Lakers and the Pick-and-Roll

Kurt —  December 21, 2005

I’m not above stealing a good idea. In fact, it’s closer to my modus operandi.

A few weeks ago I read maybe the best piece of writing on the NBA this season, Kevin Pelton’s breakdown of how team’s deal with Phoenix’s pick-and-roll at And I don’t just love it because it proves Charles Barkley talks out of his ass half the time, that’s just a bonus.

Of course, one of my first thoughts was “how can I steal that?” Especially since pick-and-roll has long been a Laker weakness — it was kryptonite to Shaq and the Laker teams of that championship era. So, I’ve watched and tabulated through parts (not all but much) of recent games to get a picture of how the Lakers deal with the pick-and-roll.

And the results — the Lakers are a lot better against it this season. As a team, their defensive rating against the pick-and-roll when I watched was 92.8 (points per 100 possessions), more than 10 points better than their overall defensive rating (103.9).

First things first, let’s discuss pick-and-roll defense. And here I’m just going to quote the article because I couldn’t possibly improve upon it.

Basically, there are four main ways NBA teams defend the pick-and-roll:

Switch it – The players defending the ball handler and the picker switch, usually creating a mismatch. (TNT analysts) Barkley and Smith do not believe this is a successful defense (at least against Nash and the Suns).

Trap – Both defenders go towards the ball handler and aggressively trap him while the other three defenders zone against the four remaining offensive players.

“Show” or “Hedge” – The player defending the picker briefly steps out into the ball handler’s path, slowing him up enough that the player defending the ball handler has time to recover. Then the player defending the picker recovers to his original man. It’s worth noting that this is how the Spurs usually defend the pick-and-roll.

Go under the pick – Done only against weak shooters, the player defending the picker steps back to allow the player defending the ball handler to go between him and the screen and get to his man. This leaves an open jumpshot for the ball handler.

There are also two main locations for pick-and-rolls — at the top of the key and at the elbow (the free-throw line extended to approximately where it would intersect the 3-point line). Because these are played in different ways, I’ve separated them out for my analysis.

The Lakers do change off what they do at different points of the game, particularly late — a wise strategy — but they do have favorites.

At the top of the key the Lakers prefer to “show,” doing so 46% of the time. This is what you will see most of the game (usually) and it is the Lakers most effective strategy out top — they had a defensive rating of 76 (points per 100 possessions) using this in my limited study. (To be fair, that number was skewed lower by good games using this defense including against Houston, who missed the open shots it generated in the first half).

The Lakers switch out top about 33% of the time, but this is far less effective, a defensive rating of 117.6. It makes sense, teams such as Detroit can get away with this because one of the Wallaces switches onto the guard, but when the Lakers do this you get Chris Mihm (or maybe Kwame Brown) trying to hang with Raymond Felton. That’s not pretty. Of the points scored against the switch defense, 60% came from the ball handler.

The Lakers do let their guys fight through some top of the key picks, but not often and if they do or they choose to go under things tend to go poorly. The only time the Lakers tried to trap out top was the end of the Houston game, using Kwame to jump out on Tracy McGrady with Devean George. It worked the two times they did it, including Kwame getting the steal and breakaway that tied the game. (How did that game end? I seem to have repressed that memory.)

Out at the elbow, where the big man is a little closer to the basket, the Lakers go with the switch as the primary defense, doing so 48.6% of the time. Again this primary defense is very effective for the Lakers, with a defensive rating of 68.9. While part of this is the switch itself, for some reason the Lakers help defenders also seem to rotate better when the pick is out at the elbow, which was a key. Almost all of the points that opponent do get come from the ball handler.

The rest of the time at the elbow is split basically evenly (25% each) between the show and go under defense. They also are about equally effective, combined a defensive rating of 86.5.