Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Lakers Have A New Approach to the Pick and Roll

I have a nephew and he's growing up. He's eight now, and I'm twenty-two. He likes to fight; more specifically, he only enjoys it if I play the Rihanna to his Chris Brown. They are typically one-sided bouts wherein I surrender due to a combination of his quickness and raw power. It's a fun game, and we both play it. He knows I could decimate every bone in his face if I wanted to (at least, he does if he knows what's good for him). Ultimately, we have a better time together and I spend considerably less time in prison if I pretend that it's a close fight and I don't try.

Problem is, a day comes where it won't be one-sided. He'll be throwing grown-man rainmakers instead of the open fisted spin-moves that Star Wars teaches as common in fighting scenarios (I would recommend this to our children instead: I'll know when my nephew is finally grown up when the day comes where I'm not willing to feign a fight with him. Then it gets real.

Lakers fans, it just got real.
"Lob Angeles" wasn't so much the theme of the Clippers during the first two matchups (albeit preseason) between the LA residents. The potential flair and excitement this team could bring to the Staples Center this season appeared in flashes, but that's not surprising. What's surprising is how capable the Clipper team looked. Again, this is the preseason (I'm saying this twice for emphasis). Preseason is not the regular season. These wins aren't in the column come playoff-time, but no doubt that the revamped LA Clippers turned heads. The Clippers have grown up, and these hometown fights will, for the first time in a long time, be real fights.

Plenty of people who know more about basketball will tell you as such in the papers and on the internet for the next few days (and they'll do a better job of it), so I won't talk about the relevance of an NBA with two contenders (a stretch, but not completely unreasonable) from LA. I'm not going to talk about it because that's not what I'm most interested in after watching both those games. I'm not stuck on Griffin closing the second game out in pretty remarkable fashion, Metta Hurled Bricks (4-21 in the two games), Chauncey's solid play, the dunks or the lobs. I'm stuck on the biggest change I've seen to Lakers basketball since the Pau Gasol trade: Mike Brown.

I can't find anyone talking about this and I don't know why. Mike Brown has completely changed the way the Lakers play offensively and defensively, judging from these first two games, at least. Most notably to me from the first game was that the Lakers were picked apart by the pick and roll. They have never been a team that used their bigs to hedge screens aggressively, instead preferring to stay behind the screen and defend the paint. Brown has clearly made that a focal point. They will be challenging the ball handler on screens. It doesn't matter who the defender of the screener is. If the Clips ran a pick and roll and the ball-handler was in even questionable shooting range, they would hedge the screen and force the ball-handler to go over it. The logic behind trapping a screen is to make the ball-handler give up possession, forcing someone else to make a play.

In game one, this strategy didn't pan out. Chris Paul obliterated it. He split the trap consistently (meaning that he got through the doubleteam instead of being stopped by it), which is the absolute worst case scenario in defending the pick and roll. That was the fault of the bigs (mostly Pau and Bynum from what I saw) over-hedging the screen and not being able to recover in time due to a coupling of Pau and Bynum not being quick enough and Paul being too quick. Even Billups was able to split a few, but the Clips seemed to stay away from P-and-R plays when Paul isn't the ball-handler. When Paul wasn't trapped hard enough or quickly enough, he was able to go over the screen, get into the lane (forcing the defense to collapse) and from there, he's doing what Chris Paul does best: find the open man. They shot 13-28 (46%) from 3PT in game one. The bottom line in game one is that the Lakers were sloppy in executing what they wanted to do, and Paul along with the Clippers shooters made them pay for it.

After watching that game, I decided I would take notes on the development and outcomes of relevant P-and-R's (relevant meaning P-and-R's that led directly to possession ending sequences, if that's any less vague) in game two. I wouldn't bet the house that I recorded everything exactly right [also should note that I missed the first five minutes of the game] because I was gifted four bottles of (24oz) Moylan's Kiltlifters (GOAT beer) that were done by the end of the third, so I lost focus at the beginning of the fourth quarter arguing with a friend that tie-tacks are the only male fashion accessory that I would be willing to talk about. It's preseason basketball, after all.

My total came out to 29 relevant P-and-R's, 23 of which came with CP3 handling the ball, 4 with Mo Williams and 2 with Billups (surprised that nothing was run for Caron), so for all intensive purposes, it's fair to simplify to Chris Paul vs. the Lakers defense. Out of the 29 P-and-R's, the Lakers bigs hedged 26. Gasol was the screeners defender (the trapper) 16 times, McRoberts 6 times, with Bynum and Murphy hedging twice apiece. That is a drastic change from the way the Lakers used to play the P-and-R (hanging the bigs behind the screen and protecting the paint), and it will be interesting to see how it plays out over the course of the season; specifically, whether players not in the conversation of being "quick" such as Bynum or Gasol can cope with this new strategy.

How successful was it, you ask?
Oh, I'll feed you, baby birds (name that quote).

Unless you have better notes or tape that you'll let me use, I'm going to have to go off my notes on this. It is not scientific, but I described what I found important from the direct aftermath of the P-and-R, so it should take us in the right direction.

From my notes, I have that 8 of the 26 hedges resulted in baskets or open opportunities for the Clips. Of those, only 2 screens were split (both by Paul), which was clearly made a focal point in game two by the Lakers P-and-R defense compared to game one. Three were caused by the primary defender of Paul (or the ball-handler) overplaying the action on the screen and allowing for penetration on the opposite side (going the opposite way that the pick is given). The other three were caused by beating the trap over the top and either penetrating or hitting the roll man (usually Griffin) diving to the rim. Both of the splits occured when Gasol was the trapping big, but considering that he was exposed to the play much more often then any other big, this isn't too surprising considering CP3 can't be completely contained. I don't have notes from game one to compare these against, but I think it is clear to those who watched that the Laker D was much more competent in defending the P-and-R in game two.

I wanted two things from doing this:

1) Are Bynum and Pau capable of playing like Anderson Varejao? (of course, they are not Varejao, but can they do a reasonable job?) Do they have enough speed and quickness to stop the initial attack and can they rotate quickly enough to stifle the second, third or fourth pass?

2) Is this a realistic and viable strategy in dealing with the P-and-R's they will see from other teams (presumably) in the playoffs that trampled them in the 2010 postseason?
I'm not going to be able to answer these questions with this sample size. It'll take some time, and if I have that time, I'll continue to look into it and post here. The Lakers bigs clearly improved from game one to game two, which is all you can hope from a team learning an entirely new system of defense. Judging from my notes and watching the game, I would say that this is going to need to be a point of emphasis because a relatively slow team like the Lakers are inherently vunerable to a versatile and quickly-adjusting attack like the P-and-R.

Here's my guesses to (1) and (2). I'm interested to hear your thoughts. Yes, you. Your thoughts. Not those thoughts. The ones about basketball. Maybe some of those thoughts, but mostly the basketball ones.

(1) Defending the ball initially will not be the hard part. Changing direction after the intial action, finding their man and rotating fast enough to contest shots will be. I think they
will suffer in that area.

(2) Of course, this is going to depend on the team they're up against. Frankly, anything is better then the way they were dismantled last year.

And, oh yeah, that Blake Griffin kid? He's pretty good, and if you don't know, then now you do.

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