The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living

When I kicked a flow it was like pick-and-roll / Cause even if he gave me the rock it’s give-and-go

The following table should make you pretty frustrated as a Toronto Raptors fan.

Season Raptors O Nets D Series
P&R Handler .81 (12th) .82 (20th) 0.62
Handler Per Game 19.6 14.7 13.3
P&R Dive .99 (16th) 1.06 (25th) 1.31
Dive Per Game 7.1 6.3 7.3

What that table shows is the efficacy of the Raptors’ pick-and-roll this season, compared to the defensive numbers for the Brooklyn Nets and the numbers so far in this series. What it also shows is that the Raptors have, rather inexplicably, failed to leverage a significant advantage when it comes to utilizing their big men in the pick-and-roll game.

Quick Pick-and-Roll Basics
For those unfamiliar, the basis of most Raptors offensive sets is the pick-and-roll, whereby a big (it doesn’t have to be a big, but the Raptors play it this way almost exclusively) sets a screen for the ball-handler. (They use a lot of “Horns” to initiate, too, but we’re going to focus on the PNR.) The defense then has an array of options to deal with the screen, depending on the team’s preferred method of defense and the skills of the offensive players involved. It’s a smart action to begin sets because not only does it get two offensive players involved but, depending on the defensive coverage, can get the defense out of sorts quickly or open up seams for easy buckets.

Doug Eberhardt of SB Nation did an excellent piece on April 18 breaking down the variety of different ways teams can attack the pick-and-roll. There are plenty, but I’ll highlight the primary looks, from which most other variations are altered. I’ll also assume the screener is a big – again, that doesn’t have to be the case (see: the Nets offense) but the Raptors play it this way.

Ice: The defense forces the ball-handler away from the screen before he can use it, angling his body to direct the ball-handler toward the sideline rather than the middle of the floor. Most teams would probably like to do this but it’s not always possible, as the initial action has to be far enough from the center of the floor to be effective.

Hedge: The defending big jumps out at the handler to slow down his drive around the screen, the original defender goes under the screen, and then the defenders quickly switch back if they can. This is more aggressive than a basic switch, which doesn’t work as well in a small-big action since it creates mismatches unless you have Joakim Noah as your center.

Show/Blitz: The defending big basically leaves his man to help on the handler (think how you’d want to handle Steph Curry, for example, giving him zero daylight) until the original defender can recover. This means the screener is going to be pretty open beneath the screen (especially if his departure from it is well timed, and it puts a lot of pressure on help defense and smart rotations behind the initial defenders. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly how the Nets try to guard the pick-and-roll when Kevin Garnett is on the floor. It’s also how the Raptors prefer to play things.

As Eberhardt put it, blitz is “the aggressive cousin of ‘show.’” Basically, the handler gets double-teamed, and the other three defenders take on a great deal of responsibility underneath. It’s risky, but it can be effective against ball-handlers with below-average handles, vision or instincts. Think Miami Heat, here.

Zone: It’s not technically moving into a zone defense, but the screener’s man “drops” to roughly the free throw line to prevent a drive or dive to the rim. Think Roy Hibbert, and why he’s been rendered ineffective against the Hawks so far, since he’s pulled out of the paint and kept away from these actions. The risk with this is pull-up jumpers, but many defenses will accept those mid-to-long twos to prevent shots at the rim or penetration leading to corner threes. This, by the way, is how the Raptors generally defend when Jonas Valanciunas’ man is used as the screener.

The Raptors Advantage
As the table off the top shows, the Raptors ranked 12th in league offense when using the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll and 16th when using the dive man. Those aren’t elite numbers by any means but it’s important to remember that a) the offense changed dramatically after 18 games, which was more than a fifth of the schedule, and b) these numbers are the aggregate, not accounting for particular defenses. The Nets, meanwhile, struggled in both situations on defense, though the same caveats obviously apply.

When the teams squared off in late January – we’ll ignore the pre-trade game and the Drake Night game where the Nets were thin-staffed – the Raptors scored 1.46 points per play on 13 pick-and-rolls with the screener finishing. That is insane. On March 10, they used that option just three times, largely because the ball-handlers were getting 1.7 points per play.

