The pick-and-roll is one of the most basic and difficult plays to defend in basketball. It’s also an accurate litmus test for how well-coached and well-practiced a defense is. In the NBA, if you can consistently stymie your opponent’s pick-and-roll attack, you can win a ton of games. Case in point: The Lakers are 0-2 in part because their offense is a mess, and in part because they are having real difficulty defending the pick-and-roll.
Thus far this year Los Angeles is surrendering a generous 1.32 points per possession (PPP) to the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. You might remember Chris Paul and J.J. Barea eviscerating the Laker big men (no thanks to Derek Fisher) in last year’s playoffs, but LA actually defended pick-and-roll ballhandlers well over the course of the 2010-11 season (.74 points per possession allowed). That was not the case Monday night, when Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas used ball screens to routinely find open jump shots and lanes to the paint.
Defending the pick-and-roll is so tricky because it demands not only the right personnel, but a disciplined scheme. Indeed it takes better timing and orchestration to defend the pick-and-roll than it does to score out of it. Thornton has been shooting pull-up jump shots off of ball screens for a decade. Mike Brown and Pau Gasol just met.
The Lakers are integrating a number of new rotation players and a coach charged with replacing an icon. Growing pains on both sides of the ball are to be expected, especially with a shortened preseason and training camp. But L.A. should take heart knowing that the return of Andrew Bynum should make solving these long-term challenges much simpler.
Players who can protect the rim and also possess the foot speed to show and recover on pick-and-rolls are an incredibly rare and valuable commodity. Kevin Garnett is the master at this maneuver. His fundamentals are flawless: he barks out orders when a screener approaches then shows great lateral quickness to cut off the ballhandler before retreating like a mad man into the paint with his hands high in order to obscure passing angles to secondary options.
The Celtics’ famous defense is built around their big men’s ability to contain the ball on the pick-and-roll, but it takes a special athlete and smart game planning to do that.
The Lakers big men lack that elite quickness, but historically they’ve more than made up for a deficit in speed with a surplus of size. Though departed 6-10 forward Lamar Odom had the requisite quick feet, the real catalyst of the Lakers pick-and-roll defense has been the pairing of Gasol and Bynum. The specific luxury of clogging the lane with an active 7-footer while the other shows on the screen and roll is why the Lakers were an elite defense last season.
The presence of that big man, whether it’s Bynum or Gasol, sinking back into the paint to pick up the roll man allowed the Lakers' other big men to be more aggressive on ball screens. Odom’s absence hurts, but Josh McRoberts is a similar combination of quick feet and long arms. Bynum, on the other hand, is irreplaceable.
Of course it’s not all up to the man defending the screener. That on-ball defender must also help by forcing the offensive player a certain direction and then slithering around the screen to recover to the ballhandler. Fisher is in his 16th NBA season and spends his evenings defending players who hadn’t yet learned what a pick-and-roll was when Fisher entered the league. Though backup point guard Steve Blake is no Tony Allen, he is more suited to harassing opposing point guards than Fisher. Neither is a strong defender, but both are heady and active enough to be adequate when paired with a smart and coherent system.
But the Lakers' defensive system is still very much a work in progress. While the Clippers ran successful Blake Griffin and Chris Paul pick-and-rolls while the other three Clips stood around aimlessly, defending the pick-and-roll always demands the awareness and discipline of five players. And that means it takes practice and conditioning to do it wel l-- two things that are in short supply this early in the season. But Brown is up to the task. In Cleveland he coached a top defensive team that gave up only .81 PPP to pick-and-roll ballhandlers despite Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- two of the league’s least reliable away-from-the-basket defenders -- lurching about on defense like enormous zombies for long stretches every game.
Brown needs a chance to ingrain his system, that will take time -- perhaps time the Lakers don’t have given this season's abbreviated practice schedule. But more than anything, L.A. needs Andrew Bynum back. That will happen starting Saturday against the Denver Nuggets. Until the Lakers have control of Brown’s system, they can at least control the paint with sheer size.