Stephen Curry and Draymond Green pick-and-roll

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 11: Draymond Green
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 11: Draymond Green /

The Golden State Warriors are the present and future of the NBA: an entire team composed of athletes between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-10 who can handle the ball, make threes, and defend multiple positions on the other end. Meanwhile, the rest of the league is trying out their best impressions of the defending champions, attempting to replicate their deadly shooting and smothering defense.  It’s valiant, but the best they can muster is a blurry carbon copy.

This is because nobody else has Draymond Green — a once-in-a-generation player with the defensive work of Dennis Rodman and playmaking ability of Bill Walton. Nor do they have anything like Stephen Curry — a once-in-a-lifetime player who is doing things we’ve never seen on a basketball court. Together, Curry and Green make up to the deadliest pick-and-roll threat since the prime days of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire on Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns.

The foundational element of this pick-and-roll is Curry’s shooting ability off the dribble. He’s a threat to pull up for a three coming around every screen, and it changes everything about how opposing teams defend. Teams with slower big men often like to keep their big men in the paint on pick-and-rolls, but that’s simply not possible against Curry.

Here, Lucas Nogueira hangs back on the pick-and-roll, which is all the space the lightning-quick Curry needs to pull up for a three. Cory Joseph even does a pretty good job of getting around the screen, but without Nogueira there to slow down Curry even a little bit, he doesn’t have a chance to affect the shot. After Curry drains the three over Nogueira’s outstretched hand, you can see Luis Scola telling him from the bench that he has to be further up when Curry comes around the screen to prevent that shot.

Defending Curry goes against every defensive instinct of a big man and it takes a lot of discipline and focus to jump out into an uncomfortable defensive position – especially when Nogueira’s undoubtedly been told his entire life to stay back and protect the basket in the pick-and-roll.

Patrick Patterson made a similar mistake with his defense earlier in that fourth quarter when he found himself in an impossible situation.

It’s this type of play that makes defending Curry impossible. If Patterson steps up to the three-point line as Curry receives the ball, he’s going to get blown by and give up a wide-open layup. There isn’t a big man in the league who could effectively step up as Curry is moving full-speed off the dribble. If he hangs back, as he does here, he gives up a pull-up three to perhaps the greatest shooter who has ever lived.

A defense’s best option is to employ a big man quick enough to jump out at Curry and then recover back to Green when the moment is right. Chris Bosh might be the ideal center for this exact situation (other than Green himself, who would be a great Curry pick-and-roll defender), given how the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Bosh Heat teams used to blitz teams again and again in the pick-and-roll to devastating effect. However, James is gone and the Heat’s defense isn’t quite what it used to be.

If Bosh isn’t even able to get out there to Curry, there isn’t much hope for the rest of the league. The problem players like Bosh and Patterson have in these situations is that once Curry gets around the screen and is moving north and south, it’s already too late to contain him. Curry’s quickness and ability to finish around the rim only adds to his abilities behind the three-point line and puts bigger, slower defenders in impossible predicaments.

Leaving the big man to deal with Curry after a few dribbles immensely exacerbates the problem. Point guards simply have to get back into the play; Curry will torch the switching big man if they don’t.

Can you blame Jared Dudley here? He steps up right behind Green to force Curry to move east and west, instead of letting him get started toward the basket, and is there to contain the drive beautifully, using the baseline as a second defender. And for Dudley’s efforts, Curry steps back and hits a three from his favorite left corner, where he shot a preposterous 63.2 percent in 2014-15. There’s simply no answer when a guy can do that. There’s a reason Curry is the best pick-and-roll ball handler in the league this season; he’s a destructive threat off the dribble from anywhere on the court out to 30+ feet.

Of course, there are two sides to a pick-and-roll. Curry would have a much harder time finding openings and creating mismatches if teams could double him and didn’t have to worry about Green rolling to the rim. Green’s development as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll has been the most important component of the Warriors’ historic run these last two seasons. The only hope for stopping Curry in the pick-and-roll is to double him; at that time the ball then gets swung to Green who faces a 4-on-3 situation against a scrambling defense. His ability to make the right play in these situations leaves opposing defenses with no way to guard the Warriors.

It wasn’t always like this. Early in the 2014-15 season, Green was prone to bad decisions that led to turnovers.

Here, Curry comes around the screen, is immediately doubled, and swings the ball to Green at the top of the key. This version of Green bears almost no resemblance to the man we see dropping triple-doubles regularly; he looks uncomfortable on the catch, and tries to force his way past Jason Terry and Donatas Motiejunas, instead of swinging the ball across to Andre Iguodala. He ends up turning the ball over. This wasn’t an uncommon sight at the beginning of last season.

Against the Pistons in November 2014, Green tries to force an around-the-back pass through two defenders to Bogut at a very short range. The skills were always there for Green; the hard dribble and around-the-back pass look smooth, but the latter doesn’t belong here. It was a process for him last season to get up to speed mentally with his obvious physical and technical gifts, but the results for Steve Kerr and his staff have been tremendous. This exact play now produces a lob over the top as Bogut or Festus Ezeli’s defender rotates to stop Green.

Almost exactly one year later, Green collects a similar pass in a similar position from Curry against the Wolves, takes the same hard dribble toward the rim, but instead floats the ball up over the closing Karl-Anthony Towns to Ezeli at the rim. This big-to-big lob has become a huge part of the Warriors’ offense and has largely replaced Green’s ambitious behind-the-back passes through traffic.

It’s one thing to have time to see the oncoming defender and simply lob it over the top; it’s quite another to catch the pass from Curry, turn, and make the correct read after just one dribble based on the rotations of the defense. Curry’s taken two defenders out of the play briefly, but Green still has to contend with the three other defenders who are all scrambling to cover his options.

Doug McDermott makes the correct defensive play here; it’s his job as the weak-side defender to rotate over and contain Green on the roll since his man in the corner is out of Green’s vision as he catches the ball. Maybe this works against a conventional big man, but Green is anything but conventional at this point. He sees the floor as if there are eyes in the back of his head, and he has gotten so comfortable making every pass as he rolls to the rim that it’s almost not worth sending the weak-side defender to contest him.

Instead of rotating a single defender to the rolling Green, Minnesota rotates Towns toward Green and Andrew Wiggins comes down to defend against the lob to Bogut. In the past, this sort of double rotation might have made Green hesitate and force the pass to the guarded Bogut or try a floater over the bigger Towns, but these days he has no trouble calmly finding the open man in the corner for the wide-open three.

The Green-Curry pick-and-roll is so good because it forces opposing defenses to make impossible choices; it’s all about playing the percentages. Slower big men lay back on Curry because even his three-pointer isn’t worth giving up an open layup (though it’s getting close). Teams double Curry because it’s better to give Green a 4-on-3 than to let Curry have the ball at all. Others still rotate to Green because it’s better to give up the catch-and-shoot three from anyone other than Curry or Thompson than it is to gift the layup to Green rolling down the lane. Golden State has gotten so good that any of those options create insanely efficient offense for them. The defense plays the percentages, yet all percentages seem to work out in Golden State’s favor.