An Introduction To The High-Low Offense By Marc Gasol And Zach Randolph

Apr 27, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) and center Marc Gasol (33) celebrate after a score against the Los Angeles Clippers during game four of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs at the FedEx Forum. Memphis defeated Los Angeles 104-83. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph: together, one of the most cohesive pairings of big men this league has seen in a while. Mike Conley established himself as a top-10 point guard this season, but many times, the Grizzlies ran their offense through their big men.

And, why wouldn’t they do that? Gasol is quite possibly the league’s best passer at the center position, and Randolph is almost impossible to stop under the basket because of his bulk and soft touch. It’s a natural fit, and one hard to stop.

The Grizzlies utilized a high-low offensive set between Gasol and Randolph extensively. A high-low offensive system features one big on the high post (typically Gasol) and the other on the low block (typically ZBo). This takes full advantage of Gasol’s passing talent and ZBo’s finishing ability by giving Gasol the controls up top and Randolph the space down low to work his magic.

Let’s take a look at the basic high-low play the way Memphis runs it:

The play is simple: Marc Gasol gets the ball up top, and Zach Randolph establishes post position down low. Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams is no match for ZBo, and it’s an easy score. The most important aspect of this play is for its spacing–Randolph and Williams are the only ones in the paint, and by the time Luke Ridnour comes over to help, it’s too late to make a difference.

A common variation of this play sees the high-post big setting a screen for the other big to come across the paint before coming up to the top. As he receives the ball, the low-post big immediately changes direction and receives the ball on a backdoor cut. Watch the Grizzlies run this:

The Grizzlies regularly feature a variation of the high-low play in which a pick-and-roll is used. Randolph sets the screen for the point guard, and as he rolls towards the hoop, Marc Gasol receives the pass on the high post and immediately passes it to Randolph for an easy layup. Even though the play isn’t executed perfectly in the example below, Randolph is faster to get to the rim than his defensive check and he establishes inside position for a score.

From the basic Gasol-to-Randolph high-low combination, a multitude of other options are bred. The high-low offense is a very “read-and-react”-type of offense. The decisions the opposing defense make can influence the passes made and the shots taken. For example, if the opposing defenses were to deny the initial pass, Gasol could make the pass to the open shooter instead. If it was his own man playing loose to deny the pass, then Gasol can take the open shot from midrange–he was a 47.7% percent shooter from midrange this season.

The first example below sees the Grizzlies trying to run a pick-and-roll into the high-low. James Harden denies the pass to Randolph, but this leaves Jerryd Bayless open in the corner for a three. The second example shows Al Jefferson mispredicting the pass, instead leaving Marc Gasol with an easy jumper from the top of the key.

As reliable as the high-low offense was for Memphis, it was beatable. In the Western Conference Finals, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs were able to beat the Grizzlies’ high-low sets by ignoring their shooters and packing the paint, daring to beat from the outside. It didn’t happen, as only Quincy Pondexter was able to provide Memphis with any sort of consistency from the three-point line and they were swept. For this offense to be truly successful, the Grizzlies will need a little more three-point shooting in their lineup, and the Spurs exposed this flaw (with some luck on their side–Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless won’t shoot sub-25% from three all the time).

In spite of the flaws that mark it, the high-low offense was one of the Grizzlies’ primary go-to options. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph flourished in those sets, and it factored largely into Gasol averaging a career high 4.0 assists per game this season.

While there are pieces that could be added to further improve it, Memphis has established the high-low offense as part of its identity. Gasol and ZBo have proven to be a reliable big man duo, perhaps even the best in the NBA today. The Grizzlies won’t be playing games that matter for another five months, but when they get back on the court, expect to see plenty of the high-low offense from Gasol and Randolph.