Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, David Lee

The Extra Pass: The New Roll Man

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at how the pick-and-roll big man has evolved. 

When Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in Los Angeles, almost everyone believed they would form the most devastating pick-and-roll combination the league has seen since John Stockton and Karl Malone roamed the plains of Salt Lake City.

It made sense. Paul is the league’s best point guard, a player with otherworldly vision and a complex understanding of angles, and Griffin is an athletic marvel, faster and stronger than every big man he goes up against. Put the two together, and it’s a match made in pick-and-roll heaven, right?

You would think so, but that hasn’t been the case. In fact, Paul and Griffin rarely even run true pick-and-roll these days. According to Synergy Sports, Griffin is the roll man on only about 10 percent of his possessions — a shockingly low number given the narrative that he doesn’t have a post game, and that all Vinny Del Negro runs is high screens.

So why don’t the Clippers run the Paul-Griffin pick-and-roll more?

It’s mainly because they can’t. The simple threat of it is enough to deter the actual action.

One of the most prevalent strategies used to thwart the pick-and-roll in today’s game is the “icing” or “blueing” or “downing” of screens. Jacob Frankel of the De-Thurmond Analysis has a wonderful look at what that means, and this photo illustrates how teams are eliminating the screen from actually happening:

source:

You’ll see this a lot over the course of an NBA game. In this example, Tony Parker has forced the ballhandler away from the pick by severely overplaying him screen-side. It’s now Boris Diaw’s job to prevent penetration and allow Parker to recover once the screen is no longer in play.

What “icing” a screen usually amounts to is a pocket pass by the guard to the would-be pick setter, who now gets to play 4-on-3 against a zoned up backline defense.

In theory, defenses would much rather have a big power forward making a decision from 17 feet than an explosive dunk right at the rim. It’s simple —  make a non-traditional ballhandler make a ballhandler’s decision, and a lot of times the big man’s delay or hesitation to make the decision will give the defense enough time to recover.

What does this all mean in the grand scheme of things for pick-and-roll big men?

Now more than ever before, court vision is critical for any roll man worth his salt. It’s why great passers like Griffin, David Lee and Marc Gasol are all averaging career best assist numbers this season, and it’s a big reason why all three deserve All-Star bids.

The heavier use of “icing” pick-and-rolls has effectively distributed more of the scoring wealth as well. As Henry Abbott of TrueHoop recently wrote about, five years ago there were 27 players in the league who averaged at least 20 points per game. This year? Nine. As defenses force the ball out of the hands of first options, it’s the new role of the roll man to find the open shooter, or knock it down himself.

If there is one thing that’s changed about the NBA since the Stockton-Malone days to now, it’s that NBA defenses have gotten smarter and faster. Gone are the days of bludgeoning a defense with the same basic action over and over. Defenses develop a quicker immunity, and as an offense, you have to keep introducing new poisons.

It’s why simply being a great finisher in the pick-and-roll isn’t good enough anymore. While athleticism (Griffin) and size (Gasol) will always be heavily sought after attributes for a roll man, they aren’t the only requirements.

You would have never said this a few years ago, but maybe David Lee is the prototype. He’s a great passer, a deadly mid-range shooter (47% from 16-to-23 feet), and he’s ambidextrous and athletic enough to score at the rim regularly. Golden State has built an entire offense around his abilities in that setting, surrounding him with perimeter shooters and a low post monster in Carl Landry. As we witnessed in their recent victories over the Clippers and Thunder, that’s working out pretty well for them.

Defenses will continue to adapt, but for now, players with ‘high post skill-sets are more valuable than players with traditional low post skill-sets because those skills can be applied to more areas of the game. A lot of people will tell you that the big man is extinct, but it’s not true. They just evolved.

Alivin Gentry, you worried about being fired: “I really don’t give a s— about my job status”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 26:  Head coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center on October 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Denver won the game 107-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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The Pelicans are disappointing this season — it is Anthony Davis vs. the world down there. Which is the main reason they are 7-16 this season. While things have gotten better since Jrue Holiday‘s return, Davis is averaging a league-best 31.4 points per game, it then drops off to Holiday at 15.4, and then E'Twaun Moore at 11.1.

