2023 World Cup Preview: The Offensive Playbook (Part 2)

Another X's and O's breakdown for Canada Basketball

In Part 2 of the Offensive Playbook breakdown, we’ll take a deep dive into what Canada’s SMNT was running under Nick Nurse since the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and some sets that jumped out to me from the exhibition games under Jordi Fernandez this summer.

If you’re interested in more X’s and O’s, here was Part 1 of the Offensive Playbook breakdown and here was Part 1 of the Defensive Schemes deep dive. Stay tuned as Part 2 of the Defensive Schemes breakdown will be coming later this week, before Canada opens up group play against France.

Angle/Spread PnR’s

Much like Part 1, the first set we’ll break down is an Angle PnR set. If you’re curious about what the “Angle” alignment is, check out my Part 1 breakdown. In the first clip below, you can see Shai call out the play by making a chopping motion with his right hand. This is actually a fairly common way to signal an Angle PnR in the NBA.

Under Nick Nurse, Canada would run these 5-out or spread PnR’s in order to stretch the defense as far as possible, giving the ball handler more space to operate. Often times, this was SGA, who could attack seams in the defense and drive all the way to the rim, or stop in the short midrange area for a pullup jumper. Interestingly, Canada would run this set against both man-to-man and zone defensive coverages.

Under Jordi Fernandez, it’s no surprise we saw this set translate over. In theory, more space should be created for the ball handler by spreading everyone out. However, in the first exhibition game against Germany, Canada actually struggled to have much success running these Angle/Spread PnR’s. The reason — Germany’s aggressive defensive scheme. Rather than sticking with the other 3 off-ball Canadian players on the perimeter (especially if they were so-so shooters like Brooks and Barrett), Germany was ultra aggressive in plugging the gaps, especially from 1 pass away. They were even comfortable leaving Kelly Olynyk (an elite 3PT shooter) open in an effort to deter Shai’s drives. This defensive attention played a major role in limiting Shai’s success and scoring in that 1st exhibition game.

Credit to Jordi Fernandez and his coaching staff because they made an adjustment in the 2nd matchup against Germany in the DBB Supercup Finals. Rather than opt for maximum spacing among the off-ball players, Canada flattened their PnR’s along the baseline and ran more empty side PnR’s. If you look at the screenshots below and compare to the screenshots above, you can see how much further away Germany’s help defenders are from the initial Shai PnR. As a result, they can’t plug the gaps as effectively and Shai had more space to operate. An interesting idea because by sacrificing the spacing of the off-ball players, Canada was able to generate more driving lanes and space for their best creator.

Another adjustment Fernandez made was to have Kelly Olynyk play the 5 and be the screen setter. Minutes with Olynyk at the 5 struggled immensely on defense in the game against Germany so I am personally not a big fan of these lineups. The offensive benefits are obvious and undeniable though.

Point Series

Thanks to the incredible basketball minds Evin Gualberto and Joe Viray, we have a name for this following set that Canada has run multiple times so far this summer. So what does the “Point Series” entail?

At it’s core, this offensive set follows the principles of the Princeton Offense. The alignment is pretty simple to distinguish, 4 players on the perimeter, with the big man at one of the elbows (see screenshot below for a visual).

The specific set that Canada has run so far in 2023 WC preparation games is called “Point Over”. The ball goes into the elbow, and the passer will then cut through and set a pindown screen for his teammate in the near corner. This teammate then uses the screen and comes up for a DHO with the big at the elbow. In the first clip below, “Point Over” is run by Brooks (who passes and sets the pindown screen), Powell (the big at the elbow) and Olynyk (the player in corner who receives the DHO). I’m a big fan of this set as it isolates one side of the floor for some 3-man action with quite a bit of movement.

The second clip in the video above is a variation in Canada’s Point Series. This time the player setting the pindown screen (Shai in this case) seals and sets up a post-up possession. With the corner cleared out, this is a smart way to manufacture an isolation scoring opportunity for Shai, usually against a smaller guard.

31 Cross”

You can tell a team is coached by Nick Nurse by how often they run this following dribble weave set. Whether it was the Toronto Raptors or the SMNT in the 2019 World Cup campaign, Nick Nurse-led teams will run this set multiple times per game. I love that the FIBA broadcast allows viewers to peek into huddles, which is how I picked up on the name for this action in Nurse’s playbook.

