Six creative ways NBA teams are adapting the pick-and-roll

Nov 30, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) is guarded by Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) during the fourth quarter at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. The Trail Blazers won 131- 109. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 30, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) is guarded by Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) during the fourth quarter at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. The Trail Blazers won 131- 109. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

Pick-and-rolls have quickly become the most common play type in the NBA. On average, teams scored 23.5 percent of their points in the pick-and-roll last season from either the ball handler or roll man, which was a far greater frequency than spot-ups (19.2 percent), transition plays (13.5 percent), post-ups (7.6 percent) and isolations (7.2 percent). Some teams, like the Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers, even came close to scoring 30 percent of their total points out of the pick-and-roll.

With it being such an integral part of most offenses, it’s important that teams learn to adapt the pick-and-roll to make it less predictable. While simple spread pick-and-roll can work well for some — the Houston Rockets don’t need to make it complicated when James Harden is surrounded by three shooters and an athletic center — not every team has the luxury of putting a threat at every position on the floor. The best way to overcome those problems is by deceiving the opponent or making them do something out of their comfort zone to create the space needed space to run an effective pick-and-roll.

There are many ways teams can pull that off, but let’s focus on six creative ones in particular.

The fake action pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: Blake Griffin, Boris Diaw, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns

Forwards like Diaw are unique in their ability to function as a big man and wing. On one hand, they can score efficiently with their back to the basket and switch onto ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. On the other, they can run their own pick-and-roll and have the entire offense run through them as a facilitator from the high post.

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This possession is a good example of how the Utah Jazz use Diaw’s versatile skill set to keep defenses from getting comfortable. Gordon Hayward gives Diaw the ball at the elbow and immediately cuts towards him for a hand-off, which forces P.J. Tucker to stick to him like glue because Hayward scored more points off of hand-offs than all but four players last season. Marquese Chriss also backs off of Diaw to help contain the potential hand-off with Hayward in case Tucker can’t squeeze through.

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However, before Chriss can get back into position, Rudy Gobert runs directly towards Diaw for a pick-and-roll. Chriss quickly fights over the screen to recover and Tyson Chandler steps up to prevent Diaw from turning the corner. With everyone else stuck to their own defender, that paves the way for Gobert to dive to the rim for an uncontested alley-oop

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The play works because the Jazz go from running what looks like a hand-off to a pick-and-roll in a split second. It’s also unusual for a player like Diaw to run a pick-and-roll and have the vision to find the man rolling to the basket with a perfect pass. With more playmaking forwards coming into the league — think Aaron Gordon, Dragan Bender, Jabari Parker — there’s more of this type of action to come.

The run-it-back pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James

This is along the same lines as the fake action pick-and-roll, only it takes an even more unique player to make it work. The reason why is being a forward who can run a pick-and-roll is very different to being a forward who is a threat in the pick-and-roll.

Let’s take Antetokounmpo as an example. Whereas Diaw scores 5.4 percent of his points as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, Antetokounmpo scores 15.4 percent of his points in those situations. He’s also dynamite as the roll man — 1.45 points per possession to rank in the 96.4 percentile — although it only accounts for 4.0 percent of his total offense. Together, that’s a huge luxury for a team to have because Antetokounmpo can be used as the ball-handler and roll man depending on what’s needed.

One of the ways the Milwaukee Bucks take advantage of this is by having him take on both of those roles in the same possession. Below, you’ll see Antetokounmpo run a pick-and-roll as the ball handler with Matthew Dellavedova, only to give the ball back out to Dellavedova to then become the roll man. The Cleveland Cavaliers have no idea how to defend it and give up an open floater.

Again, with the rise of playmaking 3s and 4s, we haven’t seen the end of this.

The ram pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose

Speaking of fake actions, the ram screen is a great way to get defenses scrambling before a pick-and-roll.

