The Fundamentals: Four NBA teams offer unique spins on the classic pick-and-roll
No strategy is more fundamental to modern basketball than the pick-and-roll. It is everywhere — laced in every playbook, deep in every player’s brain and placed neatly in every coach’s back pocket. It takes many shapes and forms, and today we look at some of the most compelling. Below are a handful of exceptional case studies in the mechanics of pick-and-roll play through the lens of four duos, served to highlight the commonalities of the sequence and the wide varieties of its execution.
Jeremy Lin and Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Public opinion dogpiled on Lin during his rough first year with the Rockets, but organic development and Howard’s arrival have resurrected Linsanity. It’s all of the pick-and-roll splendor with none of the hype; the Cinderella story may be gone now that Lin is playing on an $8.4 million salary in a non-New York market, but the 25-year-old guard has made steady improvements as an off-the-dribble creator — the sum of which conjures a more sustainable version of his flash-in-the-pan breakout.
Just as with the Knicks, Lin makes his living in the pick-and-roll, where Howard projects as a more imposing finisher than any player Lin had shared the court with previously. Moving toward the basket parallel to Howard creates all kind of defensive strain, as every opponent on the floor is gauging whether he needs to rotate over to impede Lin’s progress, break rotation to help, move to foul Howard on the catch or look to challenge his potential shot. That combination has stretched out Lin’s driving and passing lanes compared to when he ran this same sequence with Omer Asik, and a more evolved Lin is better suited to take advantage of those opportunities than ever before.
Lin’s very emergence was predicated on a brash driving style, the basic elements of which still fuel his game today. But in approaching his work off the dribble with more patience, Lin has been able to take fuller advantage of defensive anxieties. After creating dribble penetration, opponents in coverage tend to get antsy. But it takes time for a developing guard to adjust to the prospect of operating against a defense from within; help could conceivably come from any angle, leading inexperienced guards — as Lin was — to make rash, rushed decisions.
For Lin, specifically, that most often took the form of a premature jump — whether to preempt defensive help or position himself for an ever-risky jump pass. It didn’t take long for opponents to sniff out that tendency, and as a result Lin was often left to force shots and sling blind passes after leaving his feet.
He’s cut down on that habit dramatically, instead taking a more patient tact to complement Howard’s casual rolls to the rim. That modified timing seems to have given Lin the edge on his defenders again. He’s improved his shooting percentage out of pick-and-roll scenarios from 47 percent to an even 50 (per Synergy Sports) — less than a point shy of LeBron James’ pick-and-roll efficiency. And after drawing shooting fouls on just 8.8 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions last season, Lin now earns a trip to the line on 15 percent. He’s an incredibly consistent scorer when he’s not setting up Howard for easy scores, and in many ways a more sophisticated shot creator than when at the height of his narrative power.
Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Chalmers isn’t exactly a pick-and-roll maestro, but he’s developed into a very practical creator in that particular set. His base advantage comes as a default. Chalmers is a clear third-option ball handler behind James and Dwyane Wade, who tend to draw an opponent’s best perimeter defenders. That leaves Chalmers to work largely against either 1) a point guard unfit to switch over to guard Wade, or 2) a defensive liability Miami’s opponent had hoped to hide. Both work to his advantage, and from there Chalmers tends to follow a fairly simple formula.
In using a high screen — most often from Bosh — Chalmers immediately gauges his openings. He’s not much of a pull-up threat despite his fine shooting work in general, though in some cases he can shake an opponent with a slight hesitation beyond the arc. More generally he trudges onward — around Bosh’s pick and into the teeth of the defense, where Chalmers looks to get the slightest step on the man riding his hip. He’s quick but not at all explosive, a combination that enables Chalmers to get into the pocket of the defense but leaves him vulnerable when he drives deeper toward the rim.
Out of that window came the floater — a weapon of overmatched point guards everywhere, purposed by Chalmers to expand his avenues toward utility scoring:
As opponents got a feel for Chalmers’ limitations and driving style, however, they began to preempt the possibility of a floater a few beats before the shot’s release. It’s for that reason that Chalmers began to work more hesitation into his game, which in many cases helps throw opposing big men off the scent and open cleaner looks at the rim:
All along the way, Chalmers has the benefit of shoveling the ball back to Bosh — perhaps the most neglected roll player in the league. He has an effective move. He has an even more effective counter. And Chalmers is surrounded by contingencies, whether through Bosh’s spot-up shooting or a quick reset through James or Wade. This is how a role player manages to shoot 53 percent in the pick-and-roll; Chalmers can be a bit too prone to risk on some nights, but he’s surprisingly self-aware as a pick-and-roll creator.
