Posted January 08, 2014

The Fundamentals: Four NBA teams offer unique spins on the classic pick-and-roll

Rob Mahoney, The Fundamentals

GO FIGURE

Is Wolves guard J.J. Barea the most pick-and-roll-dependent player in the league? (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Is Wolves guard J.J. Barea the most pick-and-roll-dependent player in the league? (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

• I’m intent to seek out the most pick-and-roll-dependent player in the league. My offering: Minnesota’s J.J. Barea, who has used a whopping 46 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports. It would seem like the league leader in this usage measure would have to be good enough to control the ball but not quite quick or tall enough to create shots for themselves. He also can’t be so good a spot-up shooter that it would detract from his cut of pick-and-roll possessions or so active as a cutter or curl shooter for that same reason. Any guesses?

• It takes a particular talent to be able to square up and launch a three-pointer from within in the urgency of a pick-and-roll, but three pull-up savants have posted impressive shooting marks in that regard this season. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, whose percentage is likely weighed down by the audacity of some of his attempts, has converted 38.1 percent of his pick-and-roll three-pointers. Portland’s Damian Lillard has done him one better at 41.8 percent, albeit in 30 fewer attempts. Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving might well set the standard, though; he has attempted fewer pick-and-roll threes (38) than either Lillard (67) or Curry (97) but connected on 47.4 percent. Crazy, crazy stuff from a guard who really doesn’t have a worthy pick-and-roll partner.

One unexpected candidate to join that group in due time: Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe, who continues his shooting torrent by hitting 42.3 percent on pick-and-roll three-point attempts.

• The Lakers have had to explore all kinds of alternative ball-handling options with their point guard rotation eradicated by injury, and in many cases coach Mike D’Antoni has leaned on the now-injured Xavier Henry. He’s not quite a natural ball handler, but Henry has a proficiency off the bounce that well exceeds the Lakers’ other wings and plays in a way that allows him to fulfill his role while controlling the ball. The primary reason for that: Henry contributes as a scorer first and foremost, and he’s drawn fouls on a baffling 20 percent of his possessions while working in the pick-and-roll. He’s not making much of anything when he actually attempts a shot, but if Henry can distribute reliably and continue to pile up free throws, he’ll be of use to the depleted Lakers upon his return.

NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Spacing has been a problem for Detroit's pick-and-roll offense this season. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Spacing has been a problem for Detroit’s pick-and-roll offense this season. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

1. Four’s a crowd in Detroit

The most unfortunate victim of the Pistons’ spacing jam is the team’s pick-and-roll game, which has withered in lineups starved for spacing helmed by an impatient point guard. There are many reasons why Brandon Jennings was not the right man to create breathing room on a lineup with three bigs, but never has that been more apparent than in the contrast of Detroit’s pick-and-roll potential and performance.

In theory, Jennings should be able to free up elite pick-and-roll options like Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, while working off Greg Monroe in the case that neither is available. Yet most attempts at running any kind of two-man sequences inevitably run into traffic, as the third and fourth members of this bunch spend plenty of time on the court together and largely fail to pull their defenders out of the paint. Distant are the memories of Drummond rocking the rim off feeds from backup guard Will Bynum; that duo, which was so potent for the Pistons a season ago, has been largely shelved as Bynum’s minutes were handed off to Rodney Stuckey and Chauncey Billups.

A recent injury to Stuckey has offered us a glimpse of pick-and-roll Christmas past, but it would seem to be only that. Someday the dream will end — Bynum will be relegated to the end of the bench again, Drummond will be left to score through other means and Detroit will continue to sputter along as one of the worst pick-and-roll teams in the league.

2. Food for thought in the crowning of the league’s best power forward

Traditional positional constructs will ensure that Minnesota’s Kevin Love, Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin will be compared at every juncture, as the three players will compete for All-Star and All-NBA berths as well as the barstool-ordained distinction of being the best power forward in the game. There are a million factors to consider in weighing the merits of those players against one another, but here’s one more: Love is the only player among them to work off a nonexistent scoring threat as his team’s primary ball handler.

