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The Comprehensive Defense thread, part V: Defending the ball screen
The Comprehensive Defense thread, part V: Defending the ball screen
Back to basic basketball defensive discussions today, after a brief hiatus from posting for a couple of weeks. If you are interested in going back and reviewing the previous four threads in this series, we already discussed the following:
I. Defense at the point of attack
II. Defending the wing
III Defending the low post
IV Help side defense
Some of today's topic has been discussed ad nauseum before, but we have several new posters who have joined since then, so I feel like a review of this very critical defensive topic is merited. As always, I hope to get a high quality discussion going on the nuts and bolts fundamentals of the game, and how our own Pacers can get better in these specific areas.
When discussing screen/roll defense, there are many nuances and details to discuss from a coaching perspective. I'll try to hit as many of them as I can in this thread, but if I leave anything out you want to discuss, just ask it within the thread and we can all give our opinions.
Here are some of the decisions a coach must make in game planning screen/roll defense:
1. Do I as coach decide how we will play each screen/roll, or do I let my players read the situation and make their own decision?
2. Do we play the screen/roll differently depending on who has the basketball as the ballhandler for the opponent? Do we play it differently from a defensive planning standpoint depending on who the defenders are specifically?
3. Do we play it differently depending on part of the floor we are on? Do we defend it differently if it is a side screen/roll vs a top screen/roll for instance?
Once you make those decisions, then you have the following options on how to play this situation from a strategic standpoint:
4. Do we simply switch? If so, who calls the switch, the person being screened or the person who's man is setting the screen? (in the archives of PD, I wrote a long article about this very question a couple of years ago....look it up and read it if you wish)
5. Do we go "under" the screen, possibly risking an open jumpshot by the ballhandler right in rhythm, but hopefully preventing a drive?
6. Do we "show and go", having our big show or "hedge hard" outside the screen, hopefully slowing the ballhandler enough to allow his own original man to recover to him, and not allowing the ballhandler to turn the corner with a head of steam?
7. Do we just "trap" the ballhandler, aggressively attacking him with the screener's man and his own man, and rotating quickly behind ot cover up the "screener" now either rolling to the basket or possibly popping back out for an open jumper?
There is alot to this obviously, so lets discuss all the aspects of this, and Ill sprinkle in my opinion in general and for this particular roster. Be prepared for me to argue something a bit uncoventional as a solution for this roster at the end of this original post.
I. DO I DECIDE AS COACH, OR DO I LET MY PLAYERS DECIDE?
On the first point, I believe it is the job of the coaching staff to tell the players directly in each game plan how they are going to play this screen/roll situation. You do this by film work, scouting, and game prep, which is something more easily done with the technological advancies in those areas that all NBA teams have at their disposal. This is conventional wisdom of coaching, to not overload your players with decisions such as these. It is somewhat of a oddity that many coaches (such as myself) value and demand that their players read situations from an OFFENSIVE standpoint, but don't trust them from a DEFENSIVE one, but experience and perhaps a control freak nature of coaches in general has made this true.
There was one famous basketball mind who felt that players COULD in fact handle reading this situation on their own. I heard him discuss it and heard others discuss his opinion of the matter before he finally became a head coach and got to try his theory out. His name? Isiah Thomas.
I admired at the time Isiah's willingness to think outside the box in this matter. Since no one really at the NBA level had a great idea for defending the screen/roll anyway that was really working well, alot of coaches were interested to see how that would play out for him.
Unfortunately for Thomas, his teams were notably abysmal at defending the screen/roll, often looking like they had no clue what they were supposed to be doing to defend it. In fact, that was true! Isiah Thomas wanted players to be able to read this on the fly, thought he could teach them to make judgments like that based on time and score, situation, who had the ball, etc etc, but it just failed miserably. For most coaches, that settled this question once and for all.
II. ADJUSTING DEPENDING ON THE SITUATION/OPPONENT. FEASIBLE?
This is a closer call as a coach I think. In an ideal world, you would have smart enough players to be able to say something like :"OK guys, if Rondo and Garnett run screen/roll here, go ahead and go underneath it and don't switch. But if it is Pierce and Garnett, go ahead and show hard, and if it is Ray Allen go ahead and switch it since he likely won't drive".
Now, all of that I just wrote might be the most sensible thing to do in a given situation against the Celtics. But, CAN YOU TEACH IT THAT WELL?
