NBA Roundtable

NY Times Article: Pick and Roll

In General NBA on November 23, 2009 at 12:22 am

Very good article in the New York Times on the prevalence of the pick and roll in today’s game

With the basketball in his hands, Orlando’s Jameer Nelson performs the two-man two-step that the Magic and the entire N.B.A. have sought to perfect.

His eyes dart, his mind absorbs, his feet react as his teammate Dwight Howard sets a pick and rolls to the basket, initiating a chain reaction designed to produce defensive mayhem.

No other play in the N.B.A. creates such havoc, no other play is used as often.

The basic pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of the N.B.A., with two teammates working in conjunction on offense, with one player dribbling the ball and the other standing still and trying to block the path of the ball handler’s defender. As all hoopsters know, once the pick, or screen, is carried out, the ball handler can pursue several options: pass the ball to his teammate who set the pick and is now rolling toward the basket or another space on the floor; take a shot himself; drive to the basket; or pass the ball to another teammate who may be open.

The article continues

The league’s dependence on the play is steadily increasing, according to a five-year analysis by Synergy Sports Technology, which logs every N.B.A. game, providing analytics to nearly every team. Use of the pick-and-roll rose to 18.6 percent of the league’s total plays last season from 15.6 percent in 2004-5, when Synergy began tracking it.The N.B.A. has largely turned away from relying on power players in favor of up-tempo offense. The pick-and-roll allows that, while creating offensive opportunities early in the 24-second shot clock. N.B.A. rule changes have encouraged pick-and-rolls, cracking down on defensive hand checks that could slow players like Nelson.

The Synergy analysis created a statistical portrait of the play’s use in the N.B.A. and revealed the following:

¶The Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers used the play the least in the N.B.A. last season. Only 11 percent of their offensive plays originated with the pick-and-roll.

¶With Wade as the main conduit, the Miami Heat used the pick-and-roll the most in last year’s regular season. The play originated in 26 percent of its total offense. The Heat was followed by the San Antonio Spurs (25 percent) and the Nets (24 percent). The Knicks (surprisingly given Mike D’Antoni’s fondness for disrupting defenses) placed 24th over all at 16 percent.

On the top player’s effectiveness with the pick and roll

Nelson, who is currently sidelined for at least a month with a knee injury, was the most effective pick-and-roll player last season, according to Synergy. He averaged 1.15 points in offense generated for either himself or a teammate each time he ran the pick-and-roll during an injury-shortened regular season. James was second at 1.1. Paul posted a 1.08. Nash had a 1.06.

On post up play

As teams rely more on the pick-and-roll, the traditional post-up game has diminished. The number of offensive plays derived from post-ups dropped in the same five years from 13.4 percent to 10.7 percent last season, according to the report.

Defending the pick and roll

N.B.A. teams use various methods to combat the pick-and-roll, although none are highly effective.

The defender guarding the ball handler can squeeze past the player setting the pick to stay with the ball handler (known as going over the pick). He can also try to avoid the pick by running behind the pick and then resume guarding the ball handler once he moves past the screen (known as going under the pick).

The two defenders can also switch whom they are guarding, with the taller defender momentarily defending the smaller ball handler and trying to hinder his vision before hurrying back to the player who set the pick. Or the defender guarding the ball handler can try to direct him away from the pick before it can take place.

The strategy varies team to team, night to night. The Synergy analysis showed that defenses were most effective when the on-ball defender went under the pick, temporarily abandoning the ball handler and then picking him up again. For example, when the defender went under the pick against James, he averaged 0.93 points. When James was played over the pick, he averaged 1.02 points.

Yet a majority of teams played over the pick. They defended that way, Barr said, to show defensive aggressiveness instead of passiveness, even if it hurt them in the long run.


If asked off the top of my head how many pick and rolls do NBA teams run on average per game … I would have guessed 20 a game … at 18.6% it’s slightly less than that but in the ball park.

The increased use of pick and rolls + the rule changes taking away hand checking in today’s game has made defending the pick and roll far more important for today’s big men than it ever was in the past.

This has placed an increased emphasis on a big man’s quickness, agility and general mobility. Think Tyson Chandler instead of Eric Dampier. Dampier’s effectiveness as a defender has decreased with these rule changes while Chandler’s has grown (or at least changed effectively).

It’s also helped make power forwards like Boris Diaw, Rashard Lewis and Thaddeus Young far more effective defensively. Their ability to defend the pick and roll at a high level keeps the ball in front of the defense for longer and makes penetration more difficult, which in turn leads to more contested shots.

Final Words

How well a big man defends the pick and roll has become a major factor in determining how effective a big man is defensively.

  1. Dave,

    Your final sentence is RIGHT ON THE MONEY.

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