Recently I had a well meaning but naïve friend tell me that pick and rolls weren’t effective in basketball. So today’s Back to the Blackboard’s lesson is especially dedicated to that friend and his education. This blackboard lesson will focus on variations of the pick and roll and how teams defend against it.
In the last twenty years, the pick and roll has become a staple of the NBA game. Almost every offensive scheme involves a pick and roll at some point. It creates space between the ball handler and their defender. And the more space there is, the more options the ball handler has to create a high percentage shot. He can either make his own field goal with that additional space or look for the open man, who is set apart by the chaos of the pick and roll.
Let’s begin by looking at the basics.
The term “Pick and Roll” is essentially an on-ball screen by a teammate to create space for the dribbler and disrupt the path of the defender. The teammate uses his body to block the path of the defender. This teammate must set his feet and establish his body in the path of the defender before the contact occurs. This is a key NBA rule. The pick setter must be stationary to set a pick. If we didn’t have this key rule, we would have an unruly mess and essentially be creating football on the hard-court. Once contact in a pick occurs, a number of possibilities can occur and these possibilities are the reasons why the pick and roll is such a versatile and potent offensive tool to use.
To illustrate to a pick, let’s use the following play:
Here you can see Dirk Nowitzki setting the pick for his teammate Jason Terry. Dirk has blocked the path of Leandro Barbosa who must decide in a split second how to defend against this pick. In the same split second, Jason has a number of offensive options he can exploit.
Let’s look at the pick and roll variations Jason can exploit with the aid of a few diagrams:
1. Pick and Roll
This is your vanilla flavoured pick. Once the pick is set by Player 4 and the defensive player is obstructed, then Player 4 (the pick setter) will “roll” towards the basket. The pick setter moves quickly towards the basketball while leaving his own defender still at the position of the pick. Depending on how it is defended, it will usually mean the pick setter finds himself on his own while rolling to the bucket. The ball handler who has just exploited the pick should be able to see the now open pick setter and pass him the ball for an easy layup.
2. Pick and Pop
In this variation, the pick setter instead of rolling to the basket, shifts to an open space beside the ball handler. Obviously the open space must in the opposite direction to the ball movement or else the ball handler and pick setter would collide like two idiots. An important requirement is for the pick setter to have excellent shooting ability but if he doesn’t, this play falls apart at its seams.
In the playbook diagram, the Player 4 (the pick setter) shift to the left side where there is open space while the ball handler dribbles right side. Once Player 4 is open, the ball handler will pass him the ball for the open shot. Of course, the crux of this play is how the pick setter’s defender reacts to the pick. If he follows the ball handler, then this play flows beautifully into a high percentage shot for the now open pick setter. But if the pick setter’s defender sticks to his matchup, then this falls apart. But don’t despair, the pick should have just created some space for the ball handler, who should be able to create a shot for himself.
Defending Against the Pick
1. Under or Over?
No I’m not asking you to gamble over or under odds in sports betting. Instead I want to explain the mechanics of how the ball handler’s defender defends a pick. Does Red Player 1 follow the ball handler (Blue Player 1) by moving under Blue Play 4 (the pick setter) and thus giving up space for ball handler to shoot? Or does Red Player 1 follow the handler over the screen and squeezing himself through the narrow gap between ball handler and pick setter (Blue Player 1 and 4)?
The obvious answer would be to squeeze through that narrow gap but that’s much easier said than done. I’m discussing this like there is even a gap to go through. In a well-executed pick, there should be no gap. And even if there is a gap, the pick setter will often try to take the charge and draw the foul when contact is made.
If you go under the pick, where there’s more space, then for that split second you’re running underneath the pick setter, the ball handler has space to attempt a shot. This is where the pick setter’s defender must fill the gap and defend the ball handler adequately.
It really comes down to picking your poison. Go under and give up space. Go over and you’ll either hit a brick wall or knock the pick setter over for a foul.
2. Switch, Hedge or Trap?
If you didn’t want to drink the poison of going “over or under” the pick, then perhaps you’ll enjoy gambling on whether to switch, hedge or trap?
To switch means to switch defenders. So the ball handler’s defender switches to defending the pick setter and vice-versa. On the diagram above, black Player 1 and white Player 5 of would be defending each other on the switch and vice versa, instead of their opposing numbers. This method is the quickest method of defending the pick and roll but also the riskiest. It has the upside of neither players having to traverse the wall of the pick to follow their opposing player but it creates the huge risk of a mismatch. Once the switch happens, the Centre is now defending the Point Guard. That’s like a tree trying to prevent a cheetah from running past it. Huge risk! Never use the switch unless the four players involved in the switch are of equal athleticism and skill.
This is a defensive method that I’m not too fond of. To hedge a pick and roll means to have your pick setter’s defender come right out and create a secondary defensive screen. This slows the ball handler down for a moment, which should then allow the ball handler’s defender to get back across to the ball handler. The pick setter’s defender then quickly rolls back to the pick setter. To illustrate in the above diagram, Black Player 5 comes right out into the path of ball handler (White Player 1), which slows him down. This should give Black Player 1 (the ball handler’s defender) enough time to catch up to his matchup.
Offensively, I don’t like this because it leaves the pick setter (White Player 5) wide open for a split second. He could easily roll to the bucket for an easy layup. Defensively, it leaves Black Number 5 (the picker setter’s defender) out near the 3PT line where he shouldn’t be. It is often the Centre doing the hedging and centres have no place that far out from the basket. It leaves the inside vulnerable to all kinds of abuse.
Here we have a video example of Lamar Odom executing a proper hedge:
To trap a pick and roll is a lot like hedging, except the Black Player Number 5 (the pick setter’s defender) doesn’t roll back to his defender. Instead he pressures the ball handler along with the other defender to create a double team. The aim is to pressure the ball handler into creating a turnover like an errant pass.
The obvious disadvantage to this plan is the very wide open pick setter who is now rolling to the bucket. In the screenshot above, Nikola Pekovic has just finished setting his pick and is now rolling to the bucket. It’s clear he’s going to have a very wide open shot because his defender Dirk Nowitzki has decided to trap the ball handler.
I’ve seen great defensive teams like the Miami Heat execute very effective traps on the pick and roll. They’ll catch the ball handler so quickly and with so much pressure, the ball handler ends up stumbling backwards and the whole offensive scheme breaks down.
As my title says: Pick Your Poison. None of the defensive options I’ve explained provide a solid and safe counter to the pick and roll. It demands split second decision making in the mind of the players. Players hesitate and stumble. Errors are made.