The Jazz pick and roll defense has been a mess for some time now, and this year is no different. The Jazz are currently 29th defensively, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that our problems stem from our inability to defend the pick and roll. Synergy tells us that we’re 29th in the league in defending the pick and roll ball handler. And our problems certainly don’t end there. Our defense usually gets broken down on the pick and roll, and in the attempt to help defensively the ball handler will just skip a pass to whoever is left open. So why can’t we defend against the pick and roll? Is it a lack of good defensive personnel? Is it our scheme? Is it a lack of execution?
There are five prominent strategies that teams use to defend the pick and roll. Every one of these strategies has its flaws, which is why the pick and roll is such a popular option for offenses these days. The best strategy for a team probably depends on your own defensive personnel, and who your team is playing. Here are the five main strategies teams use to defend the pick and roll:
1. The on-ball defender goes under the screen instead of trailing the ball handler from behind, while the big sticks to his man. This takes away the driving lane from the ball handler and keeps him from getting into the paint. The problem with this strategy though is the ball handler will get a wide-open shot. This is a useful strategy when the opposing team’s ball handler is not a great shooter. Most P&R guards, however, are adept at hitting that open shot. I would only use this strategy if playing against a point guard like Rodney Stuckey, who is a poor shooter from outside. As you can see below, Jeremy Evans goes under the screen and gets burned by a Bledsoe 3.
2. The on-ball defender goes over the screen, while the big man hedges the ball handler to give the on-ball defender time to recover to his man. The big steps out in front of the ball handler just for a moment and then, runs back to his man once the on ball defender has recovered back to his man. This keeps the ball handler from pulling up for a shot, and can keep the ball handler from getting into the lane if defended properly. Where this strategy fails is that it leaves the roll man open until the big defender can recover. On this play below, Favors can’t get back to Frye in time, who pops out for an open three. Even though Favors is a great defensive player, he’s still not quick enough to get back to his man in this play.
Enes Kanter especially struggles to defend in this pick and roll strategy, as he rarely can get back to his man in time, requiring other players to cover for him as he runs back. Al Jefferson was down right awful at this, as he couldn’t slow down the ball handler OR get back to his man. You can see the problem with this type of strategy. Any time we use two players to guard the ball handler, we effectively end up having to guard the rest of the team 4v3. Any disciplined team will be able to beat us 4v3.
Another negative with this p&r strategy is that it pulls our bigs away from the rim. The farther away they are from the rim, the harder it will be for them to contest shots and get rebounds. Right now the jazz are 29th in defensive rebound rate, and I suspect a big reason why is that this is the p&r defense we utilize most often.
3. The on-ball handler goes over the screen and the big defender, instead of just hedging onto the ball handler, aggressively traps him. This is what we saw the Miami Heat do on defense against the Spurs in the finals. This p&r defense will cause more turnovers than any of the other schemes. To be able to pull this off though, you need an athletic big who can help contain the ball handler (Favors has the ability to do this, Kanter doesn’t), and you need fast and smart wings who can jump into passing lanes when the ball handler tries to pass out of the trap. Not many teams can do this for more than short stretches, and I can’t think of another team that does it as often (or as effectively) as the Heat.
4. SWITCH EVERYTHING. When the big screens the on ball defender, the team simply switches who they’re guarding. This will effectively stop the p&r 99% of the time, as the ball handler and roll man won’t get any space from the defense. The problem with this, however, is that it can cause mismatches defensively. We saw the Jazz try to switch against the Dallas Mavericks, and it was completely ineffective. You can’t switch on defense unless every defender on the floor is versatile enough to guard every opposing player on offense. This wasn’t the case against the Mavericks, as our guards couldn’t defend Dirk Nowitzki. On this play here, Jeremy Evans switches on the pick and Alec Burks gets stuck guarding Dirk. Dirk then backs him down in the post for an easy 2.
I will note though that we can be effective switching everything against the right team. The Phoenix Suns are a pick and roll/space you out team. Frye and the Morris brothers can hit open 3-point shots, but are limited in the post. In Saturday night’s game in the 4th quarter, Ty had our team switch on screens, and it was really effective because the Suns didn’t have anybody to capitalize on mismatches. It also helped that we had Favors/Marvin/Evans in for that stretch because they are mobile bigs who can keep up with guards. Hopefully, Ty will use this strategy in the right situations in the future, but not against teams like Dallas who can capitalize on mismatches.
5. The on-ball defender goes over the screen and trails the ball handler, while the big drops down into the paint. The defensive big then covers the point guard if he drives into the paint, and the roll man if he dives into the paint. This generally will contain the p&r play to just two defenders, while hedging/trapping requires ready help defense from the rest of the team. While this defense is more effective at limiting high percentage shots at the rim and corner 3’s, it gives the ball handler the option to either pull up for a shot right after he uses the pick, or to drive into the big defender and kick to the screener for a mid range J. These are lower percentage shots that most analytically-minded coaches will live with.
