Team Pick-and-Roll Defense: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Since today’s NBA is such a heavy pick-and-roll league, being able to defend this play effectively has become almost equally as important as being able to run it.

MySynergySports.com tracks how defenses defend all pick-and-roll plays, and groups them into two categories: pick-and-roll ‘ball-handler,’ and pick-and-roll ‘roll man.’ A play is categorized under ‘ball-handler’ (or ‘B/H’) when the play ends with a score, assist or turnover for the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, and the latter being the same but for the roll man (or ‘R/M’). Synergy statistics have their flaws, but these two in particular do a solid job of giving us a general idea of which teams thrive and struggle in defending pick-and-roll actions.

The best teams at defending pick-and-roll, in terms of points per possession (PPP) given up to opponents on these types of plays, are for the most part what you would expect. Indiana, Chicago, Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers were all ranked in the top 3 of at least one of the two categories. But, looking at the league-wide rankings, there are a few surprises (click the picture to enlarge):

Untitled

The Lakers being the best team in the league at defending the roll man is certainly a ranking which stands out. Last season, L.A’s roster was mostly comprised of below-average defenders, and Mike D’Antoni isn’t exactly known for having great defensive principles. However, his style of defending the pick and roll was clearly an effective one.

All season long, the Lakers’ bigs would sag back in the paint when their defensive assignment went to set an on-ball screen. When these picks occurred on the sideline, the Lakers would ‘ice’ the pick and roll – meaning the guard would jump the screen and force the ball handler away from it, while the big would stay down, ready to contain the drive or hustle back to his own man.

ice setup

This form of defense is vulnerable to giving up long jump-shots, if the big man can’t recover to his man in time. The Lakers’ big man had to be positioned so that he has enough room to contain the driving, but can still get back to his assignment if necessary. The flaws of ‘ice’ are put on full display here, as Ricky Rubio attacks the sagging big-man (Chris Kaman) before kicking it back out to Kevin Love, who is wide-open for a 3.

love pop 3

Strangely enough, this tendency to give up long jumpers is part of the reason the Lakers were so good at defending this play. Because most big-men are more comfortable shooting mid-range shots than three-point shots, this helped the Lakers towards the impressively low PPP given up, as those half-contested long twos are wildly inefficient.

Against screen and rolls on top, D’Antoni would still have the big men sag down in the paint, but the guard would chase the ball-handler over the top of the screen since there is no closer baseline to force them to. This style can be seen here:

lakers pnr on top

So, the reason for the Lakers’ success in this field is pretty clear: it predominantly came down to the solid principles, and when combined with the great defensive effort from the guards, they were able to force a lot of long, tough shots during these plays.

The Heat were a less surprising team to have success in defending the pick-and-roll last season. They ran a blitzing style of screen and roll defense that few teams had the personnel to be able to do. Basically, the big-man and guard would simultaneously jump out at the ball-handler.

heat trap pnr setup

If the ball-handler escaped the trap, the Heat had big-men fast enough recover back to his assignment. But, often, the trap would force the opponent to make a tough pass, as seen here:

trap vs charlotte

Having Chris Bosh and one of the Heat guards trap the pick and rolls, with players such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade playing the passing lanes, was just lethal for opponents:

livingston turnover

Spoelstra used his team’s athleticism to the best of their ability by playing this way, and while it’s rare to see teams have success nowadays by defending in this fashion, there was no question this defense complemented LeBron’s style of play and took advantage of his unique skillset.

After last season, Jacob Frankel wrote that the Sacramento Kings “pulled off the dubious feat of being last in the league on both pick and roll ball handler plays and pick and roll roll man plays.” In the 2013-14 season, that honour belonged to the Knicks.

A power forward/centre rotation involving Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani is never going to be a defensive juggernaut, and as you might expect, horrible defensive personnel combined with poor principles didn’t yield terrific results.

When it came to screen and roll, the Knicks didn’t have much of a defensive identity. Poor communication between guards and big men often led to unnecessary switches, open jumpshots, and clear paths to the rim. It’s hard to highlight one particular way that New York managed to be so catastrophic at this, as their struggles came from all kinds of defensive issues.

A large part of it came down to poor instincts from Stoudemire, who may just have the worst defensive awareness in the league. Plays like the one below, where he fails to get in the way of the ball-handler, occurred very often when the opponent involved Amar’e in the pick and roll.

stat bad awareness

The Knicks didn’t really have a ‘system,’ like other teams tend to, and Woodson appeared to leave it to the players’ better-judgement.

That would typically mean something like this:

typical nyk alignment

The big-man (Stoudemire) would stay a low and attempt to contain the penetration while the guard fought over or went under the screen.

They would occasionally (but rarely) hedge too, as seen here:

chandler show

The problem was, the slow-footed New York bigs would get beaten in both of these situations. Realistically, they should have positioned themselves few feet back from where they were, so they could contain the drive a bit better and also give their guard some more time to recover.

Untitled

With Stoudemire’s (and Chandler’s, apparently) limited lateral mobility, combined with the very poor defensive awareness of most of the Knicks’ front court players, the play would tend to turn out a lot like this:

hayward gif

The Bucks, Pistons, and a few other teams all had debilitating problems defending the pick and roll, but none to this degree. As the Lakers displayed, defending screen and roll isn’t an incredibly hard thing to do, especially if you have solid principles. It’s up to the coaching staff to instill these principles and drill them into players until they follow them. If last year’s Lakers could do it, it’s fair to say that any team can do it.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article. SO happy HoopChalk is back.
    My only minor quibble would be that Synergy stats can sometimes be misleading. If I understand it correctly, they classify plays in such a way that the play only counts if it ends in a shot, a foul, or a turnover. So in other words, if the defense contained a pick-and-roll perfectly and the ball-handler was forced to kick the ball back out to the perimeter to reset the possession, that perfect defensive play wouldn’t even be recorded as a pick-and-roll possession at all. Or if the pick-and-roll defense causes the ball-handler to pass it to a third shooter on the wing, that wouldn’t be recorded as a pick-and-roll possession either, but a spot-up catch-and-shoot instead. I don’t even know how they classify pick-and-pops. But you get the point. The ambiguity can cause their stats to be misleading sometimes. At any rate, that’s just a minor nitpick. On the whole I really enjoyed the article. Keep em coming!

  2. Really enjoying the return of Hoop Chalk. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the site provided some kinda grand overview of basic offensive sets and/or strategies.

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