Earlier this season, in what was actually the first post on this site, I wrote about the Hornets using the roll-pop combo to free one of their bigs for an open shot, which they did quite often last season. Most often, it would look something like this:
Point guard Greivis Vasquez – or the departed Jarrett Jack – would run a high pick-and-pop with a big who could credibly hit mid-range jumpers (think Jason Smith), while the opposite big (often Chris Kaman) sliced through the middle of the lane to either draw a help defender away from the play or provide another passing option for the point guard. That’s how you wind up with plays that look like this.
Against the Houston Rockets last week, the Hornets again used the roll-pop combo, but this time they changed it up just a bit.
Plenty of teams have their opposite big man simulate a pick-and-pop by shooting up the lane from the weak side baseline to the elbow while the screener rolls to the rim. This is done to provide an outlet for the ball-handler in case he cannot turn the corner and the dive man is covered on his way to the basket. The Phoenix Suns did this often while Mike D’Antoni was there and have continued to do it under Alvin Gentry. If a Spurs big other than Tim Duncan is the screener on a pick-and-roll play, you can often find Duncan simulating that action. The Rockets have done it. I’ve seen it from the Celtics on occasion. The Knicks did it a whole lot last season when Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler shared the floor. Point is, teams do that a lot.
So when the defense sees a high pick-and-roll with the second big in the short corner, it’s a reasonable expectation to think that he’ll cut up the outside of the lane to the elbow if he’s going to move at all. (Another option teams use is to have that second big lurk in that baseline spot for a dunk when the help defenders collapse on the ball-handler and roll man. The Hornets do this often with Anthony Davis.) This is not what the Hornets did against the Rockets.
Rather than shoot up the outside of the lane to the elbow, the Hornets had their second big cut from the weak side short corner to the strong side short corner as Vasquez came around the screen. This afforded him two strong side options on the play rather than one.
Because the Rockets were double teaming and trying to trap the ball-handler as he came around the pick and the second big’s man was the lone help defender near the lane, they were able to create a situation where one man was always left uncovered, whether it was the roll man or the second big coming across the lane.
If the Rockets wanted to leave Anthony Davis uncovered rolling to the rim, fine, but if the help defender left his man to cover Davis, they were fine with Robin Lopez getting a jumper from the short corner, which happened twice in the first quarter alone.
Because of the nature of their season – Eric Gordon missed most of the first third of the season due to injury, Austin Rivers has struggled, Vasquez has emerged as a possible top-half-of-the-league starting point guard, Davis has missed games due to injury multiple times – the Hornets have had to experiment with different lineup combinations and play sets. Now that everyone is back healthy, you can see them adding new wrinkles every game.
The attention Davis draws as a dive man in pick-and-rolls can only help create spacing for a team that struggled offensively due to lack of space early in the season. Having a knockdown shooter like Gordon helps as well. But those guys will not always be the ones left open in all that space. It will often be guys like Lopez, or Al-Farouq Aminu, or Jason Smith, or Roger Mason; the guys considered lesser threats. If there’s any way to create extra space for their shots, it should be taken advantage of, and New Orleans coach Monty Williams has shown he’s creative enough to find it.