Of all the pick and roll strategies, this, in my opinion, is the most effective, and the one that the Jazz should use 90% of the time. For whatever reason, our help-defense is awful this year, so limiting the p&r play to just two defenders leaves us with less chances for mistakes. This also keeps our bigs closer to the basket where they can more easily contest shots in the lane and rebound. The Indiana Pacers run this style of P&R defense very effectively. Their personnel is also well equipped to run this defense because their guards (Hill/Stephenson/George) are long enough to contest the ball handlers shot from behind as they trail them around the pick. While the Jazz guards might not be able to contest a pull up jump shot from behind because they’re smaller (Burke is only 6’0), this gives the opposing team an open pull-up jump shot (low percentage shots) instead of a shot at the rim or corner three (high percentage shots). On this play below, Favors drops down into the post, and is able to cover both Larkin and Blaire as they come into the paint. Unfortunately, Jefferson helped unnecessarily, which lead to an open three.
Now that we’ve discussed the different pick and roll options for defenses, let’s revisit the question I posed in beginning of the article. Can we not defend the pick and roll because of personnel, execution, or the schemes our coaches put into place? After watching lots of tape, I think it’s a mixture of all three, but with most of the blame on the coaches. I took a log of every pick and roll play we defended against the Dallas Mavericks, and I think it perfectly illustrates why our team is struggling so badly this year. Here is the 1st half log:
6:45- Kanter hedges pick, but is able to get back into the paint
6:10- Kanter switches on the pick, and Dirk gets mismatch in post on Richard Jefferson.
2:30- Marvin Williams Hedges, but he can’t get back to his man in time as he rolls to the hoop for an uncontested lay-up.
2:00- Jeremy Evans switches onto Ellis. Ellis drives by him for an uncontested floater.
1:20- Hayward switches onto the point guard, and Trey gets backed into post by V. Carter.
10:20- Jeremy switches pick, leaving Burks to guard Dirk. Dirk backs down Burks in post for 2.
8:10- Out of timeout Favors goes under screen, Dallas doesn’t get anything from p&r.
7:40- Dirk sets screen, Favors falls back into the paint and Burks goes over the pick.
7:30- Marion sets pick, Favors switches onto Larkin. Ty Corbin looks super upset, yells something at Favors. He probably didn’t want Favors to switch, as he hadn’t been doing it the last couple plays.
6:35- Marion sets pick, Favors falls back into paint instead of hedging.
6:15- Kanters falls back into paint, but still can’t account for ball handler and roll man, Favors has to help, his man open in corner, Dallas gets 3.
3:55- Kanter hedges pick, Dalembert gets ball rolling to basket. Richard Jefferson helps in time but is still to small to Dalembert.
:15- Dirk screens, Jeremy Evans switches. Alec Burks switches to Dirk and gets posted up in isolation.
For those of you not counting, Coach Corbin had our team switch pick and roll schemes FIVE different times, just in the first half. FIVE TIMES! This is not normal in the NBA, and it’s not something that is practiced by the top NBA defenses. In the sequence where Corbin yelled at Favors, you can tell Favors got confused on defense because the team was switching their strategy so much.
Steve Clifford, now coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, has somehow miraculously transformed his team into the 4th best defense in the NBA after being 30th in defense last year (and after adding Al freaking Jefferson)! He was an assistant coach under both of the Van Gundy’s, and considers them and Tom Thibodeau as his mentors. Clifford learned from Thibodeau that you have to, “set a foundation of principles before trying to add a variety for special situations”. This is, in my opinion, where coach Corbin got it wrong this year. We’re trying to implement a bunch of different defensive schemes all at once while not being particularly good at any of them.
So what can our coaches do to fix our horrendous defense? Here are my suggestions to turn our team around:
1. Implement one pick and roll defense that we use 95% of the time. Our team needs to master “a foundation of principles before trying to add a variety” (ibid.).
2. In the p&r schemes listed, use #5 (where the big man drops down into the paint). Enes Kanter isn’t fast enough to recover from hedging on screens, and Favors is more effective near the basket where he can contest shots at the rim. It’s better to live with those open pull-up shots from the ball handler than open three pointers and shots at the rim.
3. Put your players in positions to succeed! Don’t ask your guys to do things that they physically cannot do. Don’t ask Kanter to hedge out onto the point guard and run all the way back to his man. Don’t ask Marvin Williams to be fall back into the paint and be a rim protector when he’s much more effective guarding the ball on the perimeter.
4. Go into a game knowing what scheme to use and when. In the Dallas game, it was very apparent Coach Corbin was just grasping at straws, trying different schemes at random. Know before hand that you won’t be able to switch everything when Dirk is on the other team. Know that your big men won’t be able to hedge on the point guard and get back quick enough to guard Dirk for that open jumper.
5. Play the percentages! You have to know that three pointers and lay-ups are better shots than mid rangers. Give the opposing team open mid range shots over those high percentage shots. When your guys have to switch out onto a three point shooter, have them run the shooter off the three point line into a long two. It is better to give up two points than three.
At the beginning of the year, Dennis Lindsey said that Tyrone Corbin would not be judged on wins and losses, but on his three D’s: Defense, Development, and Discipline. If Corbin wants to keep his job, I recommend that he takes my advice.