PORTLAND, Ore. — The pick-and-roll is king in the NBA. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer called it the “bread and butter of a modern NBA offense.” NBA teams are using it now more than at any time in the past decade.
And there are few teams in the NBA better at it than the Blazers.
There are two ways to track the effectiveness of the pick and roll, by looking at the stats of both the ball-handler and the roll man in the play. Where Portland excels is with the ball-handler.
Damian Lillard scores 1.2 points per possession as the ball-handler in the pick and roll, tied for sixth in the NBA among players with at least 60 possessions this season. His backcourt teammate, CJ McCollum is tied for 10th in the NBA at 0.94 points per play.
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The Warriors’ top scoring ball-handlers in the pick and roll aren’t as good as the Blazers, but they’re still very good. Kevin Durant scores 0.97 points per possession (tied for seventh in the NBA) and Stephen Curry totals 0.92 points per possession (tied for 12th).
The Blazers pick-and-roll offense is one of the league’s best, tied for first in the NBA in points scored per possession by the ball-handler. The Warriors, with Durant and Curry operating as ball-handlers in the pick and roll, are tied for sixth in the league.
(8) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (1) Golden State Warriors
Best-of-7 series; x-if necessary
Game 1: Sunday, April 16, 12:30 p.m., at Golden State, ABC
Game 2: Wednesday, April 19, 7:30 p.m. at Golden State, KGW
Game 3: Saturday, April 22, 7:30 p.m. at Portland, KGW
Game 4: Monday, April 24, 7:30 p.m. at Portland, KGW
x-Game 5: Wednesday, April 26, at Golden State, time TBD
x-Game 6: Friday, April 28, at Portland, time TBD
x-Game 7: Sunday, April 30, at Golden State, time TBD
The top-ranked Blazers top the Warriors in raw pick-and-roll data. But Portland's most significant advantage in this specific area is in the use of the pick and roll. The Blazers make this clear strength a focal point of their offense. The Warriors, for some reason, don’t feature it in their offense.
Tale of two offenses
The Warriors’ offense is heavy on cuts (12.4 percent of its offensive plays), screens (13.1 percent), spot-ups (16.4 percent) and transition (18.5 percent). The Warriors rarely use the pick and roll with the ball-handler finishing the play. It accounts for only 11 percent of their offensive plays, the lowest usage in the NBA.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Transition, cuts and screens are all some of the most effective offensive plays in the NBA. But it is a bit of a mystery why the Warriors don’t use the pick and roll more often, considering they’re tied for seventh in the NBA at 0.89 points per possession on the play.
The Blazers by contrast, use the pick and roll for the ball-handler more than any other play in their offense, 20.3 percent of the time, which ranks seventh in the NBA for frequency of use. That’s a good thing for the Blazers, who rank No. 1 in the NBA in pick-and-roll scoring per possession at 0.95 points per play, tied with the Raptors and ahead of the Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Celtics. It’s a play that works for them and that’s why they use it.
Curry: More pick and roll, please
The Warriors, meanwhile, whose scoring average dropped by 7.3 points per game in the second half of the season (from 118.2 to 110.9), have left some wondering why they don’t integrate the pick and roll into their offense more. Especially Curry.
“I definitely want to be in more pick-and-roll situations,” he told Monte Poole of NBC Bay Area. “Whether I’m getting shots or whether we’re manufacturing ball movement, that’s a strength of ours, regardless of how teams play us. There’s a balance to getting (Durant) in the right positions to make plays, Klay (Thompson) getting his opportunities, Draymond being able to (make plays) like he does.”
Coach Steve Kerr said it’s something he has considered.
“We’ve talked about it; (Curry) and I have talked about it. We probably will do more of that. We’ve been experimenting with some different things,” Kerry told Poole.
So far, however, though the Warriors’ use of the pick and roll has increased slightly in the later part of the season, it hasn’t been a notable change. Whether that will change once the playoffs begin remains to be seen.
Can Blazers defend the pick and roll?
One of the reasons the pick and roll works so well in the NBA is because it creates mismatches, placing a fast, athletic scorer into a matchup against a big man who lacks the lateral quickness to defend effectively.The way NBA teams have responded to the threat is by building their lineups around athletic, versatile defenders who can guard on the perimeter and in the post.
The Blazers have several players like that in their starting lineup and bench rotation, such as Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe. Starting power forward Noah Vonleh is also a versatile defender who has shown a surprising ability to defend the perimeter on switches.
If either Curry or Durant is the ball-handler in the pick and roll against the Blazers, the play will often result in a switch into a matchup with one of the Blazers' longer wing players which doesn't create the mismatch the Warriors would be looking for.
Golden State can (and likely will) use variations on the standard pick and roll -- flipping the screen, screening the screener, among others -- to get Curry into a mismatch with someone like Jusuf Nurkic or Durant switched into a matchup with Lillard or McCollum.
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The Blazers have struggled to guard the ball-handler in the pick and roll this season, allowing 0.95 points per possession, the worst mark in the NBA. If the Blazers have Nurkic, it helps their pick-and-roll defense considerably because there is a proven rim defender backing up the perimeter defenders. That allows those defenders to play more aggressively because they know a line of defense is waiting behind them.
If Nurkic is unable to suit up or playing at less than full strength, the Blazers' woes defending the pick and roll will likely continue. In that scenario, the pick and roll could be a major weapon for the Warriors, but only if they choose to employ it.
Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW.
Source: Statistical data from nba.com