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Rock City Iso-Ball: How injuries and two unique skillsets led to a change in Toronto’s offensive style

The Toronto Rock may have a new home for the 2021-22 season, but their return to the floor this December will feature an offense that was firing on all cylinders before the shut down. Playing From Behind takes a look at the Dan Dawson and Rob Hellyer-headlined offense and breaks down why their isolation sets are some of the best in the game.


Productive NLL offenses are characterized by rapid ball movement, meticulous off-ball cuts, and timely picks. Each forward uses movement and spacing to create incremental advantages for the offense as a whole. Ideally, each advantage should compound on the previous, with the optimal result being a high-percentage scoring opportunity. A perfect example is this Halifax Thunderbirds goal from the most exciting game of the shortened season last year (the highlights are always worth a replay).

How many Halifax forwards contributed to this goal? And what exactly did each of them contribute?

This offensive sequence materialized because of (at least) four key actions.

  1. HFX33 vacates his natural side of the floor to give HFX24 space to operate.
  2. HFX47 sets a seal for HFX17 who is coming off the bench.
  3. HFX17 drifts away from the seal to get away from his defender and give himself a better shot angle.
  4. HFX24 drags away from the double-team, gets his hands free, and feeds HFX17.

Each action was critical to the goal. Sequences like these are the trademark of efficient NLL offenses.

On the contrary, below-average offenses execute like they are checking items off of a to-do list, as if they need to finish one task before moving on to the next. There is a lack of cohesiveness. You often hear the coach-speak “don’t let the ball die in your stick!” This aphorism has merit. Erratic ball dominance by one forward can ruin the rhythm of an offense. However, there are situations when individual ball dominance is the offense’s best opportunity for creating a quality scoring chance.

Analogous to Basketball

The parallels between basketball and lacrosse continue. And if you aren’t a fan of them, then you can skip this section. With the emergence of tracking data in the NBA, isolation actions have been proven to be inefficient on a points-per-possession basis.

Henry Abbott of TrueHoop wrote an exhaustive analysis of isolation sets and their use in late-game situations for ESPN The Magazine in 2012. Here’s an excerpt that offers the raw (yet somewhat outdated) data:

The goal of basketball, in its simplest form, is to turn possessions into points. And on that basis, when Synergy began breaking down NBA plays by type in 2004, what it found would have made Wooden smile: Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.”

Although I don’t have the large-scale play type data (yet) to prove it, I would speculate that a similar disparity exists in the NLL.

Isolation Play: The NLL’s Finest

Even casual NBA fans are familiar with who the league’s most prolific 1-on-1 scorers are. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard are some of the best in isolation. I have long been mentally compiling a list of what I believe to be the NLL’s elite isolation players…

If you aren’t already tuned in, Monday Mornings with Mags is a weekly blog published by Luc Magnan and the Halifax Thunderbirds. Right now, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to NLL action and is worth checking out. Just under two months ago, Magnan authored an exhaustive breakdown of what he believes to be “the best offensive players in the NLL.” The blog post provides readers with a nuanced dissection of what the top forwards do so well. As I read Magnan’s thoughts, it was vindicating to learn that some of my thoughts regarding on-floor play matched up with the thoughts of a Man in the Arena.

He had the following to say about Lyle Thompson (and Curtis Dickson):

Being stuck on an island, (1v1 situation) with Lyle, is a nightmare. It’s comparable to how Morgan Rielly felt after McDavid undressed him on home ice (I think we can all remember the clip I’m referring to). Curtis Dickson can make defenders feel that way too. But man, Lyle, he’s so good in isolations.

Thompson and Dickson jump off the screen as players who can dominate 1-on-1 matchups. Callum Crawford is another. I would also give an honorable mention to Josh Byrne and Connor Kelly. They belong on the list of players who are dangerous in isolation. Both are young(er) players that look to have long, successful careers.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the isolation prowess of Dan Dawson and Rob Hellyer. We’ll even see that — thanks to the skillsets of both players and unique circumstances — a team’s offense can have confidence in resorting to isolations.

Contextualizing Iso-ball

In a vacuum, letting the ball die in your stick is counterproductive to efficient offense.

The NFL — which is increasingly becoming a passing league — has seen teams begin to figure out that running the ball is broadly inefficient. But does that mean that offense coordinators should never call run plays?

No, it means that they should be open to redefining their play calling tendencies to try to find the optimal pass/run ratio.

Similarly, there are moments in an NLL game when isolation actions can be advantageous, especially when they are initiated by one of your best forwards. I don’t think I need to convince any readers on the merit of Dawson and Hellyer. Dawson is an all-time great, while Hellyer entered the league at 19-years-old and is a regular 30-goal scorer.

Early and late in the shot clock are typically the best times to go at your defender. Defensive units typically spend the first few seconds of each shift communicating strong and weak sides and assigning individual matchups. And when it’s late in the shot clock, defenders are starting to think about getting up the floor to create a transition opportunity. We’ll see instances of both when we analyze the film.

There are scenarios where letting your best player go 1-on-1 due to unique circumstances is advantageous. When you account for Toronto’s injury woes in the previous shortened season, it made iso-ball even more appealing as a feature of their settled offense. Challen Rogers was forced to play settled offense for a stretch of the season due to the depleted right-handed forward situation. Being short-staffed out the front door is a trend that may continue into the 2021-22 season. As of late, acquiring forwards has not been a priority for Toronto’s front office. The Rock gave up significant draft capital for Mitch de Snoo, Jason Noble and Taylor Stuart. They doubled down on this strategy in the draft when they didn’t select a forward until the back half of the fifth round.

Cue the Film

Both Dawson and Hellyer are excellent at reading the entire defense and anticipating where the help will come from. With no established help from the crease, Dawson initiates contact with the New England defender and ducks underneath to the front of the net.

* Notice the time left on the shot clock.

Halifax does a poor job of helping the on-ball defender from the low strong side. Hellyer attacks the weak side of the defense. He gets his defender to flip his hips top side and attacks underneath.

* Notice the HFX defenders substituting on the floor.

Hellyer attacks underneath. Rinse and repeat.

Again, attacking his defender in isolation results in a hands-free step-back shot.

* Notice the time left on the shot clock.

And late in the shot clock.

Rather than employing four left-handed forwards for a traditional “overload” look, Toronto gets creative. They make use of an artificial overload that has Tom Schreiber loop around the net and camp out with his defender below the goal line. This gives Dawson the real estate needed to post up in isolation.

Dawson notices Hellyer initiate the matchup and stays high to give him floor space to work with. In this situation, the high defender chooses not to help the ball.

Now let’s look at when the weak side high defender helps the ball. This is a second-order effect of Dawson’s reputation as an initiator while posted up on his defender.

We see ROC96 hedge off Hellyer as the adjacent defender. Dawson’s gravity results in an uncontested Hellyer shot. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

HFX34 is tasked with guarding Dawson on an island. Choosing not to send the help defender is a dangerous game (pun intended). HFX34 plays 95% of a good defensive rep and Dawson still finds the back of the net. This has to cause migraines for opposing defenses.

Dawson posting up in the previous clip shows how stylistically similar his arsenal is to Joel Embiid’s. Look at the footwork on the big men!

We’ll end on a sequence that epitomizes Dan Dawson. First, he wins his matchup with a Dream Shake-esque rocker step and gets a shot off. Then, he posts up his defender and demands the ball. A slick one-handed catch and the ball is in the back of the net.

Enjoy.

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Playing From Behind provides lacrosse fans with easy to understand, statistically-driven analysis and visualizations.

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