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Last Chance: OKC’s hole in the pick and roll

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The Thunder defense is predicated on certain principles, but are they the right ones?

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season, the Thunder have been winning games due to defensive effort, as they sit in the top 5 of defensive efficiency. While the opponents have been sub-par so far, the early returns have been cause for optimism.

I’ve been in discussion with WTLC readers about the long-time concerns I’ve had with our pick and roll defensive scheme, so I wanted to put something together detailing some of what I’m seeing that is concerning to me, using one Ultimately, the goal of any defense is to make the opponent take inefficient shots, and to force turnovers (usually in that order of priority). The Thunder has been excellent at the latter of these items, but generally hasn’t been good at the former.

Looking at one play from the game against Houston (a game with excellent defensive results) shows how our PnR coverage contributes to that result.

This clip shows the scheme in more clarity than many I found. When the screen comes, the big (Steven Adams) slides into the path of the ball-handler, not quite hedging, but not hanging back. This is actually a slightly more aggressive version of what OKC ran a couple of seasons ago, when the big usually hung back about 5 feet. That change is an improvement, as it doesn’t allow the ball-handler to get downhill.

The goal of this is to allow the on-ball defender time to recover, allowing everyone to get back to their original matchups without being forced into bad switches (cue flashbacks to Derek Fisher defending Tim Duncan in the post... yeah).

Generally, the ball-handler has two options: bounce pass to the rolling big, or reset the offense and try again. Throwing over the top of Adams generally isn’t a great option, so while it occasionally happens, it isn’t usually a viable choice.

Part of the reason the defense gets so many deflections on these PnR sets is because of how small the window becomes to hit the rolling big. The recovering wing can get hands into passing lanes, and Adams always plays this to minimize the angles. If Capela were half a step further forward, this pass would have hit his knees. Turnovers are great for both the offense and defense, so this is an excellent positive for the defense.

However, the pass won’t always get deflected, and that is where the defense can break down, particularly with a skilled passing big and good outside shooters.

Once Capela receives the pass, he has a generally clear run to the rim, unless help defense arrives. If Schroder had chipped him right at the beginning of the roll (something that I’ve really only seen Roberson do consistently, making me doubt that it’s part of the game plan), it would have slowed him down the timing would have allowed Adams to recover. Instead, he swipes in (which is almost never effective) and doesn’t really affect the play.

This means that either Ferguson or Grant have to slide in and help. Generally, we have the weakside defender (Ferg in this case) slide in to help. That’s fairly standard, as the strong side (Grant) couldn’t help one pass away before Capela had the ball, so he wasn’t in position to contest at the rim. However, this means that the corner is going to be wide open as soon as he slides.

When Capela makes the pass to the corner, the defense doesn’t even have a player on that side of the court. No one missed an assignment here; this is following the scheme perfectly. Donovan wants a fast recovery to contest the shot, but data shows that these closeouts generally have minimal effect on the shot percentage. The result of this play is an open corner three.

Conclusion

I’m not so opposed to how we do things that I will pretend the way we defend PnR doesn’t have benefits. We force a lot of turnovers because we close off the passing lanes, and those turnovers help on both ends of the court. That is a great outcome for a defense.

The issue is that if we don’t get a deflection, the odds of giving up one of the worst outcomes goes up significantly. Basically, we are going to give up either a layup, a corner 3, or a shooting foul, the results of which have been shown statistically the past several seasons.

There are other issues too — when we have multiple screens, either on the ball handler or on the weak-side defenders, things completely break down. We also tend to switch 1-4, which can put players into the position of recovering who aren’t as quick, causing the defense to remain one step behind on rotations.

However, I think the initial step for improvement is simple. We need to start bumping the big as soon as he starts his roll with a weak-side, above the break defender. This will throw off the timing of the offense, while both the distance of recovering and the quality of the shot being left open.

If that isn’t effective, the wing who isn’t contesting at the rim should dive down and contest the baseline pass. It’s much harder for a big to kick out to above the break than to the corner. If those small tweaks were made, the scheme should reduce those high-efficiency shots and see a more sustainable result.