13 NBA teams will be entering the 2013-2014 season with a new head coach. Each of those coaches will face unique challenges, but should be able to draw on a pool of experience from their previous jobs. Intellectual Theft is a series looking at some specific elements that each coach can bring from their last job to their new team. Today’s focus is longtime Spurs’ assistant, and the newest head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Mike Budenholzer.
Last season the Hawks had one of the least efficient pick-and-roll attacks in the league. According to mySynergySports they ranked 21st in efficiency on possessions finished by the ball handler and 18th on those finished by the screener. While a solid pick-and-roll game is not the only path to offensive success, it creates a flexible foundation off of which other actions can be built. The Hawks got a lot of mileage last year with smart cuts and screens off-the-ball, all the motion elements that Larry Drew promised as an antidote to the Iso-Joe offense they had run the previous few seasons. However, when a defense tightened up and stymied their off-the-ball action, the Hawks were again left to rely on isolations and post-ups, were they struggled to consistently create high-quality shots.
Looking forward to next season the Hawks have the pieces in place to really shore up their pick-and-roll attack. Jeff Teague will be back, and along with a healthy Lou Williams and rookie Dennis Schroeder, gives the Hawks three lightning quick ball-handlers. In the front court they’ll be featuring Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Elton Brand, all threats to roll to the basket or step back for a mid-range jumper.
Teague, in particular, is really key to helping the whole thing come together. While he definitely blossomed as a playmaker last season, he was still very inconsistent in the pick-and-roll. Overall, 36.9% of his offensive possessions were used in the pick-and-roll and he averaged just 0.72 points per possession, good for 120th in the league. Teague is speedy, has a solid mid-range game, and is a reasonably reliable finisher at the basket. So why was it such a struggle for him to regularly find good shots for himself on these possessions? This play illustrates a handful of the problems:
The Hawks’ had a fairly vanilla array of pick-and-roll sets last season and moving things to the side, instead of up top as they did here, was often the extent of their adjustments. The spacing here is horrific as well. Ivan Johnson is just outside the lane, Dahntay Jones is inside the three-point line, and Anthony Tolliver hasn’t cleared off the strong side block before Teague and Smith initiate. There are essentially three extra defenders waiting to help shut this action down and there are no spot-up shooters to act as a pressure release. Essentially this set asks Smith or Teague to make a play against two defenders, and too often this was the case for the Hawks in the pick-and-roll last season.
As a brief aside, I’ll point out that the Hawks actually ran a creative and thoroughly effective 4-5 pick-and-roll with Smith as the ball handler and Horford as the screener. However, they ran it about as often as they ran post-ups for Teague, which is to say not very.
Luckily for the Hawks, they’ve hired a head coach who has worked with one the most devastating pick-and-roll attacks of the last few seasons. So what can he borrow from the Spurs to help refine what the Hawks are doing in these sets?
One simple thing that the Spurs have done to incredible effect is disguising the screen. Their bigs would often run right at the back of the ball-handler’s defender waiting until the very last moment to pick a side on which to set the screen. Not knowing which way the action was coming from was disruptive for both the big and small defenders in the pick-and-roll.
In this example Boris Diaw approaches from the left block, but at the last moment jumps out to set the screen on the defender’s left. His man has been trailing the play because he expected the action to come back towards him. When Parker turns the corner there is a good deal of empty space in front of him. One other thing to notice is how beautifully the Spurs have spaced the floor here. Both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are spotting up behind the three-point line. Their defenders have to make an impossible choice between cutting off Parker and allowing an open three. In this case they stay home on the shooters just long enough for Parker to get into the lane, unimpeded.
Here’s another example of Diaw doing the same thing. Again, his defender is caught completely off guard and finds himself wildly out of position after expecting the ball to be coming back towards him. Like before, the floor is beautifully spaced with Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Manu Ginobili arrayed around the outside. As Parker crosses the three-point line the defense is left with the same choice – a layup for Parker or an open three-pointer for one of his teammates.
The disguising of the direction of a pick-and-roll is such a simple element. It requires no extra planning or tweaking to plays, just good chemistry between the screener and the ball-handler. The sets we just looked at don’t rely on athleticism or fancy ball-handling, just precise execution and terrific spacing. If Budenholzer can get his talent to focus on these simple nuances it will go along way towards improving efficiency.
The Spurs also had some slightly more complex variations on the pick-and-roll that they ran frequently. Even with more complexity, the basic foundation was often misdirection. In this example, as Parker brings the ball across mid-court both Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are waiting up top to set screens. As he advances the ball Parker essentially has the option of running a high pick-and-roll to either side of the court. Parker elects to go left and has a wide-open lane to the basket. The beauty of this play is that as Parker turns the corner on the screen Duncan slowly makes his way across the free throw line trailing the action. His man can’t leave him because he’s a threat to both roll down the lane or stay out for a mid-range jumpshot. The spacing Duncan provides is what ultimately creates the opening at the basket.
Here we have another example of the same basic set. Except in this case Parker brings the ball up the side of the court instead of down the center. He uses the first screen moving towards the middle of the floor and then just continues, dragging his defender into the second screen as well. The Lakers actually defended this fairly well and both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard are within an arm’s-length of the basket. But both have their attention focused on their man, and Parker easily blows past for the layup.
The Hawks have had a wealth of talent over the past few seasons but have had a difficult time manipulating that talent into extended success, especially deep in the playoffs. One of the problems is that their offense often seems to rely to heavily on the quality of that individual talent to overwhelm defenses, instead of looking for thoughtful and comprehensive ways to scaffold and elevate that talent. Simple things, like disguising the direction of a screen, and more complex adjustments, like the parallel screens we just saw, could help make things much easier on Teague and their other ball-handlers, as well breaking down defenses to give their other players easier offensive opportunities.
Scaffolding and elevating their talent is exactly what has made the Spurs so special over the last decade-and-a-half. It’s somewhat obtuse to point at Budenholzer and assume that simply spending 18 years with the Spurs will allow him to duplicate their success somewhere else. But bringing a different mindset to the bench, and helping instill that in his players, should make a huge difference. This mindset is all about flexibility. When the Hawks, and Teague in particular, ran pick-and-rolls last season they often boxed themselves into a binary set of options – this or that, you shoot or I shoot. The goal then for Budenholzer is to just create a few more options in some of their sets and, more importantly, get his players to see and seek out those options for themselves.