Defending this way, while it makes the most sense logically, is actually in my opinion mostly a mistake. This would require all of your players to be keenly aware and alert, and all of them able to rotate properly on the fly in many different various ways. This becomes even a more difficult thing to execute if you have multiple screen/roll situations within a single possession.
Now, most NBA coaches who think they are brilliant teachers will indeed to try to plan this way. Most of them would be better off not complicating the game so much for their players, and simply letting them have a clear understanding of what was going to happen and letting them execute it. I think Jim O'Brien, no matter what you may read in the paper or in his quotes, will often out think himself with stuff like this, and try to give his admittedly poor defensive athletes an "uber specific" gameplan that they arent able to execute. To use a coaching phrase, the Pacers sometimes appear to be "overcoached and undertaught" in this regard I think.
III. DOES AREA OF THE FLOOR MATTER ON HOW WE WANT TO DEFEND THE SCREEN/ROLL?
I do believe a coach can sort of adjust on area of the floor, just not as easily on personnel. Whether they SHOULD or not might be another question however.
Much was made in the pre-season when O'Brien announced he was tweaking our team defense to always force the side screen/roll to the baseline, remember?
But if you really watch the Pacers in depth with a critical eye, has that really worked? Do the Pacers in fact actually do that, or is that just something they announced but don't really do? Do they actually FORCE a team to the baseline side, even when the screen is designed to let the ballhandler drive to the middle? Or do teams ballscreen from the baseline side against us anyway, drive baseline by their own choosing, and then skip the ball across the floor to open shooters, using our so called design against us?
I actually don't think the Pacers struggle as badly with the side screen/roll as they do with the screen/roll at the top of the circle. But that in and of itself is an issue, because that means you have to learn multiple techniques depending on where on the floor you are, making it even harder to execute something consistently well.
IV. SWITCH OR NOT TO SWITCH...THAT IS THE QUESTION
Isiah Thomas wanted his players to switch this situation if it made sense to do so, and he wanted his players to read that on their own. We know that didnt work.
But can you as a coach DECIDE YOURSELF a switch, and get your team to execute? I think in limited cases you can, but not often, especially when you have limited personnel.
In Donnie Walsh's dream world toward the end of his career here, I think he envisioned an entire team of 6-10 guys with long arms, able to play multiple positions and almost be interchangeable on the floor. That would be awesome if you could pull it off, but it is unrealistic in the normal world we live in.
But you can do this on a limited basis. For instance, I think you could do it on the Pacers if your defenders were Granger and Rush, or perhaps you may be able to add Daniels in to that mix. But that is really it. We have too many guys who would give you serious mismatches if you tried it very much. Envision playing New Orleans for instance, and seeing a Tyson Chandler ball screen for Chris Paul. If you were a switching team, you could end up with Rasho on Paul, and TJ on Chandler barreling down the lane. Not going to work!
There are probably fewer than 10 players in the league that you can afford to switch a smaller man onto in the low post and get away with it. Unfortunately, two of them play for us: Dunleavy and Foster. In fairness, Foster has learned ot finish somewhat better when he can catch the ball and get a head of steam headed toward the basket. But if the timing isnt right, he isnt reliable posting up being guarded, even by a much smaller man.
And this to me is a major flaw in Dunleavy's game.....the inability to be used in a screen/roll situation as the screener. Teams just switch a smaller man onto him and dare the Pacers to have Dunleavy post up, which he does remarkably bad for whatever reason.
But getting back to defense, I think we can all agree that switching the screen/roll isnt a very viable option for us.
V. GOING UNDER THE BALLSCREEN....SINK OR SWIM
This is a viable strategy on rare occasions, when you play someone who clearly cannot make consistently an outside shot.
One of the players I thought could be a decent backup point guard but who has shocked me with his shooting improvement is Rajon Rondo. I specifically didnt want him coming out of college because in college at Kentucky he was one of the worst shooters I saw play that season. He was of the "Chris Reynolds" ilk, for all of you old IU basketball fans. But unlike 90% of pro players, Rondo actually improved as an individual at the pro level, and now is able to make that shot enough to be a near all star level guard, since he has so many other strengths on the floor as ballhandler and defender.
But, there are others in the league you can afford to do this to. When on the rare occasion you play a team with someone like this, you should be able to have your guys just go underneath the screen and live with the consequence. This would be a pretty good idea for our second unit to try more than it does, since often back up point guards dont make that shot well, which of course is why they are backups!
