Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 5: Cuts

Cuts, by and large, are the easiest way to score points in basketball. By their Synergy terms, they’re downhill actions that can come in a variety of ways: backdoor, off screens, curls, flares, basket cuts, flashes, etc. To borrow a phrase from several different coaches, there’s a million different ways to run a cut. However, there’s also a few select ways that should work best for you and your team.

This past season, the Cuts play type on Synergy was the most efficient play type on average. It’s been the most efficient play type since Synergy has existed. And yet: it’s the fourth-most used play type in college basketball. Why don’t more teams run cuts? Is this simply Synergy designating a “cut” as a different action at times? Are teams not as influenced by the Golden State Warriors (by far the highest user of cuts in the NBA) as we thought? If Cuts only represent around 8.4% of college basketball possessions, are they really that important?

There’s no one answer, obviously, but we can attempt to provide a few different ideas. First off, it’s impossible and silly to run the same play type for a full game. You’ve got to be diverse, to be creative, and to be unpredictable. The best offenses in college basketball have to have at least two of these three items: 1. Great shooters; 2. A great, unique system; 3. A coach unafraid of switching from a game plan. (Most commonly, they have all three.) The highest-usage cut rate over the 14 seasons in the Synergy database is Grove City’s 20.8% use in 2017-18. 20% seems to be a realistic limit; even Golden State only uses them 11% of the time. (In the Notes section of this piece on the last page, you’ll see some brief work on Grove City’s cuts.)

So: why are Cuts so important if most teams won’t run them more than 8-9% of the time? Because plays ending in cuts aren’t the only ones that count. The vast majority of basketball offenses use off-ball cuts, screens, motions, and more just to set up a potential shot. If a player gets a pass off of a cut and doesn’t shoot it, that won’t go down in the database. Chances are that these teams are using cuts by the technical term more often than the average 8.4%; it’s my duty to show you which ones are the best ones, theoretically.

In this series, you’ll see three teams that run a variety of unique looks offensively, all of which heavily involve cuts. Bellarmine went from going 18 seasons without a Division II NCAA Tournament bid to winning 275 games this decade on the back of Scott Davenport’s backdoor-heavy offense. On the other hand, Notre Dame’s women’s program has made 26 straight NCAA Tournaments and seven of the last nine Final Fours on the back of a routinely great offense. In between, Aaron Johnston’s hard work for South Dakota State’s women’s program has taken them from a Division II power to their first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance in Division I this past season.

All three programs are impressive in their own way, with each finding a unique, creative way to win games on the back of their cuts. In terms of great college offenses to mine ideas from, this might be one of the better collections you’ll find.

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