes. All of that from a player on a one-year, veteran-minimum deal worth $2.1 million.
“When you see him work out one-on-one, you wouldn’t think he’s the greatest athlete,” Thompson said. “But when you get out there in a 5-on-5 setting, he’s so good. He’s always in motion, and he just knows how to play the game.”
A Holon, Israel, native, Casspi learned early with the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team that off-ball movement was the only way to advance to the senior club. His coaches barked at him whenever he took more than a dribble or two. In the Israeli League, where players were far craftier than they were athletic, games were predicated on curling off screens, maximizing angles and making the extra pass.
During pre-draft workouts for NBA teams in 2009, Casspi was disappointed when frontoffice executives asked him to go one-on-one with other prospects at the top of the key or in the post. His playing style necessitated a team framework. A catch-and-shoot maestro, Casspi was illiterate on the isolation moves popular in the NBA at the time.
His fears were eased when he went No. 23 overall to Sacramento, which counted longtime Princeton head coach Pete Carril as a consultant. A form of Carril’s famed motion system, which calls for frequent backdoor cuts and ball reversal, was used by former Sacramento head coach Rick Adelman with much success early in the decade.
There should be no surprise that two of Casspi’s best seasons (2009-11) came playing in the Kings’ modified version of Carril’s Princeton offense. Casspi also thrived in 2015-16 under head coach George Karl, whose pace-and-space system emphasized off-ball movement.
The problem was that those teams were stocked with players more accustomed to isolation plays. Casspi often ran untouched toward the rim, only to watch a teammate hoist a contested jumper.
Over the past three years, as the Warriors reached three NBA Finals and won two championships, Casspi repeatedly heard from friends that he should try to join Golden State. Kerr’s movement-heavy seemed the ideal fit for Casspi’s playing style. In July, he turned down a one-year, $4.5 million offer from a likely lottery-bound team to sign with the Warriors for less than half as much.
After spending the summer with the Israeli national team, he arrived at training camp in game shape. It took only a practice or two of watching Casspi cut hard to the rim for Kerr to realize that Golden State had landed a rotation-caliber player at a bargain.
Now, with Green out, Casspi has gotten an extended opportunity to showcase the fundamental skill he has long perfected.
Late in the second quarter of Wednesday night’s win over Memphis, Casspi saw his defender turn away, darted through the lane, caught a pass from Thompson and banked in the wide-open layup. As he ran back on defense, Casspi smiled and pointed at Thompson to signal his thanks.
“It’s a dream come true to play in this system,” Casspi said. “My job is so easy.”