The pick-and-roll is one of the hardest things to defend in the NBA. One reason why it’s difficult is because defensive rules prevent much contact on the perimeter. Also, referees give leeway to screens that might not be so much legal as they are elaborate flash mob dance routines, which puts defenses at a disadvantage when faced with covering the pick-and-roll. Some teams are good at preventing an initial action from the pick by hedging hard and recovering, but defenses are almost always recovering and scrambling to get back into position to contest the shot created.
Being able to create a quality shot either with your own scoring ability or with a pass to a teammate can be the difference between a great offense and a sputtering offense. And the advantages and mismatches those opportunities manufacture end up making some players just look unfair. Going into the 2016-17 season, there are a handful of players looking like they could see a real boost from their current situation and a handful of players who may be in for a rude awakening in running pick-and-rolls with their teams compared to last season.
There were 32 players in the NBA last season who had at least 800 pick-and-roll possessions (including passes) that ended in a field-goal attempt, trip to the free-throw line or turnover. These numbers are compiled through Synergy Sports.
*A players’ rank mentioned is their rank among these 32 players — not necessarily in the entire NBA.
Five Players Likely to See Improvements
|Ranked 10th: 96.8 points per 100 possessions, 50.6 percent eFG|
James Harden is one of the most fascinating players going into this season. He went from a solid MVP campaign in 2014-15 to being a running punchline in 2015-16. The weird thing about him being a punchline is his numbers from those two seasons are almost identical. There were slight improvements in points, rebounds and assists per 100 possessions. His true shooting percentage dropped from 60.5 to 59.8 percent. The biggest difference was simply that he didn’t seem to have consistent effort on defense once again and his team wasn’t even close to being the 2-seed.
He was also 2.0 points per 100 possessions better in creating in the pick-and-roll the previous season. Under Mike D’Antoni — who prefers to call it skilled ball over small ball as the man who revolutionized offensive basketball 12 years ago with the Phoenix Suns and the new defensive rules — Harden’s production in the pick-and-roll should improve drastically. Harden is already a monster in the pick-and-roll, primarily because he draws more fouls than anybody as a ball handler. His 13.7 percent rate of getting to the free-throw line in these possessions is half a percent higher than Ricky Rubio and one full percent more than DeMar DeRozan. Nobody else in this list cracks 12 percent for free-throw rate.
But D’Antoni being able to unlock Harden as an even better playmaker in the PnR could go a long way toward rehabbing the All-Star’s image and getting him back to being an All-NBA First Team guard, which he was in 2014 and 2015). For D’Antoni, being able to get Harden to adapt to running the pick-and-roll similar to the way he did with Kobe Bryant in that one chaotic and disappointing year in 2012-13 would be a huge boost for The Beard.
From 2005-09, Kobe was an incredible pick-and-roll player. He averaged 497 possessions in 80 games over those four seasons. He generated 100.2 points per 100 possessions during that time. He took a dip in 2009-10 (87.7 per 100 over 430 possessions) but had the best pick-and-roll seasons of this era (since 2004-05) in 2010-11 when he generated 102.7 points per 100 possessions on 563 possessions.
D’Antoni’s task in the 2012-13 season with Steve Nash down for much of that season was to get Kobe to embrace more pick-and-rolls than he’s ever run while keeping his efficiency high. During that one season under D’Antoni (we’re not counting those six games the next season), Kobe ran 959 pick-and-roll possessions and generated 99 points per 100 possessions. Those are elite numbers. To increase his number of possessions by 170 percent while keeping that efficiency was absurd — even though we look at that season as an outright disaster overall.
If D’Antoni could get that out of Bryant, getting Harden to improve his efficiency when he’s already used to running a high volume shouldn’t be tough. The spacing for the Rockets will be much better than last season and their 3-point shots will be a higher quality than the chucking mentality they had a year ago. The Rockets were taking 3-pointers but D’Antoni’s offense is designed to create quality 3s. Sure, their defense could be an absolute mess, but adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon as floor-spacers for Harden will either give him the room to be an even deadlier scorer or it will give him the teammates who were two of the best wide-open 3-point shooters in the NBA last season.