This play itself is rather simple, but involves quite a bit of player and ball movement! As a result, this was another set that Canada was comfortable running against zone or man-to-man defenses.

It was cool to see Fernandez build off of a Nurse set and add his own variations on it, maintaining some Offensive Playbook continuity for the players. I call this set “31 Cross Reverse”, because rather than use the final high PnR, NAW reverses the ball back to Dort, who executes a “Stampede Cut” (basically catching the ball on the go). This allows Dort to get downhill momentum immediately off the catch and attack a tilted defense. Though he doesn’t finish, you can see how much easier it is for Dort to beat the first line of defense with the Stampede Cut.

Delay Sets

In 2019, Canada predominantly ran vanilla “Zoom/Chicago” action out of the Delay (5-out with big at the top) alignment. At the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Nick Nurse didn’t run “Zoom/Chicago” at all, instead opting for a variation. Canada ran the set that I call “Delay Slip Weakside Stagger”.

In vanilla “Zoom/Chicago” action, there’s a pindown set into a DHO for the player in the corner. See this play below from 2019 with Pangos in the corner receiving the pindown from Ejim and DHO from Birch.

Meanwhile, in “Delay Slip Weakside Stagger”, that initial pindown screen is slipped. Then, the player who slipped the screen comes off of stagger screens on the weakside. In the video below, Mychal Mulder and RJ Barrett are the players slipping the screen and immediately receiving the stagger screens after.

In Part 1, I wrote about how the Delay alignment was the basis of the Sacramento Kings record-breaking offensive system last year. And while “Zoom”/”Chicago” action hasn’t been the overwhelming focal point of Canada’s offense so far this summer, it has been run frequently.

And here’s an example of “Zoom”/”Chicago” in the game against Spain, once again with Kelly Olynyk as the playmaking hub (which I thought would be the case, playing a Sabonis-esque role in Jordi Fernandez’s offense).

Handback Wide Pindown” Snap Series

This was another set that remained a staple in Canada’s offensive playbook from 2021-2022 under Nick Nurse. It was even a staple when Nate Bjorkgren was the head coach of the SMNT in the Winter Core windows! The offensive system continuity established was such an important development from Nurse and his coaching tree. For a detailed explanation of this set, take a look at my Part 1 Offensive Playbook breakdown.

Much like the “31 Cross” action, Jordi Fernandez has ran a variation of Nurse’s Snap Series in Canada’s 2023 exhibition games. In the sequence below, Trae Bell-Haynes and Kelly Olynyk initiate the “Handback” portion of the action. In Nurse’s Snap Series, Olynyk would have went to set a pindown screen for Dort in the far corner. However, in 2023, Olynyk fakes going to Dort before turning and setting a screen for NAW, who received a DHO from Bell-Haynes. This last portion of the action can technically be called “Miami” action, which I also went over in Part 1.

Motion Strong Twirl

Motion Strong Twirl is one of the actions that have been present in both Nick Nurse and Jordi Fernandez’s playbooks with the SMNT. For the 2019 World Cup, this set was run primarily for Kyle Wiltjer to get a look from 3. In 2023, the action is run for Kelly Olynyk to get a 3PT shot attempt as he sets the first staggered screen, before “twirling” and using the second staggered screen.

For a more in-depth breakdown of Motion Strong Twirl, once again see my Part 1 Offensive Playbook analysis.

Spain PnR

One of the more popular sets in the NBA today, the Spain PnR was popularized by former Toronto Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo. If you’re unfamiliar, the Spain PnR brings a 3rd offensive player to the PnR action. This 3rd player is responsible for setting a 2nd screen on the initial screener’s defender. If that is confusing, here’s a screenshot of Canada running Spain PnR, with NAW as the ball handler, Andrew Nicholson as the first screener and RJ Barrett setting the 2nd screen.

Canada ended up running this set almost exclusively during the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria. When they did run it, Nurse kept it pretty basic and just ran vanilla Spain PnR.

Fast forward to this summer, Jordi Fernandez has run Spain PnR with a slight variation. Before the Spain PnR is run, Canada would execute “ram” action. This just refers to the 1st screen set by Ejim for Edey, who then sets a screen when Canada actually runs Spain PnR.