When a team struggles, usually that is a bad sign for the coach. Not because it’s always their fault, but because GMs choose not to fire themselves for poor roster construction. Which leads to the question: Alvin Gentry, are you concerned about your job? (Warning, NSFW)

Gentry with classic coach-speak: Control what you can control.

New Orleans’ struggles are not on Gentry, certainly not completely. He’d like a roster that can play uptempo, that has depth. What he got instead was a good point guard, an elite 4/5, a rookie in Buddy Hield that maybe pans out down the line, and then… nada. And the roster Gentry has often is banged up.

If anyone is in trouble, it is GM Dell Demps. Remember, Danny Ferry was hired last summer for the vague role of “special advisor.” Gentry is in his second year, and the issue is the roster he was given. But the Pelicans are a patient organization that values continuity, so… who knows. But the clock is ticking on Davis;, it’s years away, but the Pelicans need to build a team around him and are far from that right now.

Cavaliers’ James Jones says he’ll retire after next season

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers receives his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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James Jones has made a business of playing with LeBron James, and business is good.

Jones has ridden LeBron’s coattails to three contracts with the Cavaliers and appearances in five straight NBA Finals – the second-longest streak (behind LeBron’s six) outside the 1950s/60s Celtics:

But the 36-year-old Jones is preparing to retire.

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Jones told the Beacon Journal he will retire after next season, which will be his 15th in the NBA. His ultimate dream is to ride off after three consecutive championships in Cleveland

“I know playing 15 years is a number where I can look back and I can be like, ‘I accomplished something,’ ” Jones said. “Fourteen vs. 15 may not be much, but to be able to say I played 15 years, that’s enough for me to hang ’em up.”

Jones’ contract expires after the season, so the Cavs will have a say in whether he returns. Safe to say if LeBron wants him back, Jones will be back.

But the Heat got into trouble relying on washed-up veterans around LeBron, wasting valuable roster spots on players who could no longer contribute.

Is that Jones? Not yet. Though he’s out of the rotation, he has still made 11-of-12 open 3-pointers this season. There’s a role for him as spot-up shooter when Cleveland needs one.

Still, the Cavaliers ought to be mindful of Jones’ likely decline over the next year and a half. Plus, it’s not a certainty he holds to his timeline. Cavs veterans have a history of changing their mind on retirement.

PBT Extra: What did Phil Jackson think he would accomplish with shot at ‘Melo?

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Phil Jackson wants us to know Carmelo Anthony can hold on to the ball too long and stall out the offense.

Shocking. Such a revelation. It’s not like he knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension… oh, wait, everybody did know that already.

Which leads to my criticism of Jackson in this PBT Extra. Taking a shot at a player as a coach who sees said player every day comes off differently than the same thing from the ivory tower criticism of a GM. Plus, Jackson’s timing made no sense.

Carmelo Anthony says Phil Jackson’s comments “temporary black cloud over our heads”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and the rest of the bench react to the loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Knicks were on a four-game winning streak, they have looked like a potential playoff team in the East, team chemistry has been pretty good, and there seemed to be more sun shining on Madison Square Garden then we have seen in a few years.

So Phil Jackson decided that was a good time to a CBS Sports Show and take a shot at Carmelo Anthony, saying he could play the MJ/Kobe role, but he holds the ball too long on offense. Anthony wouldn’t comment on the shot at the time, then took to Instagram to express his frustration and displeasure.

How do we know for sure it was aimed at Jackson? Because on Friday Anthony said so, adding that Jackson’s comments were unnecessary. Here is what ‘Melo said, via Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“At the end of the day we’re playing good basketball,” Anthony said. “That’s the only thing that matters at this point. So any negativity that’s coming towards me or towards the team, I don’t think we need it at this point…

“I feel like we’re playing good basketball, and just to have a temporary black cloud over our heads,” he said. “I don’t know when the comments were made or the gist of them, I just know something was said.”

Anthony is spot on here. Jackson isn’t wrong that Anthony can hold the ball too long, but Jackson knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension. Also, the Sports VU camera data shows Anthony is holding the ball less and dribbling a little less than previous seasons.

But the real question: What did Jackson think he would accomplish with this? He’s too smart, too calculated — he doesn’t just say things to the press without a motive. But with everything going about as well as one could hope with the Knicks, and with Anthony not at a point in his career he’s going to change his game, what’s the point?

Anthony has a right to be ticked.