The idea is pretty simple: Screen the screener. In the video below, you’ll see Joakim Noah set a screen on Kristaps Porzingis before Porzingis sets a screen on Rose. The Memphis Grizzlies switch Marc Gasol onto Porzingis, and a slight hesitation on his behalf — probably because he’s expecting Porzingis to either come off the screen for a jump shot or cut to the basket to clear the strong side for a pick-and-roll between Rose and Noah — helps Rose work himself free for a floater.

The Oklahoma City Thunder took it a step further by using the ram screener as the roll man on this possession. With the Washington Wizards switching everything, Russell Westbrook faces three different defenders in five seconds before he pulls-up.

The hunt-for-the-mismatch pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler

We’ve already looked in depth at how James and Kyrie Irving make this pick-and-roll practically unstoppable, yet they’re not the only duo currently doing it in the NBA. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, for example, also use it to their advantage.

The idea is to create a mismatch by forcing a point guard to switch onto a bigger and stronger wing. Like James, DeRozan can make shots in the post and pick-and-roll, which makes him a nightmare for smaller guards to match up with. He can easily put it on the floor and pull-up from mid-range, but he’s equally capable of backing them down and torching them with Kobe-esque fadeaways on the block.

While they look like incredibly difficult shots, they’re ones DeRozan lives for. Here, he gets Ish Smith switched onto him, who gives up about seven inches to DeRozan. Even though Aron Baynes slides over to help out, he’s a step slow in preventing DeRozan from getting a shot up.

Here’s another example, this time involving James and Irving:

Adding to the confusion is point guards aren’t used to being on the other side of pick-and-roll defense. They’re usually the ones fighting over and under screens in an effort to stay glued to their assignment. By attacking them with these sorts of pick-and-rolls, it forces them to make decisions outside of their job description.

The flipped pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Dennis Schroder

Or, perhaps more accurately, the DeMar DeRozan screen.

It’s something else we’ve broken down in detail this season. For players who can’t pull-up from the perimeter when they come off a pick-and-roll, flipping the screen can counter defenders going under every single time when they’re trying to bait the ball handler into settling for 3-pointers. It doesn’t create the most valuable shots on the floor, but it helps players who thrive on midrange pull-ups — DeRozan and Westbrook especially — to get to their sweet spots.

The ball handler doesn’t have to necessarily use the screen twice like DeRozan does, either. Notice how Marcin Gortat keeps Kent Bazemore guessing when it comes to which direction he’s going to set the screen. It’s not until the last second that Gortat commits to screening his right side, by which point it’s too late for him to prevent Wall from turning the corner.

Both players involved have to be on the same page because it takes perfect timing to pull it off effectively. Plus, the big man can easily get called for a moving screen if they aren’t careful, so the ball handler needs to be patient before using the second screen.

The super deep pick-and-roll

Works best for players like: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard

Harden, Curry and Lillard are one of a kind. Not only can they pull-up for 3-pointers and knock them down at a good rate, they can do it from several feet outside of the perimeter. In fact, despite it being an incredibly difficult shot for 99.9 percent of NBA players, it’s one they actively hunt for.

To help get Lillard in those positions more frequently, the Portland Trail Blazers will sometimes have the big man set a screen on him just in front of the half court line. Even though it might seem like a crazy plan to run a pick-and-roll so far away from the basket, it puts the opposing big man in an incredibly delicate situation when the guard can walk into a 3-pointer and knock it down with regularity.

Just check out how much space Gobert has to cover on this possession:

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With Lillard attacking Gobert downhill, it makes a shot fake or stutter step at 3-point line much harder to read. And with Lillard being lightning quick with the ball in his hands, one misstep can pave the way for him to attack the basket for a layup.

Being able to shoot from deep off the dribble is the only way this screen works effectively. Otherwise, the big man will drop back to the paint and bait them into shooting midrange jump shots. With players taking more 3-point attempts than ever before, though, this could become more popular as guards get more comfortable shooting from further distances.