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:

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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.

Lakers LeBron James “pissed” about NBA MVP voting

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LeBron James, like many of the great players ever, gets his motivation wherever he can find it.

Like, for example, only getting 16 first-place votes for MVP. It was announced Friday that Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive MVP award, with LeBron second. Of the 101 votes from select media members, Antetokounmpo got 85 first-place votes, LeBron 16. LeBron vented about it on Twitter.

After the Lakers won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron talked about how unhappy he was with the voting.

“It pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” LeBron said. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. I’m not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP, but that pissed me off. I finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship, and now four times as the MVP.

“Like I said, I never came into the league saying ‘I’m gonna be MVP’ or ‘I’m gonna be champion,’ I’ve always said I just want to get better every single day and those things will take care of themselves. Some things are just out of my hands, some things you can’t control, but it pissed me off…

“The voting scale is a little weird to me sometimes… And then I looked at the Most Improved this year, and rightfully so, Brandon Ingram was amazing and I thought he should’ve won it, but did you see the votes Devonte' Graham got? He averaged four points last year compared to 17.5. If that’s not improving, what is? It’s just a weird thing sometimes that, I don’t know how much we are really watching the game of basketball, or are we just in the narration mode? The narrative.”

LeBron is right, sometimes the media voters can get sucked into a narrative for MVP and other awards. However, this year the narrative favored LeBron, not Antetokounmpo — having that kind of season at age 35 and lifting the Lakers franchise back to the postseason after six years, that all had voters leaning toward LeBron.

Why did voters pick Antetokounmpo? Because on offense he scored more points and did it more efficiently than LeBron. While LeBron had his best defensive season since he played in Miami, Antetokounmpo was better on that end of the court as well. Antetokounmpo led his team to more wins than LeBron. And if you want to make the argument about LeBron lifting up his teammates you’re right, the Lakers were +11.4 points per 100 with LeBron on the court this season before the bubble (which is the time frame voters had to consider, bubble games didn’t count toward the award, per league rules). The Buck were +12 per 100 with Antetokounmpo on the court.

(To be transparent: I am one of the NBA’s award voters, and I had Antetokounmpo first and LeBron second.)

LeBron had an unbelievable season, at any age, and for a playoff run this season I would rather have had LeBron than Antetokounmpo even before the games tipped of. Other players around the league respect Antetokounmpo, but not the way they respect LeBron or other players who have gotten it done in the playoffs. That’s understandable. That’s also not the award — it’s an NBA regular-season award.

But LeBron is going to find his fuel where he can, like saying earlier this season people were calling him washed when nobody said that. Or saying the Lakers won the No. 1 seed when nobody said they could do it when, again, not exactly sure who said that.

If LeBron wants to use the MVP voting for fuel, go for it. It’s just bad news for Denver.

 

 

Anthony Davis scores 37 as it was all too easy for Lakers in blowout win

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It was all too easy for the Lakers.

Too easy for them to get out in transition, or even run on made baskets and beat Denver down the court.

Too easy for Anthony Davis to rack up 37 points.

Too easy for an attacking Lakers team to get key Nuggets players — including Nikola Jokic — in foul trouble.

Too easy for the Lakers’ defense to bottle up the Nuggets guards in the pick-and-roll, never letting Denver’s offense get on track after the first quarter.

And the “too easy” list goes on and on. It resulted in a 126-114 Lakers’ win where the Lakers led by 27 at one point and never felt truly threatened in the second half. The Lakers now lead the Western Conference Finals 1-0 with Game 2 on Sunday.

“Even in that first quarter, we didn’t guard anybody… Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone said, trying to target his team’s troubles in Game 1. “There was little defense.”

Add to that this Laker offense is relentless and will punish mismatches and mistakes in a way that other Staples Center team rarely did. Denver lear

After an even first quarter, what changed was that the Lakers started locking down on defense — the Nuggets had seven second-quarter turnovers, which led to the Lakers getting out in transition on plays like this.

But the Lakers were running on everything, including made shots, and beating Denver down the court for buckets.

Denver scored 41 points over the second and third quarters combined, with an 88 offensive rating. Part of the frustration from the Nuggets was the foul calls, which they thought bent toward the Lakers, but also Los Angels was the more aggressive team. The Lakers simply outhustled the Nuggets down the court time after time.

L.A. went on a 19-3 run from the end of the first half to early in the second, never looking back from there. Los Angeles was led by the 37 from Davis, while LeBron James had 15 points and 12 assists. As a team, the Lakers were 11-of-26 from three (42.3%).

Denver had 21 points each from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and both played far fewer minutes than normal due to foul trouble. Michael Porter Jr. had 14, and the game was such a blowout that by the end Bol Bol was in and had a bucket.

Denver needs to consider this a game spent to learn more about their opponent and how they will have to play the rest of the series. Not exactly a game to flush completely, but it’s pretty close.

The Lakers need to remember that Denver has come back twice in playoff series already, the Nuggets learn from their mistakes and improve. Things are not always going to be this easy.

But the Lakers could not have asked for a better start.

Watch the Alex Caruso to LeBron James alley-oop

LeBron Caruso
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One of the keys to Denver having a shot in the Western Conference Finals: Keep the Lakers out of transition.

That did not go so well to start.

Denver had seven second-quarter turnovers, which allowed the Lakers to get out an run and the result was this highlight, Alex Caruso to LeBron James for the monster alley-oop.

The Lakers added more points per 100 possessions in transition than any other team in the league, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense has struggled in the playoffs. That is potentially a bad combo for the Nuggets.

 

Report: Heat tried to trade Goran Dragic away in Jimmy Butler deal

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The Miami Heat are not in control of the Eastern Conference Finals — just two wins from the NBA Finals — without the combination of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. They are the shot creators, the two penetrating into the paint, breaking down the Celtics’ defense, then kicking out to shooters. Butler is an All-NBA player, and Dragic is playing like the All-NBA player he was six years ago.

That pairing almost never happened.

Michael Lee at the Athletic told the story.

What’s hilarious about the Dragic-Butler partnership – a bromance that has found them bonding in the bubble over bottles of Michelob Ultras, cups of Big Head coffee, and singing the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops” – is it nearly didn’t happen. The initial three-team trade [Heat president Pat] Riley facilitated to get Butler involved sending Dragic to Dallas. Dragic would’ve teamed up with his Slovenian little homie, Luka Doncic, but would’ve said farewell to what he intended to do with the Heat.

The Mavericks had no interest in taking on Dragic – a 30-something hobbling on a surgically-repaired knee whose best years were way in the rearview – so the Heat had to get more creative, while remaining stuck with seemingly damaged goods. Again, nothing went according to plan.

We knew this at the time, consider this a reminder. Also, don’t blame Dallas on this one. Dragic played 36 games last season, had knee issues, and had looked like a shell of the All-NBA player he used to be, and on top of it he was getting paid $19.2 million. There were not a lot of teams looking to get in the Dragic business before this season started.

Instead, Dragic stayed, got healthy, accepted a sixth-man role (until the playoffs, before that Kendrick Nunn started and Dragic was the change of pace off the bench), and found his stride.

In the bubble, Dragic has taken off as the second scoring/shot-creating option in the Heat offense. Erik Spoelstra, as he does, has put Dragic in positions to succeed.

And, after these playoffs, get paid this offseason when Dragic is a free agent.