Now, here is another idea: Maybe the Pacers should do this MUCH MORE OFTEN than I would normally recommend. With all the giant problems we have in rotating to help, and getting beat off the dribble from the top. maybe we'd be better off just giving up even trying to guard someone correctly, just slide under all ballscreens at the top, and just let people shoot.
While Im being somewhat silly and condescending with that, how many point guards would actually go ahead and take 20 open three pointers a game from there at the top anyway? It might screw them up, and it definitely would throw them out of rhythm. Maybe we'd be better off letting Tony Parker, Chris Paul, and Ramon Sessions get 50 points or more, just to keep them out of the lane and killing us that way. I can't really recommend it of course, but watching our horrendous defense occasionally has me screaming such lunacy at times.
VI. SHOW AND GO.....THE CONVENTIONAL WAY TO PLAY
Having your screener's defender show hard to the outside of the screen, and hopefully stop the ballhandler from turning the corner long enough to let his original man recover to him, the having your "big" recover back to his own man as quickly as he can while his teammates temporarily cover for him is the oldest and most time honored way to defend the ball screen.
Most coaches believe it is the best way to do it....although I am not one of them.
This is the Pacers and Jim O'Brien's way to play this as well usually, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that from a strategic standpoint. Where we mess up too often is one fundamental issue, and one odd quirk that Jim O'Brien has taught that others like me find maddening.
The fundamental issue is the same one all coaches who try and teach this "show and go" or "hard hedge" have: Getting your screener's man (normally on of your bigs) to "hedge" high enough and aggressively enough out on the floor to prevent the ballhandler from turning the corner at a sharp angle.
This is easier to teach when the screener sets up early and is stationary somewhere on the floor. In this situation, the Pacers slower bigs are at least mediocre in stepping out far enough to make this plan work. In fact, this is probably Foster's one major strength as a defender....the ability to hedge fairly well and then recover to his man.
Of course, this is mitigated by a couple of other issues. Often Foster in particular will leave the ball too soon, and before our man who was screened has recovered to the basketball. We lost a game in fact earlier this season when Jeff made this critical mistake against the Celtics in Conseco Fieldhouse, letting Ray Allen bury a three before Marquis Daniels had recovered to the ball.
But this in itself wouldnt be an issue of our players recovered to the ball quicker to start with, and didnt leave players like Foster out to dry so long. One of my major disappointments in this team and it's defense has been our horrific defensive play from Ford and Jack, who I thought would be a major upgrade but in fact have not been. In a ballscreen situation, Ford and Jack have each lacked the toughness, quickness, and quite frankly in my opinion the EFFORT to recover quick enough to their own men playing this basic scheme of screen/roll defense on the ball. This is a weakness of some bigs anyway (who don't want to see their own man get the ball anyway so they tend to cheat back to their responsibility too soon) so guards being slow and lazy to recover to the ball only make that worse.
This really shows itself when our bigs hustle and actually do a decent job at showing and turning the ballhandler back. Because our point guards consistently don't put forth the defensive effort, we get "split" alot by good point guards. Our already slower bigs can't help that, and I mostly absolve them of responsibilty. It is our others who let us down here, especially Jack and Ford, and we simply have to solve that moving forward. As of right now, I have no real answers why two guys who should be better defenders arent getting the job done.
Where all the Pacers bigs struggle is when a team sprints a big from the block to the perimeter quickly. Our slow bigs like to hang back a step or two too long into their help responsibilities, and let their own men sprint to the perimeter ahead of them. This leaves them sunk in too low, and lets the ballhandler turn the corner with a head of steam and the advantage.
This is smart coaching by our opponents in taking advantage of a clear weakness we have in both scheme and personnel. What needs to happen is our guys need to just sprint to the perimeter with their own men and not be encumbered so much with help responsibilities that they can be able to do this. But irregardless, guys like Hibbert, Murphy, and Nesterovic are very slow, and will likely struggle with this anyway. This often leads to our bigs either giving up easy shots passively (Murphy) being ineffective even though trying due to lack of mobility (Nesterovic) or fouling while trying to help from out of position (Hibbert).
Now, even though we are playing it conventionally near the ball, there is still some "wackiness" I detect from the Jim O'Brien defensive scheme. This is what I often see, which is an overtendency to help by our bigs.