The key for all of this will be getting Harden to get rid of the ball quicker, which is required in maximizing D’Antoni’s offensive potential. If the new coach can get Harden to not have such sticky hands on offense, we could see a Beard renaissance in 2016-17. If he’s any lower than the fifth-best pick-and-roll player in the NBA, it’ll be a wasted opportunity.
|Ranked 11th: 96.6 points per 100 possessions, 52.3 percent eFG|
In his first full season under Stan Van Gundy, Reggie Jackson had easily the best campaign of his career. No longer playing behind Russell Westbrook and no longer trying to find familiarity within a new system, Jackson blossomed into one of the best pick-and-roll initiators in the NBA. He ran the most pick-and-rolls in the NBA with a ridiculous 1,676 possessions. Aside from John Wall (1,663), nobody else was within 100 possessions of Jackson. Van Gundy trusted him to be a scorer and a facilitator in this same offense that made Jameer Nelson an All-Star in 2009.
Early in his career, Jackson had success in the pick-and-roll but didn’t have nearly enough possessions (258) to make you think this was a sustainable concept for him. In 2013-14, he jumped to 800 pick-and-roll possessions and saw a drastic drop in efficiency. Then in 2014-15, Jackson was just as inefficient with the Thunder in the pick-and-roll as the previous season before being shipped to the Detroit Pistons at the trade deadline.
It was there that Van Gundy inundated his new point guard with pick-and-roll possessions. In just 27 games, Jackson ran 671 pick-and-rolls. His efficiency increased from what his output was in OKC that season, but he still needed to be better. A lot of that was going to come with him improving as a 3-point shooter to add another layer of danger to the defense covering him and the rest of Van Gundy’s team.
The Pistons saw a flaw in Jackson’s shot in which his knees were collapsing together as he was into his shooting motion. They had him work on it immediately and the player who was a horrendous 3-point shooter in OKC (28.8 percent) immediately improved to 33.7 percent in his final 27 games of 2014-15. But that could be just a fluke, right? In his first full season with the Pistons and fresh off an $80 million contract, Jackson put up the best outside shooting season of his career. He shot 35.3 percent, which won’t make you push Stephen Curry away from taking that shot, but it’s respectable enough to be a problem in Van Gundy’s system as the point man.
Heading into his second full season in Van Gundy’s system, Jackson has better weapons around him and a lot more familiarity with what’s asked of him. One thing that will always hurt his efficiency in the pick-and-roll is finding Andre Drummond on these rolls and seeing his center sent to the free-throw line by the defense. There’s only so much you can do when your center is putting down 35 percent of his free throws. But if Drummond can finally improve even a little bit at the charity stripe, Jackson immediately becomes that much more dangerous on these possessions.
Not only that, but the Pistons added Jon Leuer (career 37.5 percent 3-point shooter) to the mix. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a curiously poor shooting season on wide-open 3-pointers and should get much closer to league average from downtown than the 30.9 percent he put down in ’15-16. A full season with Tobias Harris as the stretch-4 (and his rediscovered 3-point accuracy) will also put more pressure on the defense. If Stanley Johnson improves at all from beyond the arc (30.7 percent as a rookie), then that’s another weapon for Jackson as he comes around the screen.
It’ll be shocking if he’s not a top 10 pick-and-roll creator, and that’s even more menacing when he’s running them more than anybody else in the league.
|Ranked 22nd: 91.9 points per 100 possessions, 46.3 percent eFG|
For as good as Isaiah Thomas was in his All-Star season in 2015-16 for the Boston Celtics, he wasn’t a very good pick-and-roll player compared to his peers. He really struggled to make shots as a pick-and-roll scorer (38.6 percent), and it greatly affected his efficiency in running the PnR. It also didn’t help that his team was the third-worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA. And his primary big men he’d run pick-and-roll plays with were good but injured (Kelly Olynyk missed 13 games), fine but not heavily used and not a pick-and-pop option (Amir Johnson was surprisingly bad at pick-and-pops) or just flat-out horrendous (Jared Sullinger was in the 23rd percentile in pick-and-roll scoring).
However, this offseason the Celtics went out and added Al Horford to their team, and Horford is a phenomenal pick-and-roll scorer. He can roll to the basket with the best of them (1.416 PPP on rolls last season, 92nd percentile). He’s added a consistent 3-point shot, making him an even more effective pick-and-pop option. If you try to overplay it too early, he’s very good at slipping the pick and getting a quick score against an out of position defense at the next level of resistance.
