You’ve seen it countless times before: the offense runs a pick and roll, the defense switches. Amar’e Stoudemire is guarding Russell Westbrook now. Westbrook, swaggering in self-assurance, waves off Serge Ibaka. “I got this, bro. Let me iso this fool.” Then, this:
A weird, over-dribbled fadeaway that misses badly. Amar’e Stoudemire, as you can see, defends the play well:
That’s a pretty giant arm and a pretty giant hand obstructing Westbrook’s view of the hoop, it seems. Shot selection! Oh, and did you catch exactly where Serge Ibaka was before Westbrook shooed him away? Five feet from the rim, Iman Shumpert giving up six inches and completely pinned behind Ibaka’s back. Like so:
Basket making is shot selection’s greatest equalizer; had Westbrook hit that elbow jumper, there would have been praise and nodding heads and superlatives. He would have scored two points, after all, and scoring points is the object here. But now let’s take this moment, a Chris Paul-JaVale McGee isolation, in which Paul nails the mid-range jumper:
On the initial pick and roll, McGee’s sagging technique leaves Paul wide open for a three-pointer. But there’s ample space to occupy should he inch closer:
Paul takes the bait and walks McGee towards the paint before knocking him off balance with an in-and-out hesitation dribble. Seeing a reeling McGee and plenty of space between himself and a solid contest, Paul pulls up for what appears to be an easy mid-range jumper:
But McGee is long. And quick. And tall. And athletic. He’s a prototype for the modern big man, uberly athletic and offensively challenged and defensively explosive. The statuesque, back-to-the-basket hulkish blob that plants himself in the restricted area is no longer a functional NBA player. Teams spread it out now, small forwards play power forward, power forwards play center. So this isn’t just Chris Paul attacking a slower defender; what McGee may lack in foot speed he makes up for in explosion and length. Look where McGee’s hand is as Paul releases the shot.
Not such an easy shot, as it turns out. And, again: notice DeAndre Jordan, pinning the smaller Danilo Gallinari at his back within feet of the basket. This is the real mismatch, which would surely draw a double team for a wide open kick out three, at worst. And therein lies the rub in all this: does the guard really have an advantage in perimeter isolation against big men these days? Where is the real mismatch: big man on guard, or guard on big man?
The statistics are difficult to track, though compelling from what our own Jared Dubin was able to dig up for his new book (We’ll Always Have Linsanity, which you should buy, like right now): in 69 one-on-one perimeter isolations last season, Tyson Chandler as the defender held opposing guards to 17-60 from field, forcing five turnovers and committing just four fouls. That’s Tyson Chandler, you might say, he’s the defensive MVP. And that’s true, to an extent. But the NBA is littered with players of his mold: Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, JaVale McGee, Larry Sanders, Amir Johnson, Anderson Varejao, Bismack Biyombo, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis – all packaged into the big man label, all with size and length and quickness.
Besides Miami’s trap pick and roll or Chicago’s fight-over-the-screen P&R defense, most teams wade in the middle ground – which, invariably, means that switches happen on occasion. In these scenarios – a guard isolated against a big man on the perimeter – the big man’s natural tendency is to protect the basket. Against quicker guards in particular, this means sagging off to discourage penetration. Yet this has an unwitting and secondary effect, an almost unconscious nod to the most basic statistical premise dominating basketball’s analytics movement: forcing, even encouraging, mid-range jumpers.
Take this Nate Robinson mini-isolation against Dwight Howard, forced by a solid Joakim Noah screen on Steve Nash. Robinson, after turning the corner and facing a backpedaling Howard, chooses to capitalize on the space. And why wouldn’t he, after all? He’s a solid jump shooter, and in Chicago’s largely inept offense, this might be the highest quality look of the possession:
Yet when he pulls up, Dwight Howard lunges forward, gargantuan wingspan and all, closing the gap immediately:
Robinson’s rainbow misses badly.
Put it this way: the league’s best mid-range (16-23 feet) point guard shooter this season is Jarrett Jack at 49 percent. Chris Paul is a hair behind at 48 percent, and six other players shoot 45 percent or better percent of their looks (via HoopData). The rest of the league’s point guards shoot under 45 percent from that range. Among shooting guards, only Joe Johnson, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley and Courtney Lee crack 45 percent. For small forwards, it’s even worse: Kyle Korver, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James (of course) are the only 45+ percent shooters from mid-range. All of which is to say, as we already knew, mid-range jumpers are less than ideal.
Yet NBA guards continue to rely on mid-range jump shooting in isolation against big men. Maybe because it’s easier and available, maybe because they don’t want their shots swatted into the stands. And that’s the tertiary genius of the big man sag: with the discouraging of the drive comes the discouraging of the drive and kick, leading to secondary penetration or perimeter ball movement for an open three. Because that’s the real danger: big men won’t necessarily cut off driving angles so much as they’ll block layups from behind.
Now, a final example. Dwyane Wade on a switch has the ball in the corner against Ivan Johnson. As he sways with the ball, lulling Johnson to sleep, he pulls up for the shot. Johnson, caught off guard by the quick pull-up, is flat-footed and there is ample space to rise and fire:
But Johnson reacts, and quickly. Though his barrel chest and stumpy frame might suggest otherwise, he’s no statue. So he reaches out towards Wade and stick his hand directly in his face:
Ah, yes, you see it too. As Wade dribbles off the pick and roll into the corner, a switch on the other side of the court takes place: Jeff Teague on LeBron James. An even more substantial mismatch. But Wade glides to the corner zoned in on his isolation, backing himself into his own one-on-one corner and a contested and long two-pointer.
So, why? Basketball players are smart. Chris Paul is really smart. Dwyane Wade makes the right play more often than not. I think, in part, that it’s cultural: the mismatch is a matter of playground pride. It’s not a bonus so much as it’s a demand. A variation on the Novak effect – players feel an obligation to capitalize on perceived opportunity. They’re boxed in by their own narcissism. Whether or not this is a league-wide trend, well someone will have to pull those mismatch isolation stats, someday. But it’s a weird phenomenon that, at the very least, is worth further exploration.