That pick-and-roll defense again
The Spurs have made noise this preseason about improving the defense. We know how good the offense is and if the Spurs have any hope of overcoming the Heat, Thunder and/or Lakers on the way to a fifth title, the defense has to get better. It doesn’t need to be the top-3 defense of championships past, but it needs to be at least a top-8 defense.
Last season the Spurs had a defensive efficiency of 100.6 (100.6 points given up per 100 possessions). That number was good for 11th in the league and slightly better than the league average of 101.8. It was really a bend-but-don’t-break defense, play just well enough defensively that the offense could do its damage.
One area where the Spurs really struggled, although partially by design, was defending the ball handler on pick-and-rolls. According to Synergy Sports, San Antonio was 30th in the league (that’s last) in points per possession (PPP) when the ball handler on a pick-and-roll finished the play with a shot, foul or turnover. In over 1400 possessions last season, the Spurs gave up .88 PPP. In these situations, the Spurs allowed opponents to shoot 37% from 3-point range and San Antonio was scored on 42% of the time.
The reason the Spurs give up so many points in these situations compared to the rest of the league is because of how the Spurs defense is structured. Gregg Popovich knows efficiency, and he doesn’t like to give up efficient shots. The Spurs are going to discourage the ball handler from shooting the 3-pointer as much as possible and prevent them from getting to the rim. San Antonio will concede the mid-range area, widely thought of to be the least efficient area to shoot from.
Part of this is out of necessity. None of the Spurs’ bigs have the foot speed to help-and-recover out on the perimeter. By hanging back in the lane, they can do their best to prevent the ball handler from getting to the basket. Despite the Spurs structuring their pick-and-roll defense to prevent the drive to the basket, some of the more athletic teams in the league *cough*Thunder*cough* can still get to the rim, thanks to being young, athletic and having full head of steam.
Zach Lowe touched on the Brooklyn Nets’ Brook Lopez playing a similar style of pick-and-roll defense over at Grantland:
In clip after clip, it’s the same: As the Nets’ point guard chases his opponent over the screen, Lopez simply sags back toward the foul line area or even lower. That’s a common strategy for slow-footed bigs. The goal is to keep that ball handler above the foul line until the Nets’ guard can recover and find his man again, allowing Lopez to shoot back to the big man rolling toward the rim. It’s not an ideal strategy, since Lopez is surrendering wide-open mid-range shots. He’ll occasionally step out a bit farther against Nash/Chris Paul–level shooters, but he’s never been consistent about it, and those guys eat him up either way — by sinking mid-range jumpers when open, or blowing by Lopez when he steps above his comfort zone.
But mid-range shots are the lowest-value attempts in the game. Good NBA offenses force defenses into choices, and giving up mid-range jumpers isn’t a bad choice. Problem: The strategy hasn’t actually forced offenses into that outcome. They’re getting to the rim anyway, especially when Lopez is on the floor. In 2010-11, a whopping 35 percent of opposing field goal attempts against the Nets came at the rim when Lopez played, and opponents hit 60.5 percent of them, according to NBA.com’s stats database. When Lopez sat, those numbers fell to 31 percent of attempts and 54.9 percent accuracy. The split was nearly as dramatic the year before.
Why the Spurs can get by with this style while teams like the Nets can’t is because of Tim Duncan. Plain and simple, Duncan understands the timing, spacing and angles that Zach mentions in his post. He’s also a legit 7-footer (don’t believe the 6’11” stuff) with a longer wingspan than he gets credit for. He doesn’t block a whole heckuva lot of shots, but he alters a ton. Tim Duncan knows how to be bothersome when a guard is attacking the basket.
The Celtics and Bulls are two of the better teams in the league at defending pick-and-roll. Much of their strategy involves aggressively hedging on the picks (having the big man defending the screener step out and bump the ball handler to stop his drive and allow the defending guard to recover), but they have the personnel to do it. The Spurs simply don’t have the mobile big men required to practice such a strategy. That’s part of the reason I was leaning so strongly towards Derrick Brown, who was waived yesterday along with Eddy Curry, as the 15th man.
The Spurs don’t have to magically become the Bulls or Celtics overnight. In fact, they don’t have to become a top-5 team defending the pick-and-roll ball handler. Incremental improvement in a variety of areas can help this team regain some of it’s long lost defensive identity. Part may come from the consistency aspect that Pop has hit on in training camp. More may come from advances in “corporate knowledge” for guys. The Spurs aren’t a long way off of being the defensive team they need to be to contend for a title, but there is work to be done.