The Breakdown: Pick and Roll Defense

Darius Soriano —  March 2, 2013

There have been several requests for breakdowns on the Lakers’ defense. But, rather than look at what the team does in totality on that side of the ball, I’ve decided to look at various parts of the team’s defense and provide breakdowns on those specific actions. Today, we look at the Lakers’ P&R defense.

It’s a mimic league. It has been for a long time. Coaches see something and say, “Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that.” Screen-roll. Three-point shooters in the corner. Bigs that can roll and pop. San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.

That quote is from a Phil Jackson in a sit down with SI’s Jack McCallum. Of course, Phil is 100% correct. The NBA is full of copycats and once there’s a certain amount of success with a particular style — especially if it can be easily emulated — other teams will flock to playing that way.

With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.

The Lakers, this season, haven’t been one of the better teams to defend this action. Per my Synergy sports, the Lakers are 14th in the NBA in points per play (PPP) on shots taken by the ball handler in the P&R and 26th in PPP on shots taken by the roll man. Much of that is directly related to the simple combination of the defenders the Lakers have on the floor and way they play this action.

The Lakers are quite fond of doing two things that limit their effectiveness in the P&R. First, the guards love to go over the top of screens. Second, the big men — especially Dwight Howard — often sit well below the pick and invite the guard turning the corner to attack them off the dribble.

dwight sink 2

In this still, we see Kobe defending Ricky Rubio and trying to fight over the top of the screen. Notice where Dwight is standing. This allows Rubio, after getting a good screen to free him up from Kobe, to attack Dwight going full speed.

dwight reach

Rubio goes right at Dwight, crosses over, and then finishes at the rim with a nifty lay in. Here’s the play in real time:

This is the exact shot the Lakers don’t want to give up in any P&R situation. They allowed it by making several mistakes right from the beginning. First off, Kobe over extended his defense and chased a non-shooter over the top of the screen, essentially inviting a drive. Next, Dwight sat so far below the action that Rubio was able to go full speed right at him. Finally, Dwight didn’t slide his feet, but instead reached for the ball and missed on his attempt at a steal.

In this next action, we see a similar play, but one that leads to a jumper:

dwight sink 3

Again, here’s Kobe getting screened well when trying to chase Ty Lawson over the top of the pick. And, again, notice where Dwight is standing. That space allowed Lawson to drive right to the FT line and raise up for an uncontested jumper:

lawson open jumper

Here’s the play in real time:

To be fair, this is the type of shot you want the Nuggets taking. The most inefficient shot in the game is a long two pointer and while Lawson was able to get to the mid-range, he still didn’t get all the way to the rim like Rubio did and this is a shot that’s less likely to fall than a lay up in the restricted area.

The Lakers, though, could have defended this set better, as they do here against another Nugget P&R:

dwight sink 1

Though we see Dwight sinking below the screen again, the angle in which he’s playing the ball is already much better than it was in the previous clips. That allows him to step up into the ball and contain the dribble:

dwight hold 1

Holding up the ball handler then allows Kobe to recover to the ball handler and contest the shot that is taken:

Kobe contest

Here is the play as it happens:

Of course, these are all plays where we’re seeing breakdowns by either the “hedge” man or the player guarding the ball handler. However, there are also plays where the weak side help isn’t where it should be. That type of missed rotation can lead to an easy basket by the roll man:

Nash under

Here, we see Nash doing the smart thing by going under the screen against a non-shooter in Andre Miller. We also see Dwight doing a good job of closing off any driving angle by sliding his feet and getting between Miller and the basket. Dwight is still playing below the screen, but he’s made it so Miller’s only option is to shoot a mid-range jumper or pass the ball. On this particular play, Miller does pass to Iguodala who has slid up the right lane line:

Dwight help

Notice here, though, that as the pass is being made, Dwight is pointing to the weak side wing (Kobe) and asking him to pick up Faried. However, Kobe is more focused on his man (Ty Lawson) who is rotating up the floor. The result is that Faried is able to dive to the rim unimpeded:

faried dunk
Here’s the play as it happens with a lot of finger pointing going on afterward:

The Lakers P&R D is still a work in progress, but as you can see from the clips and pictures above, a lot of what they need to improve on is simply related to the choices they make and the limitations of their defenders.

The combination of chasing guards over the top of screens with the hedge man sitting well below the pick is yielding too many makable shots to the offense. If the guards start to make better choices in how they defend the ball and Howard starts to step up just a bit higher, the results will likely improve. If both those things occur with the weak side wing being in better coordination with what’s happening ball side, the team can also start to eliminate some of the easy shots the roll man gets.

Whether the Lakers can make these types of adjustments at this stage of the season remains to be seen. But if some subtle tweaks don’t occur, we’re likely to continue to see these types of breakdowns.

Darius Soriano

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