WHAT IS JA MORANT DOING?
It's late October, and the Grizzlies lead the Nets by six with four minutes left when Memphis forward Santi Aldama softly rolls the inbound pass toward Morant's feet. As the Grizzlies' star guard makes his way up the court, he lets the basketball roll alongside him, slowly, slowly, slowly, an inch at a time, untouched. Morant only needs to maintain a slow walk to keep up as he scans the court, uncontested by any Nets defender.
The ball rolls another inch, another inch, another inch. Morant is almost at half court. He keeps letting the ball roll alongside him, knowing the 24-second shot clock won't start until he touches it -- burning precious game clock at the same time, almost 21 seconds now.
As he crosses half court, Morant finally picks up the ball and glances over to his bench. His defender, Ben Simmons, suddenly closes on him and lunges at the ball, looking for a steal -- but he's too late. Morant sees it coming and protects the ball. Simmons hits him in the arm. Whistle. Foul. That's Simmons' sixth; he's out of the game.
Thanks in part to that play, Memphis wins by 10. Afterward, Morant explains that he was baiting Simmons, knowing he'd bite based on past experience. Clips of the play soon go viral.
So what was Ja Morant doing? Here's what: He was "walking the dog," the fun, obnoxious, sometimes disrespectful, and -- according to analytics -- game-changing play that is taking over the NBA. The art of rolling the ball up the court on an inbound has quietly been a part of the game for seven decades. Now, stars across the league, including Chris Paul, LeBron James, Marcus Smart and Nikola Jokic, are increasingly using the technique -- to show up their opponents, to create viral moments and, most importantly, to win games. The league is on pace to more than double its usage of the move this year compared to the 2019-20 season.
No one does it as well, or as often, as Morant; he uses the move nearly twice as much as any of his peers, about once per game. But why? Why is it becoming so common, and why is Morant so obsessed with it?
This is the secret history -- and the secret value -- of walking the dog in the NBA.
Ja Morant baited Ben Simmons into fouling out 🧠 pic.twitter.com/QZTCci9Z8M— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 25, 2022
BILL RUSSELL HAD A problem. One of the most dominant centers in NBA history wanted as much time as possible to operate in the post, where he worked as the primary conduit for Boston's offense. So on inbound plays, Celtics backcourt mates K.C. Jones and Sam Jones would let the basketball roll past half court, especially when the Celtics played from behind -- saving time on the shot clock, which in turn freed up time to feed the ball to Russell.
"They were way ahead of the times," says Jim Barnett, a forward who played on the Celtics in 1966-67 and went on to become a TV analyst. "They got maybe an extra four, five seconds in the backcourt before they touched the ball, and then they had a little extra time to operate."
In the same era, Warriors guard Guy Rodgers used the same approach for another legend: Wilt Chamberlain. Through the late 60s and into the early 70s, Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Mo Cheeks carried the dog-walking torch. The logic was simple: In the NBA, the 24-second shot clock begins when a player touches the basketball after the previous possession. That's true even when the game clock continues to run, such as following a made basket. (The exceptions: the final minute of the first three quarters and the final two minutes of the fourth and OT.) A few extra seconds can make a huge difference in scraping value out of a possession or preserving a chance at a late comeback.
"Three seconds might not seem like a lot," says Mike Breen, the legendary NBA broadcaster. "But at the end of a game on a final possession, if a team has four seconds as opposed to one second to get off a shot to win or tie a game? That's enormous."
In the late 70s and 80s, the dog-walking thread mostly dies. Teams like Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers loved to race the ball up the floor after made shots, and walking the dog went against their DNA. Even those teams that played a slower style didn't utilize the tactic much; some footage appears to show Charles Barkley walking the dog before bullying his way inside for a bucket, but other examples are hard to come by.
In the 1990s, the tactic became more prevalent again. A few of the league's savvier guards used it from time to time, including Muggsy Bogues, Tim Hardaway and Mark Jackson, for the same reason their predecessors did. "[There] could be all sorts of scenarios where you'd want to do it, but the main objective of it is taking advantage of the shot clock," Bogues says.
In the new millennium, Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo have defined walking the dog in the minds of many fans. Paul is among the league leaders in total dog walks for every season in which tracking data is available (the 2016-17 season to present). Paul says he never used the move in high school or college, but in the NBA, he's adopted it to secure 2-for-1 opportunities. "It's a game that we play, right?" he says. "A game, like any card game you would play, or checkers."
