The by-product of the NBA’s three-point revolution has been the redefinition of the Pick and Roll — more specifically, re-standardization of roles within the most used one-two dynamic in basketball.
For decades, there was a clear correlation between the players’ frame, skillset, and utilization in the Pick and Roll. Other than occasional deviation, guards were in charge of creation, and bigs were the ones setting screens. Forcing a mismatch was the end goal of the play, and each screen-setter had the ability to capitalize on size difference which would derive from the PnR if executed properly.
With the lack of bigs capable of playing with their backs back to the basket, due to the emergence of positionless basketball, the largest exploitable size gap in today’s NBA is between guards and wings. Instead of aiming to punish the smaller guy down low, teams’ Pick and Roll philosophies cater to ball-handlers, with the best possible outcome being — you’ve guessed it — a three-point shot.
The byproduct of such an environment is an all-time high number of guards as the Pick and Roll screen setters, which adds a whole different dynamic to teams’ offensive schemes.
That in and of itself is a step in the right direction. The only problem is, teams aren’t as creative when defending the Pick and Roll. Most notably, the Los Angeles Clippers. But let’s take it one step at a time.
The moment it took off
It’s the ’16 NBA Finals, and the Golden State Warriors are up against the Cleveland Cavaliers — the second consecutive cross-conference matchup involving both teams. The 73-9 Warriors are looking to go back-to-back, and LeBron James is looking to bring the organization its first-ever NBA championship.
Fast forward seven games and LeBron’s mission is accomplished, after a historic 3-1 comeback — the first such in NBA Finals history. All it took was an iconic block on the ’15 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, arguably the greatest shot in NBA Finals history by Kyrie Irving, and forcing Steph Curry into guarding James by using his defensive matchup as the screener in the Pick and Roll.
Fun one from last year’s Finals…— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 26, 2017
Player who was the screener’s defender on the most ball screens?
Targeting the opponent’s worst defender is a common tactic in basketball. Ty Lue’s approach was on that same principle, countering Kerr’s intention to hide the 6-3 point guard on the defensive end. But how he did it — the team’s execution — was the difference-maker. Here’s the example:
The 1-3 Pick and Roll is what won the Cavs the championship that year. It was also their go-to tactic in the ’17 Finals. And even though it worked to an extent, the Warriors made the necessary adjustments to somewhat nullify its effect. Having Kevin Durant on the roster also helped.
Instead of allowing Cleveland to force them into playing 2-on-2, Steve Kerr implemented an extra defensive rotation to cover up for a defender going under the screen. Draymond Green played a huge part as the off-ball defender, orchestrating the movement of guys not directly involved with the play. Here’s an example:
Unlike ’16, the Cavs abusing the Pick and Roll wasn’t the decisive factor in the series. Part of it was because there was no way of matching the Warriors’ offensive firepower. But part of it was also due to Golden State’s adjustments on the defensive end. That brings me to this year’s Los Angeles Clippers.
Four years ago, Ty Lue coached a team with a dominant PnR ballhandler and experienced firsthand what it took to at least slow him down. Today, sitting on the opposite side, he’s done nothing to emulate it.
After yesterday’s loss, the Clippers are down 2-0 to the Mavericks and are yet to find an answer for Luka Dončić, who, after dropping 39 last night, is averaging 35 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 9 assists on 50.9% shooting from the floor. In terms of individual matchups, Lue has tried everything — Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George have all been in charge of defending Dončić. The issue is, all it takes is a single badly set ball screen for that to change.
Switching on a near half-court ball screen, which hasn’t even been properly set, is, unnecessary. And this isn’t an isolated example. In Game 1 alone, out of 31 points scored, Dončić had 16 when Ivica Zubac was guarding him. He might’ve had even more yesterday.
How does a seven-footer who is playing around 20 minutes per game in the series wind up on the opposing superstar so often? It’s the side effect of the switch everything culture in the NBA, which became the teams’ go-to defensive setup, and made coaches and players lazy.
Ty Lue and the Clippers better wake up. Otherwise, they might pay for it. Luka himself warned them about it.
Luka yelling DONT SWITCH 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/XeH76KOnyD— Slightly Biased (@BiasedSlightly) May 26, 2021