By Rob Mahoney
Professional basketball players have a complicated relationship with the court's baseline. In their younger days, most NBA-caliber athletes used the safety of the baseline to shield themselves from additional ball pressure; no double-team can come from out of bounds, allowing talented prep players the rare opportunity to work against a single opponent. But as the level of competition increased and opposing defenses grew more sophisticated, that workable space became a cold, uncompromising boundary. When working against one of the NBA's elite defenses, the out-of-bounds line is a threatening brink where ball-handlers find themselves crushed against an invisible wall.
But remove the ball from the equation and the baseline again recalls a nostalgic freedom. Cutters in high-functioning offenses have been using the baseline to their advantage for years, and Minnesota's Andrei Kirilenko is one of the best in the business. Take a look at how Kirilenko exploits the movements of opposing defenses by way of this particular swath of hardwood:
For players like Kirilenko, the baseline represents an alternative "weak side" on the court. Defenses naturally orient themselves to the position and movement of the ball, and those with Kirilenko's instincts have a valuable understanding of when to initiate their cuts.
"I'm not really looking for the guy with the ball," Kirilenko said after a game against the Mavericks on Monday. "I'm looking at my defensive player. When he turns his head, I'm flashing. So either he has to keep his eye on me and not help much, or he has to help and I'll be there."
That dual purpose that Kirilenko describes is important, and a big reason why players of his ilk aren't fully appreciated by most casual fans. In sports, primary credit is assigned to the player who executes a play while little regard is paid to those who allowed it to happen in the first place. Sure, Kirilenko gets his two points and applause when he runs the baseline for an easy lay-in, but equally beneficial is the hesitation he causes in his defender's mind on the next trip down the floor. A well-timed cut can be just as potent for spacing purposes as the corner positioning of a knock-down three-point shooter; both make opponents tentative to participate in the help schemes demanded in any team defense and bear the potential to create good alternative looks if opposing defenders pay too much attention to the ball-handler. It's these kind of spacial relationships that provide the foundation of any well-structured offense, and it takes players like Kirilenko -- whose contributions to court spacing might often go overlooked -- to execute such imperatives.