A full season of running pick-and-rolls with Horford and Olynyk should make Thomas already one of the more efficient guys at setting up his teammates. Once the defense cheats over to stop that, finding those shooters in the open corners may help the Celtics not be so bad from downtown. And somewhere in the middle, Thomas will have plenty of room to operate for his own shot. More importantly, he’ll have the space with Horford popping to take it to the basket, where he generated 1.091 points per possession in PnRs.
This addition of Horford changes everything for how the defense doles out its attention, and that means more area and less focus on Thomas as he operates. This is one of the many reasons people expect such an impressive season from the Celtics.
|Ranked 24th: 89.6 points per 100 possessions, 46.7 percent eFG|
The negatives are obvious here. As a pick-and-roll scorer, Ricky Rubio is horrendous. He shot 35.7 percent from the field in PnRs, he scored just 69 points per 100 possessions and he finished in the 31st percentile. Those are almost embarrassing numbers, even for a guy who doesn’t really try to score that often. His one positive though is his passing ability. He’s one of the best passers in the NBA and when he slings the ball to a teammate in pick-and-rolls, he generated 101.5 points per 100 possessions.
The problem for much of last season was the archaic offense of the Minnesota Timberwolves under Sam Mitchell. They didn’t space the floor. They didn’t shoot 3-pointers. They didn’t have any kind of offensive flow until the month of February when the keys to the offensive scheming were handed over to David Adelman. He simplified things, sped up the pace, and the Wolves started playing a much more modern style of basketball.
Rubio and his passing thrived during that stretch of basketball. He was still a poor PnR scorer (dropped to 67.7 points per 100), but his passing generated more scoring. His passes in the PnR jumped to creating 105.5 points per 100 possessions as the Wolves had one of the best offensive ratings in the NBA over the final 2 1/2 months of the season.
Hoping Rubio becomes either a respectable jump shooter (improved by 6 percent last season on jumpers but was still very bad) or a competent finisher around the basket (a much worse problem and more important thing to fix than the jumper) is probably nothing more than wishful thinking at this point in his career. But where Rubio should improve with his conducting of pick-and-rolls with the Wolves in 2016-17 (assuming he’s not traded) is the system he’ll be running under Tom Thibodeau.
In Thibodeau’s touring of successful NBA coaches during his year away from coaching after the Chicago Bulls fired him, he claims to have learned the importance of the 3-point shot. In his five seasons coaching the Bulls, Thibodeau’s teams never finished higher than 16th in 3-point rate (percentage of shots that are 3-pointers). To break into the top half of the league in that would not just be a first for Thibodeau, but it would be a stark contrast to the environment the Wolves operated in last season when only the Milwaukee Bucks shot a lower percentage of 3-point attempts.
The ripple effect of this new embrace of 3-pointers will give the Wolves more spacing. That means more room for Andrew Wiggins to be athletic. More room for Zach LaVine to roam on the perimeter with his pretty lethal 3-point shot. More room for Rubio to operate with Karl-Anthony Towns in the middle of the floor, in both pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. Rubio is still going to be a bad scorer, but he also doesn’t really look to score. Give him more space to dissect a defense with his passing and you’ll see a huge bump in the efficiency he generates in pick-and-roll possessions.
That is if Kris Dunn doesn’t end up with the full-time point guard job.
|Ranked 1st: 107.7 points per 100 possessions, 58 percent eFG|
All of the numbers Stephen Curry put up in the regular season can only be classified as stupid. They’re almost incomprehensible in their efficiency. Curry was by far the most productive pick-and-roll guard in the NBA. He generated 111.0 points per 100 possessions as a scorer. When defenders foolishly went under a screen against him, he put up 146.3 points per 100 possessions and had an effective field-goal percentage of 71.3. Those numbers don’t even really make sense.
He was a full 6.7 points per 100 higher than the second place PnR maestro Chris Paul. Over the last 10 seasons, Curry’s 2015-16 campaign was the seventh-best pick-and-roll efficiency we’ve seen.
I have no idea what to expect from Curry in terms of sheer production this season, but his efficiency on this team with Kevin Durant added and Harrison Barnes subtracted should increase. And that’s a pretty scary thought for the opposing defenses. Most of Curry’s pick-and-roll passes ended up in the hands of Draymond Green last season, and I’d imagine much of the same happens this year, too.
The Warriors love getting the ball to Green in the middle of the floor with the defense scrambling and Draymond getting to decide how to pick apart the defense. Only about 8.4 percent of Curry’s passes in pick-and-rolls went to Barnes this past season. But when they did go from Curry’s hands to Barnes, it wasn’t a very efficient play. Those passes generated 89.1 points per 100 possessions.