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The Clippers’ Chris Paul and Blazers’ Lillard are efficient, ball-dominant scorers, rangy enough to project as pull-up threats at most any time. Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio, for all his wonderful talents, struggles equally from the field inside and out. Opponents don’t worry much about him when he turns the corner on the pick-and-roll. They don’t jump out to contest what might be a potential jumper. They simply play him for the pass, and it’s to Rubio’s credit that he overcomes that preemption with his own playmaking wizardry. Still, it goes without saying that ball handlers who project to score create all kinds of consistent advantages for their teammates. Aldridge and Griffin benefit from that, while Love — even when Rubio does set him up with timely passes — is left to compensate.

3. The mechanism behind the rising Suns

Bledsoe has garnered much of the attention in Phoenix as a star-in-waiting making his leap, but Goran Dragic has been equally spectacular as a pick-and-roll creator, if not more so. Still, it’s amazing to think that even with all that both guards have offered this season through their individual improvement, this surprising Suns season would not be possible were it not for Channing Frye, a forgotten piece who returned after missing last season with a heart condition, and Miles Plumlee, whom the Pacers discarded in their trade for Luis Scola.

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Both have been invaluable options in Phoenix’s spread pick-and-roll despite minimal expectations. They are particularly helpful when used in conjunction with one another:

No one doubts the power of the pick-and-roll and its variants, but the fact that Dragic, Bledsoe, Frye, Plumlee and the rest of the Suns’ role players have been able to forge a top-10 offense with such gusto remains an incredible treat.

4. Memphis, inverted

Just as we all expected, the Grizzlies are staying afloat with an above-average offense. (Memphis ranks 14th in points scored per possession, according to Basketball-Reference.) What’s more: Memphis could undergo a complete profile reversal upon the return of Marc Gasol, who was cleared Sunday for light practice work. The Grizzlies’ defense hasn’t met grit-and-grind standards even with Gasol on the floor (the unit is 21st overall in points allowed per possession), but together with Mike Conley the 28-year-old center formed one of the most deadly pick-and-roll duos this season. Should Gasol’s return give Memphis an offensive lift along those same lines (and we have reason to think it might, given his all-around scoring and facilitating talents), we could see a complete transformation in the Grizz from defense-first behemoth to offense-redeemed also-ran. That’s certainly not preferable, but it nonetheless seems a fitting course for one of the weirdest Grizzlies seasons in recent memory.

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5. Boogie on the move

Much of the pessimism surrounding DeMarcus Cousins’ four-year, $62 million contract extension with Sacramento stemmed from his big-picture flaws. This was a 23-year-old big man who was clearly lacking defensively, who hadn’t yet figured out how to score efficiently and who seemed to consistently bump heads with all around him. I found it perfectly understandable that some would be pessimistic about Cousins’ prospects, even as I lobbied in his favor.

In a few quick months, though, Cousins has managed to assuage some doubt regarding one of those three major concerns. This is by far the best-shooting season of Cousins’ four-year career, and while he hasn’t yet eclipsed 50 percent, he’s made better use of his unique size and athleticism as a finisher opposite point guard Isaiah Thomas.

While former King Greivis Vasquez (who was traded to Toronto last month) was the purer playmaker between the two point guard options, it took Thomas’ more aggressive drives to really unlock Cousins’ potential in the pick-and-roll. Between them, Cousins and Thomas bring an uncommon scoring prowess, putting Cousins in a position to post dramatic gains in his pick-and-roll efficiency. He’s raised his shooting in pick-and-roll plays by nearly 7 percent from last season. He’s slashed his turnover rate and drawn more fouls. He still pops out to the perimeter for jumpers more than he should, but Cousins is finally leaning toward the proper balance in how he runs the pick-and-roll — in part because of all the openings Thomas (who’s very much a handful on his own) provides.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.


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