What happened to picks?
January, 4, 2012
By Henry Abbott
The best thing to notice in those highlights, to me, is Joakim Noah's reaction after Luol Deng's game-winning layup. That's a man who loves the game.
But watch again, and note the first play in the highlight package. There's Deng working a left side pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose. You've seen plays like this a thousand times. Rose has the ball, Deng sets the screen, and the two defenders try to solve the riddle of preventing an easy score.
Only, if you watch closely in HD, or even in an elevator on your cell-phone with a bad connection, you'll notice something that makes Dennis Hans very cranky: That wasn't a pick at all. Deng kind of twisted and threw his body at Rose's defender, the Hawks' Jeff Teague. In the end it probably wasn't integral to the outcome of the play, but Deng's flying tornado of a non-screen was effective as hell at creating space for Rose, even though it would be whistled illegal in most high school games.
If you ever had a basketball coach, you recall her going on and on (and on) about proper screen setting form. Standing still (or, indeed, "setting") was just the beginning. Feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent ... these are religious principles of basketball. If you move your feet, stick your arms out or otherwise obstruct the opponent, everybody knows that's a foul. The rules of picking are unwavering.
So what the hell was Deng thinking? Watching NBA basketball these days, you could argue he was doing something really smart: Bending the rules in a way that can really help your team and is seldom called.
Two questions: Is Dennis Hans right that this brand of cheating was cooked up in a secret lab by Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley, and aided by the NBA's former supervisor of referees? And more importantly, who is Dennis Hans?
Hans is a Florida-based sometimes professor of mass communications and foreign policy with, by his own admission, "a keen sense of justice." He is also a guy seeking work training NBA players to shoot better free throws and the like. He rants about a lot of stuff, from the Iraq war to how baseball rules discriminate against left-handed infielders. If someone is making something unfair for somebody, Dennis is mad about it. It's Hans who busted both Dwight Howard and LeBron James for free throw shooting routines that broke rules about shooting quickly or stepping over the line.
And in a new column on HoopsHype, he's especially mad about what has happened to NBA picks over the last couple of decades. To Hans, Howard sets moving screens routinely, 95 percent of which he says go uncalled, which he alleges is no random accident.
One reason Howard and other moving pickers get away with the violation so frequently is the absurd approach the NBA takes to training refs, which is known as "reffing the defense." That is, you direct your focus at the defender to determine what is going on between him and the player he's guarding. So the modern refs miss lots of moving picks, traveling, palming, and dribblers veering into or dislodging the defender -- all because such infractions are committed by the guy they're not looking at.
"Reffing the defense" was the idea of Darell Garretson. This fine man's legacy should be focused on his career as one of the ten best refs in NBA history. Instead, a big part of it will be this ridiculous philosophy that he pushed as the league's supervisor of refs from 1981 to 1998 and which is unfortunately lodged in the brains of the younger generation of NBA whistle blowers.
My hunch is Howard gets away with moving picks more than the typical moving picker because he learned the techniques from Patrick Ewing -- the same guy who taught Yao Ming to set moving picks in Houston and who set plenty of his own as a New York Knick. (Remember the brouhaha that ensued when Mark Cuban complained about Yao's moving picks in the 2005 playoffs? Cuban was justifiably riled that the so-called greatest hoop refs in the world wouldn't call blatant moving picks right under their noses.) It’s quite possible that a large segment of refs labor under the illusion that because Howard has been schooled by Hall-of-Famer Ewing (who is quite visible on the Orlando bench), then whatever type of pick Howard “sets” must be legit because he's doing it the Hall-of-Fame way. Yao received the same benefit.
Although Ewing was a moving picker prior to Pat Riley becoming his coach in New York, one thing he learned from Riley is that NBA refs can be trained, just like prize poodles, to behave in a certain fashion. Riley wanted his Knicks to play defense more aggressively than the rules allowed, so he had his players do just that on a consistent basis, confident that most refs would soon adapt to and accept this “new normal” rather than blow the whistle every five seconds or call three fouls at the same time and award the fouled team six free throws. Riley, the Van Gundys (both of whom coached under Riley), Doc Rivers (who played for Riley) and perhaps other coaches have applied the same logic to setting un-set moving picks.
Conspiracy theorists will note that Deng plays for Tom Thibodeau, who has worked under Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers.
I have no idea if moving screens are around in the NBA for the reasons Hans outlines. But I do know this: They're around. They're obvious and common. And though they convey a huge advantage to the offense, creating vast amounts of space to operate, a huge number of them go uncalled. Whether teams are coaching screeners to cheat in this way or not ... it would make sense to. The rewards far outweigh the risks.