Curry will run more pick-and-rolls/pops with Durant this season than he did with Barnes last season. Curry will have Durant as an option as a safety valve on pick-and-rolls even when K.D. isn’t the screener. And Durant as a PnR screener last season generated nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more than Barnes did when Curry was passing him the ball.
Is it possible his efficiency approaches prime Steve Nash levels with Durant in tow?
Five Players Likely to See Regression
|Ranked 12th: 96.4 points per 100 possessions, 49.9 percent eFG|
While the spacing of the Chicago Bulls with Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler gives me concerns about their offense and how the operate within that offense, that’s not the main reason I’m worried about Wade’s efficiency in the pick-and-roll declining. Wade should be a good enough scorer, who draws fouls enough times to stay afloat with efficiency as a scorer. It’s the passing in the pick-and-roll I’m not so sure about.
It’s not that Wade is a guy who can’t read the help defense or that he won’t be able to physically make those plays, but the impact playing with Hassan Whiteside last season had on his ability to generate efficient scoring with his passing can’t be overstated enough. The numbers of this combination were so stunning that I checked them three times. Twenty percent of Wade’s passes in the pick-and-roll went to Whiteside last season, which is a significant chunk.
On those plays, the Wade-Whiteside combination generated 145.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s 145.4 points per 100 possessions American. There isn’t some tricky conversion rate going on here. That is a ridiculous number. When Wade wasn’t passing to Whiteside in the PnR, he generated 83 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside really carried Wade’s efficiency as a passer in these possessions.
Wade may have a good two-man game with Jimmy Butler going but you’re probably not going to get a ton of 2-3 pick-and-roll combinations. The Bulls don’t have that big man for Wade to find and go get a dunk. Robin Lopez is a solid PnR big man, but he’s generated about 25 points per 100 possessions fewer than Whiteside when he’s rolling to the basket. That fact alone means Wade’s PnR efficiency, especially as a passer, will take a huge dip this coming season.
|Ranked 6th: 97.5 points per 100 possessions, 52.2 percent, eFG|
It may surprise people to learn that Russell Westbrook was a phenomenal passer in the pick-and-roll last season. His scoring was solid, landing him in the 71st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler. But include those PnR possessions in which he passed the ball and he jumps up to the 81st percentile overall. He generated about 20 points per 100 possessions more as a passer than he did as a scorer on these possessions. So much for all that “Russ is really a 2-guard playing point guard” nonsense people still try to hold onto.
But to expect that to keep up this season seems optimistic at best. The Thunder lost two of his favorite targets in the pick-and-roll when they traded Serge Ibaka to Orlando on draft night and Kevin Durant leaving OKC for the Warriors in free agency. Durant and Ibaka combined to receive 46.6 percent of Westbrook’s pick-and-roll passes last season.
Ibaka was fine but not as efficient as you’d hope. The passes from Russ to Serge generated 98.4 points per 100 possessions. Durant, on the other hand, scored 107.8 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook found him in the pick-and-roll. With those two gone, not only will Westbrook have to build familiarity with newcomers like Ersan Ilyasova, Alex Abrines and Victor Oladipo, but he’ll also have to pray those guys are just as efficient, if not more. And without that floor-spacing and the threat of Durant as a volume guy or Ibaka as a safety valve, opponents will be able to defend Westbrook differently this season — which is something he’ll also have to adjust to.
Ultimately, he should be fine. Westbrook could easily have an MVP season and he’s going to put up ultra-elite numbers as usual. But he needs Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to be consistently reliable as big men in the pick-and-roll, and hope the Thunder can be a good enough 3-point shooting team.
|Ranked 17th: 94.5 points per 100 possessions, 48.9 percent eFG|
This isn’t so much knocking Derrick Rose as a point guard at this stage in his career, but more trying to figure out how he’s going to fit into what Phil Jackson wants from the New York Knicks. New coach Jeff Hornacek is going to run the Triangle Offense — because that’s the only way Phil will give you the coaching job these days. The Triangle doesn’t often lend itself to pick-and-roll situations. Derek Fisher tried to blend in some PnR to the system last season and that (among other things) got him canned and replaced by Kurt Rambis.
So if the Knicks are going to run a lot of pick-and-roll plays this season, it’s either going to come in secondary transition if they run or toward the end of the shot clock when things get much tougher for the offense scrambling to find a quality shot — or just a shot at all.