What should happen is you run the "show and go", and your big defending the screen needs some brief help to cover his man rolling to the basket until he recovers back to him. This leaves you vilnerable for an instant admittedly, but that is the entire point of the offense running this play to start with! Everyone has to sprint and work hard and be in sync, but this method is taught everyday by coaches all across the country, and it can be done. It isn't easy, but since defending the screen/roll is the hardest play in hoops to guard some think, it's not supposed to be easy! This causes limited disruption and movement among your bigs, which is why 99% of teams who use the show and go do it this way.
But not always our Pacers! Instead I sometimes see our Pacers bigs in helpside SWITCH to the original screener on a permanent basis, which means that ANOTHER player has to rotate to that guy's man, which means that our entire defense is scrambling around trying to figure out who has who on the run. It is no wonder that guys screw this up so often, and why we struggle at it so badly, especially when you consider that IT IS THE SLOWEST GUYS ON OUR TEAM WE ASK TO MOVE THE MOST!
Now, what I believe but can't prove is that O'Brien tried this as an experiement, and that at the end of the year he will reevaluate. But I can't prove that. And, I must say that it is inventive, and maybe would work better with better personnel who are experienced and more athletic (by a bunch!). It also is death doing this to a team who has its screener float to the perimeter instead of rolling to the hoop....remember Mehmet Okur getting 40 plus against us for Utah? This wacky rotation after a ball screen is why I believe that happened.
VII. TRAPPING THE SCREEN/ROLL HARD EVERY TIME....INSANE, OR CRAZY LIKE A FOX?
This is unconventional thinking, but this is the way I believe the screen/roll should be defended in general, and even by our admittedly glacially slow Pacers. It's probably too late in the season to do it now, but if I were in charge this is what I would make as my staple in training camp.
Trapping the screen/roll hard every time lets you as a defense attack the offense, instead of being passive. It lets you play more free, and easier, with less thinking required. It lets you practice your rotations easier, and be better at them considering they will be similar almost every time. It lets you create turnovers hopefully that will lead to punishing the offense.
The most important things I think it can do for you is to be consistent from night to night, and change your defensive mentality from being reactive to instead being PROACTIVE!
You will almost surely if you do this right never give up an easy jumper by the ballhandler, and you will rarely give up a easy shot to the original screener (because you can see a sittuation developing, you should be able to clearly know where and how to rotate, there is no reading involved). You will give up some open jump shots to players spotting up, but at least you'll be making the offense make two passes instead of one, and if you are smart you can try to rotate in such a way that you leave pen their worst shooter.
Another key to this would be something we discussed in the "defense at the point of attack thread" which is to have our point guards work hard to disrupt the oppoent bringing the ball up court, thereby using valuable time against the shot clock. If a team against us was forced to not run their screen/roll play against us until the clock was winding down, and bobble or mistake they make will result in a turnover, and any shot they take will be against the shot clock buzzer. Often, if this works right, they may not have time to make that second pass to the open guy....there may not be time to make it, even if he is wide open!
But Tbird, doesnt this have problems too?
Q. Won't our bigs get in foul trouble trying to trap away from the bucket?
A. Our bigs are in foul trouble anyway most of the time.
Q. Wont this require our bigs to move too much like you complain about now?
A. Not if we cause a turnover or missed shot from the perimeter, but yes it can at times. That is why we need to let guys like Rasho go and maybe have Foster dealt, and why Murphy needs to be benched if he can't handle it. Hibbert only projects to me to be a 24 minute a game guy anyway, so I'm not real concerned about his foul trouble anyway....plus, I think Hibbert will actually be able to do this well in fact, as he has such size and intelligence I think he will be a force at it, not a problem. All Hibbert needs for this to work is a little coaching and some help from our porous point guards.
Q. If we do this every game against every opponent, won't we be so predictable that teams will be able to gameplan us pretty easily?
A. Not really a concern. I'd rather do something well that is sound and well concieved than trying to outsmart everybody all the time. This goes into the attitude and mentality change I want: "This is what we are going to do opponents....we are going to trap you hard for 48 minutes, and if you try to split our trap we will either steal it from you or knock you on your ***, and if you think you are going to dunk it on us inside we are going to punish that with force. When you come to play the Pacers, you better wear your camoflouge, becase it is going to be a war"
If teams want to go small against us to run screen/rolls against us, that's fine. We will punish them on the other end with Hibbert.
Ok, so lots to comment on, and lots of ground to cover on screen/roll defense. Next topic will be something I think we actually do fairly well, which is fighting over screens AWAY from the ball.