There's no definitive account of who coined the term, but "walking the dog" joined the NBA's lexicon around the time Paul and Rondo became known for using the move.
When Paul became a Rocket in 2017, in the Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni era, the guard's attention to detail dovetailed with the league's most analytics-friendly organization. The Rockets had flashcards showing the math behind 2-for-1s: If they took a shot with 30 seconds left in a quarter, they would get two of the three final shots. As a simple example, two 35% shots create a far higher expected point value than one 50% shot. Walking the dog is a simple way to facilitate this.
Now, Paul stays alert to make sure his opponents don't use this against him. "If we score with 36-37 seconds left, I always yell to my teammates, 'Pick up! Don't let somebody try to do that,'" he says. "If we make them use at least 12 seconds of the clock, we get the last shot of the quarter."
But walking the dog isn't used in today's NBA just to maximize the shot clock. It's also now used to burn time on the game clock when protecting a lead. The first known example of this strategy came in the 2016-17 season: Sacramento Kings guard Ty Lawson burned over 20 seconds with under three minutes remaining while nursing a lead over the Nuggets. The tactic has recently exploded, and Paul, for one, appreciates his younger peers who walk the dog to waste the game clock -- and he gets a kick out of those who don't understand them.
"It's funny, Trae [Young] was doing it against the Knicks in the playoffs a couple of years ago," Paul says. "I'll never forget watching the game, and one of the commentators was talking so bad about it. It was like, 'Why is Trae letting the ball roll? This is so dumb. They're winning, why's he doing this?' And I was thinking to myself, Trae's not the one at fault. It's the other team not coming up to guard him."
The tactic came to an extreme head in a late October game between the Nuggets and Celtics. With about five minutes left, Denver forward Aaron Gordon slammed a two-handed dunk to pull the Nuggets within 13. As Gordon jogged back on defense, Al Horford rolled the ball to Jayson Tatum so slowly that it completely stopped before his own free throw line. As Tatum stood alongside the ball, Horford and Grant Williams guarded him like linemen blocking for a running back. Nuggets coaches called for Gordon to force Tatum to pick the ball up. Gordon barreled through Williams so hard that he was called for a flagrant. Williams missed his two free throws, but the foul call crushed the Nuggets' momentum, and the Celtics won easily.
In the past three seasons, per data provided to ESPN by NBA Advanced Stats, players are walking the dog more than ever in these types of crunch-time situations -- when leading by 3-15 points in the fourth quarter. We tracked these by looking at dog walks lasting over five seconds after made baskets. In 2020-21, teams walked the dog 54 times, wasting more than 7 minutes of game time. Last season, that jumped to 91 plays, wasting over 12 minutes. In just over half of a season, this year's figures already blow those out of the water. Teams have walked the dog 164 times, wasting over 23 minutes. The numbers are just as staggering when you account for all four quarters, with a total of 668 dog walks this year alone.
"It's just a smart play to waste time," says Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks. "Guys don't really understand it."
INSIDE THE GRIZZLIES' ARENA, players are prepping for the first leg of a back-to-back against the San Antonio Spurs in November. Morant, the team's dog-walker-in-chief, is sitting out due to thigh soreness, so Tyus Jones is getting the start at point guard.
Jones, and most of his teammates, say Morant put his team on to walking the dog regularly. The Grizzlies have walked the dog 34 times this season in crunch-time scenarios, wasting 5 minutes and 10 seconds of game clock. Trae Young's Hawks held the previous record, with 18 late-game walks over a full season, wasting 2 minutes and 21 seconds of game clock in 2021-22.
Two years ago, Morant became a regular dog walker in his sophomore season and quickly got his team to buy in. He's utilized the move 41 times across all quarters and has been the ball handler on 23 of those 34 plays in crunch time, wasting over three minutes of game clock. In just over half this season, Morant has wasted more time walking the dog than any team had in an entire year and holds three of the longest dog walks recorded in the NBA this season (his teammate Desmond Bane has one of the others).
"If you're winning, it's kind of a loophole in the rules," Jones says.
The Grizzlies don't discuss this in practice or plan these plays in advance. Morant often motions to his inbounder to roll the ball in slowly in these situations right as they materialize, especially when leading late in a game. The guy will do anything to shave a few seconds off. He'll leap out of the way instead of catching the ball if the inbounder throws it too hard in his direction. If Morant finds himself inbounding, he'll play dumb and misplace the ball as the game clock keeps running.
