Pick and Roll and Pop and Pick and Roll and Pick

Today a short basketball rumination and tutorial. With the Celtics in a serious playoff run for the first time since I was in college (yes, they made the East Finals in 2002, but that doesn’t count because even if they won they’d have been crushed by the Spurs or whoever) I’ve been watching some NBA basketball on TV lately. One thing I have come to realize is that I’m really tired of watching the pick and roll.

The pick and roll is to basketball what 4/4 time is to pop music. It is foundational and yet infinitely varied. When run with creativity and flare it is a beautiful thing to watch in addition to being nearly impossible to defend. The basic principle is to set up the guy with the ball in a spot on the floor and bring one other player over to set a pick, or a screen. The ball handler moves so that his man runs into the screen. Timing is important. The screen can’t set up too early, or the defender can just run around it. It can’t set up too late, because then the defender will draw a foul.

OK. So let’s assume that we get a good screen on the ball-handler’s defender. Now here is the situation. You have two offensive players and two defensive players. The screen has just knocked one of the defenders off the ball. At this point, the defense has essentially three choices:

1. Have the defenders switch. Often this results in a big guy guarding a small guy or the other way around. In either case it makes scoring easier. The offensive team can, at this point, take advantage of this mismatch and force the defense to help, which leaves someone on the floor open for a quick pass and a good shot.

2. Trap the ball. In this scheme, both defenders jump out on the guy with the ball hoping to tie him up. The problem here is that typically you run this play with a guy who can pass. So, when the double team happens the guy who sets the pick is now free to cut to the hoop (if the double went to the outside) or step to open space to the outside (if the double team went inside). In either case he gets a pass for a wide open shot, often a dunk.

3. Fight over or under the pick. Here the guy being screened will fight through the screen and try to stay with the guy with the ball. This will take some time, so the second defender must rotate out to the guy with the ball then back to his man. This is like a soft double team, and if done badly leaves the ball handler with a free shot, or a free lane to the hoop.

There are endless variations on these options. You can pick and by design roll to the outside or inside and set up a give and go. You can fake the pick and cut back door. You can split the double team and score or pass off for an open dunk before the help defense arrives. There are infinite possibilities, if you are good at this. When set up and executed well, there is really nothing the defense can do against it. You need an alert and fast team defense to keep every pick and roll from being a sure score. So, what’s not to like? It sounds like a sound tactic for the offense to use every chance it gets.

There are three problems.

First, team defenses in the NBA are good enough that you have to be really good at the pick and roll for it to be effective. Help defense and quick rotations from the weak side cut off those easy cuts and step back jumpers. Quick hard traps make it difficult for the ball handler to actually make a move or a pass against the defense.

Second, hardly anyone is really good at running this offense.

Third, some teams run this play almost every trip down the floor, making themselves predictable and easy to defend.

Take Cleveland in their most recent series with Boston. They played entire games where the only half court set they ran was “Give the ball to Lebron 25 feet from the basket and watch him dribble for 15 seconds or so. Then run a high pick and roll with one of his stiff big men who can’t shoot or move and then let Lebron try and score 1 on 5.” Sometimes they changed it up and ran the high pick and roll with a small guy instead. This is not only bad basketball, it’s horrendous to watch as well. No wonder they shot something like 40% from the field for the entire series.

Even in the “classic” game 7, most of the offensive sets on both sides of the floor were pick and roll plays with Lebron or Paul Pierce. Once in a while the ball would be moved without being dribbled, but not often.

My question is, where has the creativity gone on offense? Are team defenses just so good now that the creative half court offense with a lot of motion and ball movement has died?

Back in the day (he said, pulling out his walker and cane) the Celtics (say) had four or five distinct offensive sets. There were isolation plays, pick and roll, the low post inside/outside stuff, and various plays that would run Bird or whoever off a series of picks along the baseline or up and down the lane. Back then we used to make fun of Utah because their only offense was the pick and roll with Stockton and Malone. Utah never won it all because their only offense was that pick and roll.

These days it seems like every team is Utah. There are exceptions. I actually saw Boston run a few different things, especially for Ray Allen, which didn’t really work. The Spurs play a thuggish and clunky offense, but it does feature effective ball movement and a few different sets rather than the endless dribbling that is indicative of the game these days. I’m sure New Orleans has more in their bag of tricks than the sorry offense they showed in their game 7 tonight, but I haven’t seen it.

Anyway, don’t get me wrong. The pick and roll is a wonderful thing and a classic distillation of offensive basketball tactics. But it’s boring to watch 80 pick and roll plays a night. This is me begging the NBA for teams that do something else once in a while. Otherwise the NBA will become a place where nothing but boring happens.