If you told me Rose was going to run 200 pick plays with Kristaps Porzingis, I’d feel good about him generating offense. If you told me Rose was going to run 150 pick plays with Carmelo Anthony, I’d feel decent about this combination. But that doesn’t seem to be the plan. That can either lead to a much lower number of PnR possessions for Rose that gives him random efficiency or he’ll suffer under poor PnR conditions and it’ll make him wildly inefficient.
He was a good passer and a decent enough scorer in pick-and-rolls last season. Unfortunately, he’s just not going to be in those positions, in theory at least, this coming season.
|Ranked 2nd: 101.0 points per 100 possessions, 53.7 percent eFG|
I’ll admit that this one is the one I’m least confident in. Chris Paul just had his third-least efficient pick-and-roll season of the past 10 years. Only 2006-07 (0.951 PPP) and 2013-14 (1.005 PPP) were worse for him. Plus, 2006-07 was his second season in the NBA, so we don’t need to analyze that one too much. He was still figuring things out. In 2013-14, he was battling injuries all season and played just 62 games. That probably explains why his PnR efficiency suffered a bit from his standard output.
This past season is probably pretty easy to figure out why it dipped, as well. Blake Griffin played just 35 games thanks to a thigh tendon issue and the poor decision to punch the team’s equipment manager, which resulted in a broken hand. Take away one of the best pick-and-roll big man weapons since Amar’e Stoudemire and your efficiency is going to suffer a bit.
Where I’m concerned with CP3 keeping his efficiency as high as it was last season is both his health and his age. Paul has been unseasonably healthy the last two seasons. He played 80 games in 2014-15 and 74 games last year. The previous five seasons, Paul averaged a little over 15 missed games per season. You don’t want to say he’s due for an injury or two, but it does seem odd that he’s all of a sudden bucking a trend when his knee isn’t structurally that sound.
He’s also 31 years old and will turn 32 during the playoffs. He’s not nearly as quick as he used to be and that hurts to create angles when trying to navigate screens and find the right passing option.That may be leading to a more patient approach with a lot of these plays, which ends up with CP3 over-dribbling before taking his own shot. He’s seen an increase in percentage of shots coming with seven or more dribbles the last couple years and his efficiency in those dipped last season.
A lot of this also sounds like nitpicking. He was the second-most efficient PnR conductor last season. He’s Chris Paul. He’s really good at this and he’s getting Griffin back to throw lobs and pocket passes to. But there has to be a decline in this at some point and there are some signs starting to point that way. This inclusion has the highest likelihood of looking absurd from either list, but it feels like the decline is nigh.
|Ranked 16th: 95.5 points per 100 possessions, 51.2 percent eFG|
While I think Dwyane Wade’s presence, ball dominance and refusal to push the pace last season ultimately hindered how effective Goran Dragic could be for the Miami Heat, things could get ugly for Dragic this season.
Back in 2013-14, he was an All-NBA Third Team guard and murdered in the pick-and-roll. Dragic generated 105.3 points per 100 possessions as a PnR ball handler and those shots had an effective field-goal percentage of 56.9. That Phoenix Suns team that surprised us all and nearly made the playoffs was a 3-point shooting Gatling gun. This Heat team with Dragic now as its primary playmaker is more like a long distance water pistol emoji.
Aside from the 3-point shooting, which should project to be pretty poor this season, there are two major problems. 1) We’re not sure how much we can rely on Chris Bosh being around and Bosh was the No. 1 target for Dragic on PnR plays. 2) That amazing chemistry between Wade and Whiteside wasn’t quite there with Dragic and Whiteside.
Only about 14 percent of Dragic’s PnR passes went to Whiteside, unlike Wade’s 20. Dragic often found Bosh or Luol Deng and couldn’t really sync up too well with Whiteside on these rolls. It was still pretty potent by generating 125.5 points per 100 possessions. The good news about that number too was a lot of that efficiency happened over the final month of the season when they started to click much more. Maybe a full training camp will help the two mesh in the half court, but there were so many struggles between the two in the first four months of the season that it’s hard to know which one to believe.
Dragic needs shooters around him to destroy in the PnR. The Heat added Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and Derrick Williams. Only one of those guys is a shooter. If Bosh isn’t consistently on the court, things could get rough for Dragic running this team.
Source: CBS Sports / Pick-and-roll maestros: NBA players most likely to improve, and regress, in 2016-17