And if you’re interested, Nick Nurse loved to run a variation called “Spain Leak” with the Raptors last season, which Samson expertly covered below.

Horns Sets

Compared to the 2019 World Cup campaign, Nick Nurse ran considerably less Horns action from 2021-2022 with the SMNT. When he did, it was predominantly the base Horns play, with the ball handler using one of the screens, and the screener rolling to the basket while the other big at the elbow popped.

The only variation I found was Canada once again running “Horns Flex” (timestamp 0:25 in video above). This specific Horns variation seems to be quite popular at all levels of Canada Basketball for whatever reason.

“4 Flip”

Another example of overlap between Nick Nurse’s playbook with the Raptors and with the SMNT is this action. Cooper Smither had an incredibly detailed deep dive into this play call and all of it’s variations.

With the SMNT in 2021, Nurse ran this action for RJ Barrett (I guess technically the set should be called “3 Flip” as Barrett plays the SF position most often). You’ll notice that the alignment on the set is reversed when Canada ran it in order to get Barrett going downhill to his dominant left hand.

Pistol Sets

The key defining characteristic of this set is the initial pass and follow from Canada’s PG. Notice how Joseph and NAW pass the ball into the wing and then follow their pass (this is called “Get” action). Technically in the base “Pistol” play, Joseph would then receive the ball back in a DHO from the wing.

However, Canada exclusively ran a variation called “Pistol Keep” or “21 Keep”. The wing player, usually RJ Barrett, fakes the handoff to Joseph before attacking off the bounce. Nurse liked to add another option on top of this, allowing Barrett to read the defense and flip it over to a looping Wiggins if necessary (see 1st clip). This makes Nurse’s Pistol sets very similar to “4 Flip” from above!

This action may seem simple, but I really do like the play design. Gets Canada’s best drivers in 2021 going downhill to their dominant hands (Barrett to left, Wiggins to right).

Punch Chin STS

The name of this set is a mouthful, so I’ll break it down step by step. “Punch” is just another term for a post entry pass. “Chin” is another word for a backscreen, which is set here by Mulder. Finally “STS” stands for “Screen the Screener”, which is an umbrella term for setting an off-ball screen for the player who just set a screen. With all the actions involved, there’s so many variations to run. For Canada, this set was used to take advantage of the movement shooting ability of Mychal Mulder.

And shoutout to Caitlin Cooper, a fantastic basketball writer, who helped me identify this set and that it was a Nate Bjorkgren playbook staple.

Double Drag Screens (aka “77”)

This play is pretty simple to call out as it’s just two drag screens sets consecutively for a single ball handler. “77” was also ran against zone defenses (2-3 zone to be specific) as the two drag screens could be set against the 2 defenders at the top and allow the ballhandler (usually Shai) to beat the first line of defense by going wide.

Ghost PnR

“Ghosting” the ball screen has long been a Nick Nurse staple. With the ball-screening and shooting chops of Fred VanVleet, Nurse loved to run “4-1 Ghost” screens with Siakam and VanVleet late in games.

Sidenote: Notice how the Raptors have flattened their off ball players along the baseline (2 in corner, 1 in the dunker spot). Very similar to the Fernandez adjustment I talked about earlier when running PnR’s for Shai against Germany!

Similarly, these Ghost screens were a focal point with the SMNT in 2021, mainly in end of quarter scenarios. Nurse would bring out the Ghost screen for Canada’s 2 best players, Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett.

Zone Offense

After rewatching all these games, one thing has stood out to me. The SMNT from 2021 and onward faced a lot more zone defense compared to during the 2019 World Cup. We’ve touched on some of the sets they ran against both man-to-man and zone coverages, but this section will focus exclusively on Canada’s offense against zone defenses.

For Nick Nurse, the key idea was to overload a specific area of the zone defense. Outnumber the zone defenders with Canadian offensive players and then read-and-react. Sometimes, it was overloading the back-line of the zone with 4 Canadians near the baseline, outnumbering the 3 Chinese defenders.

Other times Canada would flash a big to the elbow as another passing option for the guards up top. By doing this Canada would often outnumber defenders 3-2 or even 4-2 (like in the last clip in the video below) and generate a good look.