A familiar mantra in the playoffs is the value of a player who can put a team on his back when the going gets tough. We tout the player who can shoulder the load when the opponent’s defense locks down and we bow down to the closer who can create and hit that shot at the end of games. But lost in the haze of the heroics is an important distinction–that between shot-creation and play-making. We might understand the differences between these two skills, but not often enough do we highlight them or their respective impacts on winning basketball games.
Shot-creation and play-making both require an elaborate offensive skill set and an accompanying confidence, but the differences are what matter here. Shot-creators break down their defenders. A play-maker breaks down a defense. A shot-creator can reliably get a decent shot every time down the floor for himself. A play-maker can reliably get a good shot every time down the floor for his team. These differences separate good players from great players, and ultimately, good offenses from great ones.
Shot-creators can be more skilled, individually, than play-makers. Take Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony—Anthony would annihilate Lin in a game one versus one. But Lin was a play-maker, and because of that, he had a mediocre team humming on offense earlier this year. Play-makers have certain skills that shot-creators don’t (e.g., manipulating a pick and roll, court vision), but what separates them more are than skill is their approach to the game. A play-maker is a willing passer and trusts his teammates, regardless of skill. This approach wins out over the long haul, and usually four times in seven tries.
The play-maker’s style, regardless of whether it’s born out through a innate court vision or a conscious unselfishness, has the power to manipulate a defense in a way that most shot-creators cannot. A defense can throw unexpected double-teams at a shot-creator without worrying about the open teammates as much. Not only do the teammates get the ball less, but often they stop cutting and setting screens when their efforts go unnoticed. A play-maker motivates his teammates to move and finds these teammates for better shots, and in the process makes his own life easier by forcing the defense to revaluate their hedges on pick-and-rolls, their help on dribble penetration, and their double-teams on post-position.
No doubt, shot-creation is an important skill. Carmelo Anthony can improve his teammates’ offense without doing much other than shooting and can nail game-winners with the best of them. But Carmelo and Amare will never mesh like Wade and LeBron, and it has nothing to do with their supposed overlapping skills or clashing styles; hell, you’ll never find teammates with that overlap more than Wade and James. The disparity between the two tandems boils down to one thing: one duo is a pair of shot-creators, and the other is a pair of play-makers.
As will usually be the case, the shot-creators are home and alone, just as they were on the court; the play-makers are still playing–with their teammates–as the playoffs advance.
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