Monta Ellis/Jose Calderon and Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
This selection stretches the definition of a pick-and-roll duo, but it didn’t seem right to mention one of Ellis or Calderon and exclude the other given how often they’re used in tandem. Nowitzki acts as a bridge between them. After running a high pick-and-roll with one of the two guards, he’ll float into space between them — ready to receive a pass for a quick jumper, or capable of resetting the ball to the idle guard for a second pick-and-roll. With that, Dallas segues between these sequences seamlessly, probing the defense for weakness by trusting in two guards with contrasting styles.
When Ellis makes use of a high screen, he doesn’t waste time. His telegraphed intent is to dart around the pick as quickly as possible in order to leverage both his burst speed and any defensive tilt toward a potential Dirk jumper. Such a combination requires careful defensive choreography to contain; one wrong move and Ellis either streaks to the rim for a good look or dishes out to one of the most potent shooters in NBA history. That combination has worked brilliantly for Dallas this season, in part because Ellis has done a terrific job of following through on his drives. When initiating the pick-and-roll last season for the Bucks, Ellis would lull himself into longer pull-up jumpers — a clean look in most cases, but a poor shot given the alternatives. He’s curbed that tendency in Dallas, where Ellis is drawing fouls in the pick-and-roll with nearly double the frequency, according to Synergy Sports.
Calderon is a world apart, as he seems to only visit the paint biannually. It’s unusual for a team to create such consistent offense out of the pick-and-roll when neither player involved has much interest in making any move toward the rim, but the level of shooting between Nowitzki and Calderon is so exceptional that they’re able to execute the play to perfection in close quarters:
He may be a pass-first player by mode, but Calderon is just as capable of coursing around the screen into a quick pull-up jumper. In fact, he seldom gets credit for his ability to convert difficult looks. It’s not easy to rise and fire in limited space without presenting even the mildest threat of a drive, but Calderon is remarkably accurate under those circumstances.
Anyone and Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
It doesn’t much matter who is on the operational end of the pick-and-roll for the Pelicans these days, because Davis has taken to fielding and finishing all kinds of passes. The lob is obviously the most straightforward, as Davis’ extension allows him to locate and jump for lofting feeds later than most other bigs might be able to:
At the same time, Davis is controlled enough on his moves to the rim to make a catch below his waist and finish effortlessly in traffic:
That combination opens all kinds of doors for the Pelicans and makes Davis a match for most any counterpart. Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Brian Roberts, Eric Gordon — all are viable pick-and-roll options when Davis sets the initial screen. Yet none can quite get Davis the ball enough, if only because of the inherent limitations on the back end of pick-and-roll play.
Even the league’s best roll men are likely under-used relative to team preference, as the space they utilize and the structure of team defenses makes it possible to contain them. Doing so might by extension give up open looks elsewhere, but an early rotation or a crowded lane can help deter these kinds of easy scores from ever happening. Davis is flexible enough to provide offense through other means, but it’s telling that the pick-and-roll possessions Davis finishes (whether by shot attempt, turnover or drawn foul) account for only 2.5 percent of the Pelicans’ total offense. Holiday, even while sharing the ball with Evans and Gordon, accounts for roughly three times as many used pick-and-roll possessions as a ball handler.
None of this in any way reflects poorly on Davis’ value; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s because of his rolls to the rim that his teammates are able to create deeper dribble penetration, sometimes resulting in easy baskets. It’s in part due to Davis’ roll work that Ryan Anderson has converted 43 percent of his spot-up three-pointers, many of which came without even the slightest contest. It’s from Davis’ gravity that Al-Farouq Aminu has found room to make backdoor cuts, that Evans has found new life as a playmaker and that Gordon has been able to counter-drive for scores against a stilted defense. His base influence has allowed the Pelicans to pull off the league’s seventh-best offense while juggling new additions and injuries. That’s no small accomplishment, and it serves to show how even that 2.5 percent of New Orleans’ offense goes a long way.
Next page: NBA’s most prevalent pick-and-roller, Pistons’ problem, power forward debate and more
• 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
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.
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.
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.
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.