Posted January 24, 2013

Court Vision: Pick-and-roll players strike back against evolving defenses

Chris Bosh, Jamal Crawford, Mike D'Antoni, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rob Mahoney, Steve Nash
Marc Gasol throws a pass

Marc Gasol is averaging a career-high 3.5 assists per game this season. (Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Rob Mahoney

• NBA defenses have evolved pretty dramatically over the last five years, but not without offensive players developing their own counters to contemporary defensive strategy. ProBasketballTalk’s D.J. Foster — with a healthy assist from Jacob Frankel of De-Thurmond Analysis – does a fantastic job of breaking down one micro-level aspect of modern pick-and-roll execution, by which the initial two-man game leads not to a thunderous finish, but a nuanced read of the court from a power forward or center:

You’ll see this a lot over the course of an NBA game. In this example, Tony Parker has forced the ballhandler away from the pick by severely overplaying him screen-side. It’s now Boris Diaw‘s job to prevent penetration and allow Parker to recover once the screen is no longer in play.

What “icing” a screen usually amounts to is a pocket pass by the guard to the would-be pick setter, who now gets to play 4-on-3 against a zoned up backline defense.

In theory, defenses would much rather have a big power forward making a decision from 17 feet than an explosive dunk right at the rim. It’s simple —  make a non-traditional ballhandler make a ballhandler’s decision, and a lot of times the big man’s delay or hesitation to make the decision will give the defense enough time to recover.

What does this all mean in the grand scheme of things for pick-and-roll big men?

Now more than ever before, court vision is critical for any roll man worth his salt. It’s why great passers like Griffin, David Lee and Marc Gasol are all averaging career best assist numbers this season, and it’s a big reason why all three deserve All-Star bids.

The heavier use of “icing” pick-and-rolls has effectively distributed more of the scoring wealth as well. As Henry Abbott of TrueHoop recently wrote about, five years ago there were 27 players in the league who averaged at least 20 points per game. This year? Nine. As defenses force the ball out of the hands of first options, it’s the new role of the roll man to find the open shooter, or knock it down himself.

•  Getting to know Spurs newcomer Aron Baynes.

• A really cool look at current events in the NBA through multimedia, courtesy of CBS Sports’ Matt Moore.

• Arron Afflalo still makes for the most improbable name drop in hip-hop history, and Holly MacKenzie was able to catch up with Afflalo to talk about his sudden musical fame, life with the Magic, and plenty of other topics in this great Q&A for Grantland. This particular exchange stuck out to me:

[MacKenzie:] It’s interesting to hear you talk about making it. A lot of guys in the league, especially young guys, don’t have the ability to see beyond the now … this contract, this team, this situation. Where does your self-awareness come from?

[Afflalo:] It’s just something that’s somewhat unexplainable, in a sense, because I’ve always felt a sense of greatness as a kid. I’ve always felt a lack of satisfaction of where I’m at. Before I even got to the NBA, college, high school, anything else, there was always a feeling inside that I could do better, I could be better. It just hasn’t changed, regardless of the level of success I have in the NBA. Honestly, I can’t stop because it’s not fulfilling to me. I guess that’s where work ethic comes from. There’s an extra incentive to push through struggles or push through disbelief. I don’t know if that comes from my background, my upbringing, partially due to the environment that I grew up in, but it’s the truth. Honestly, I can’t stop because failing or staying where I’m at just doesn’t feel good. I have no choice but to get better.

• Tom Ziller lays out the reputation damage that the Lakers’ biggest names have suffered this season, including head coach Mike D’Antoni:

Mike D. would be higher were his reputation not already seriously damaged in New York. But man, he’s might as well be Kurt Rambis at this point. Would any single fan base in America (or Canada) get excited by the hire of D’Antoni now? Remember that in 2008 the Bulls and Knicks basically fought over him. I’m not sure Mike D. could get hired by the Suns now, even forgiving any bad blood with Robert Sarver.

• Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times put together an awesome piece on Jamal Crawford’s crossover, which is one of the most potent individual moves by any basketball player alive. We hear from Crawford’s teammates and opponents, trace the origins of his ball-handling and get a nice breakdown of a favorite cross from Crawford himself:

Many of Crawford’s best crossovers are documented on YouTube clips accompanied by breathless comments. His favorite is one from five years ago in which Ray Allen steps up to guard him on the perimeter. Crawford dribbles between his legs, behind his back and then behind his back again, with the final move forcing Allen to stumble helplessly to the court.

“He had sat there on the first two moves,” Crawford said while watching the clip on a computer at the Clippers’ practice facility, “so I knew I was going to pull it back because he was still with me on the initial crossover. That’s the thing about the crossover: Sometimes you have to do a move just to set him up for another move.”

• Over at HOOPSWORLD, Eric Pincus offers a useful at-a-glance look at where every team stands in relation to the salary cap for this coming offseason.

• Nobody interview-bombs like Chris Bosh. Nobody.

• Steve Nash’s reputation as a flawed defender precedes him, but as Beckley Mason notes over at TrueHoop, the Lakers’ bigs are putting Nash in particularly difficult situations by retreating so far back against pick-and-rolls:

In L.A., when Nash slips under a screen, his help — typically Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol — stays firmly rooted in the paint, unwilling or unable to slow the oncoming ball-handler until he’s nearing the basket. Gone is the hedging that sent Nash’s man far from the hoop, lost is the time Nash once enjoyed to recover to the proper position.

Why? Howard was once one of the most nimble big men in the NBA, but since his back operation almost a year ago and more recently a labrum issue, he has been moving like a tin man in need of an oil change. Gasol is also recovering from injuries — he has missed games with knee trouble and a concussion. It’s no wonder both have generally opted to remain near the rim where their size might bail them out.

Nash has got his own problems guarding this action, and now it’s compounded by teammates hanging him out to dry. Ball-handlers, Synergy says, are making a mighty 51 percent of their shots in pick-and-rolls against Nash. That places him in the bottom 12 percent of the NBA, despite the fact that only 16 percent of the shot attempts off of Nash-defended pick-and-roll have been layups.

• In overtime against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, Erik Spoelstra called for a beauty of a play that created a great shot attempt in tight quarters.

• The Knicks’ Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Herb Williams make the case for New York’s switch-heavy defensive strategy.

• With the Thunder’s offense turning in franchise-record marks, Royce Young of Daily Thunder takes a stab at explaining why OKC’s production has actually increased following the departure of James Harden:

My point is this though: What was once a terrifying prospect has become a significant strength of this season’s Thunder team. The fear was what to do without that third option, that contingency plan if Westbrook went haywire and Durant was off. Where do they go? Obviously Kevin Martin seems to be the answer, but he’s far less involved that Harden. Serge Ibaka has taken his game to another level, but he’s not exactly a guy that carries a team.

Here’s what’s happened: The Thunder haven’t needed a “break in case of emergency” player, really. A few select games Martin was hot in the first half while Durant and Westbrook were not, or Ibaka had a big night shooting. But for the most part, Westbrook and Durant — specifically Durant — have been stunningly consistent. Consider this: KD has had four games — out of 41, mind you — in which he’s shot under 40 percent. Four!

Roll over to Westbrook who is having maybe the best season of his career. The worry was what happens when Westbrook goes haywire, but he’s proving yet again he’s more reliable than you think. Assists are up, turnovers down, PER way up. His jump hasn’t been quite as impressive as Durant’s, but he’s taken a step forward, clearly.

• Basketball fans are used to the traditional, 12-man format of the Eastern and Western Conference All-Star teams, but NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner brings up a great point: Why limit the All-Star pool to just 12 selections apiece when the number of teams in the league (and the talent pool in general) has only grown?

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