How has Morant become so good at walking the dog? He declined to speak with ESPN for this story, but his teammates think it boils down to his speed and athleticism. Opponents are hesitant to really press him 75-plus feet from their own hoop. If they make a mistake, he could have a huge runway with a numbers advantage. Others think it's more a combination of fatigue and a never-ending game of chicken.
"I think [opponents] are probably a little tired," Jones says. "They're like, 'Damn, I don't really want to run back up the court to make them pick the ball up,' or they don't know that [Ja will] really let the clock keep going. They think, eventually, he's going to pick the ball up, and let's play ball. But Ja will really let the clock go until you make him pick the ball up."
Ja was content just waiting 😅 pic.twitter.com/J39BhJ9ZzJ— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 5, 2023
The Celtics, often spurred by Marcus Smart, are on pace to smash prior records for time wasted via walking the dog (though they'll finish well behind the Grizzlies). Then come the Nuggets, led by Nikola Jokic, who often directs things as the inbounder rather than the ball handler. Meanwhile, Young, who set the previous player record for the most dog walks in a single season (59), will likely be on the top-five leaderboard again this season.
The trend may seem a bit silly, but it's impacting the outcome of games. When Morant wasted those 20-plus seconds in that October win over Brooklyn before drawing Simmons' sixth foul, the time loss alone added 1.4% win probability for Memphis, per research by Patrick McFarlane that utilized NBA Advanced Stats data. The Grizzlies' win probability while leading by six with 4:21 remaining (the end of the prior possession) was 86.3%; with 4 minutes remaining after Morant's time-burn, that percentage rose to 87.7% -- and that's without even factoring in the subsequent sixth foul on a top opposing defender.
By comparison, a player who grabs a rebound (either offensive or defensive) during a non-clutch period of a given game is adding about 1.7% win probability by doing so. A player who makes a single free-throw is typically adding around 0.5% win probability; this season alone, there have already been 40 fourth-quarter dog walks that earned the utilizing team at least 0.5% of additional win equity.
Of course, there are downsides to the tactic, too.
TRAE YOUNG WALKS SLOWLY alongside the ball in late November. His Hawks are up three against the Rockets with six minutes left in the game. He burns nearly 18 seconds off the game clock -- the longest he's walked the dog this season.
But the next five and a half minutes go poorly for Atlanta. Young goes 0-for-3 from the floor, Houston's Jalen Green explodes late in the fourth and the Hawks lose the game, 128-122. Atlanta could have used those wasted seconds in the game's final moments. This is one of the key risks of walking the dog when the game is on the line.
"I think there's always a trade-off," says Jeff Van Gundy, the broadcaster and former coach. "You are able to run some time off the clock. The counterpoint would be: At what expense to your rhythm and your flow? It's not as simple a decision as just trying to take time off the clock, because it could actually hurt you."
The most embarrassing risk? Turning the ball over. Kyrie Irving, D'Angelo Russell and John Wall have all fallen victim to a well-timed lunge from defenders or an errant bounce off their own foot.
Skeptics, like Van Gundy, question the value of walking the dog. Others just think it's downright boring to watch. Some have called for a rule change to eliminate the loophole by stopping the game clock after made baskets in the fourth quarter -- a rule that FIBA has adopted.
The NBA declined to make an official statement for this story. However, multiple league sources say there are no plans to alter any clock rules in the fourth quarter or otherwise. There's a simple explanation, too: This isn't some black box of a strategy. It's really easy to stop! Savvy teams like the Spurs, Pelicans and Wizards are already on top of it, and send a defender to the backcourt to prevent ball handlers from walking the dog.
"If you thought it was hurting you as a coach, you'd just put somebody on the ball," Van Gundy says. "You increase your pickup point and then retreat, obviously. It's not like it's something that if you thought it was hurting you, it couldn't be overcome."
In the end, this new use of one of basketball's oldest moves highlights the intelligence and ingenuity of the game's best players.
"The entire basis is to win," Mike Breen says. "Whether you do it by physically overwhelming a team with talent [or] you can get a victory by just outthinking a team and beating them at the mental game. That's what makes the game so great, it's not just a physical game, it's also a mental game."