(Note: SynergySports’ play classifications are far from perfect, but they’re a nice guide. For this series, their numbers are also pretty close to what my own game tracking shows.)

Anyway, two games isn’t really much of a sample. However, with the Raptors averaging just 101 points per 100 possessions so far in this series, well below their 105.8 season average (107.2 post-trade), the pick-and-roll has still been providing excellent results when the screener is involved.

Raptors/Game P-1 P-2 P-3 P-4 Average
P&R Handle # 15 19 8 11 13.3
P&R Handle PPP 0.47 1 0.5 0.27 0.62
P&R Dive # 5 9 7 8 7.3
P&R Dive PPP 1.2 1.56 1.29 1.13 1.31

The Raptors are averaging just 0.9 points per play in this series, according to SynergySports (that’s not the same as points per possession cited above), but they’ve averaged 1.31 when involving the screener.

Yet they’ve done so just 7.3 times per game and never more than nine times in a single game (tiny sample note: they’ve totalled 12 of these plays in two losses and 17 in two wins). This is why the opening table should frustrate you – the Raptors have a big advantage on these plays but haven’t used them enoguh.

Why the Advantage?
The Raptors gain an advantage on these plays in several ways. First, Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez are both dynamos in the pick-and-roll, as they’re heady ball-handlers, strong passers and threats to shoot or drive. That’s important.

Amir Johnson also happens to be one of the league’s premier screen-setters and finishers. You can’t measure screen-setting, but consider this: Johnson ranked fifth among qualified players in field goal percentage this season with a 56.2 percent mark. He’s at 57.3 percent for his career, sixth in the NBA since he entered the league in 2005-06. This season, he shot 71.2 percent at the rim. Elite screens, unparalleled finishing and at least a cursory ability to hit the free-throw jumper make Johnson a premier pick-and-roll weapon (he’s also great at defending it).

Jonas Valanciunas, meanwhile, ranked 15th in the league this year with a 53.1 field goal percentage, a mark that jumped to 66.8 percent on shots at the rim. The issue with Valanciunas, as with in any set, is his turnover problem – he turned the ball over on 15.4 percent of all plays this season and has 15 miscues through four games in the series. However, that rate actually drops to just 7.2 percent when he’s the dive man, helping him rank 23rd in the league in points per play as the screener. There remain issues in using him this way, because he is still a sub-par screen-setter (he tends to slip his screens too early and often telegraphs his next move) and is basically incapable of stopping or passing when on the move, meaning passes his way have to be timed well. Still, he remains dangerous.

Meanwhile, the Nets have struggled to defend in this way for most of the year. Garnett is still an excellent defender, but the fact that the Nets choose to show so often leaves seams in the paint that the Raptors have been able to exploit.

And once you get past Garnett in the Nets frontcourt rotation, as Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game put it in a conversation Monday, “anything is possible” (read: Andray Blatche and Mason Plumlee are liabilities).

Why the Underuse?
One primary reason the Raptors haven’t run a ton of pick-and-rolls in this series is that it isn’t the preferred method of attack for DeMar DeRozan and he’s been using a Rudy Gay-like 32.2 percent of the team’s possessions. He’s been solid – not quite as good as he was in the regular season, but the degree of difficulty has gone up – but the team may be forcing his touches a bit too often. In Game 2, for example, he was the primary option on eight of the team’s first 10 possessions to start the second half. While he’s improved as a playmaker, his decision making can still be poor.

From there, I would guess that a combination of occasional foul trouble for the bigs, concern about Valanciunas’ turnovers, and the general pattern of forgetting Johnson exists are to blame.

And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Raptors should exclusively run pick-and-rolls – DeRozan needs his touches, too, and the offense can’t become one-dimensional – but the Raptors have a major advantage here in this series, one they’re not really leveraging. Again, they basically haven’t altered the number of plays in which they use the screener despite playing against a below-average team defending them, and despite Valanciunas and Johnson both being exactly 19-of-29 (65.5 percent) from the floor.

Changing the offensive mix even a little bit could yield major dividends in Game 5 and is probably the best offensive adjustment the Raptors have at their disposal right now (save for “get a witch doctor to remove the curse on Terrence Ross”).

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