How Boston Celtics Can Improve Their Pick-and-Roll Offense

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How Boston Celtics Can Improve Their Pick-and-Roll Offense
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Watching the Boston Celtics try to execute pick-and-roll sets last season (currently the NBA’s most essential offensive sequence) was agonizing to the point of unmitigated terror for their fan base.

It likely shortened Doc Rivers' life by at least a few months and stands as one of the team’s largest weaknesses in need of improvement if a second NBA championship in five seasons is to be seen as a realistic possibility.

According to Synergy, the Celtics were the second least efficient pick-and-roll offense in the league last season when it came to ball-handling efficiency (averaging 0.69 points per possession).

My frequent nightmares as a fan of the team assure me that these numbers aren't fabricated in any way.

Ending possessions with the ball in their pick-and-roll initiator's hands was also their third-most popular method of attack, behind spot-up jumpers and transition buckets.

So when you’re looking at a reason why the Celtics offense wasn’t so hot, here's a good place to start digging. 

The pick-and-roll handler turned the ball over 18.3 percent of the time and shot just 19.4 percent on three-pointers, while drawing a shooting foul on just 5.6 percent of all attempts.

All atrocious numbers.

Why was it so terrible? Well, for starters, Rajon Rondo’s jump shot was correctly disrespected by opposing defenses. Here are a few clips that show just how badly he was ignored. 

In this clip, Kevin Garnett sets a screen on Dwyane Wade at the top of the key, giving Rondo ample room to step into a jumper. Of course, that’s exactly what Erik Spoelstra wants, as Wade is directed to go beneath Garnett and allow Rondo as large a cushion as is needed to convince him that a jumper should be attempted. 

This play occurs moments later in the very same game. Garnett comes to set a screen, but with nobody technically guarding the man he’s trying to set free, it’s rendered useless. Rondo does what he’s supposed to do in this situation, lining up an open jumper from the right elbow. He back-rims it, and Miami’s defensive strategy is granted yet another gold coin of validation.

(One particular snippet to keep in mind: Look where Dwyane Wade is with Rondo at the three-point line. Is anybody else in the league played like that?)

After receiving an on-ball stagger-screen from Garnett and Paul Pierce—which for all intents and purposes does the job—Rondo gets into the paint, then settles for a floater. But watch Wade. He’d rather meet Rondo at the rim than stick to his body above the screen and around the court.

All these clips come from the same playoff series, but they certainly weren’t isolated incidents (trust me, I re-watched a TON of Boston’s pick-and-roll action from last season, and the same thing occurred over and over again).

This remains the knock on Rondo, and as long as his jump shot is treated with an impolite raising of the nose from opposing defenses, the Celtics will struggle to consistently score with their prime ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets.

So why should Celtics fan be optimistic that this crucial offensive flaw can turn itself around? Apart from the obvious addition of Jason Terry (a noted pick-and-roll artist) and a presumably wiser Avery Bradley due to return this winter, here are a few reasons.

 

Improvements By Rajon Rondo

Last week I wrote that Rondo should contend for the MVP award this season. A big reason why is the presumed swelling of his responsibility within Boston’s offense.

Consistent three-pointers are a long way away, but this is supposed to be the year Rondo makes his free-throws, and demands respect for that refined jumper. He’s shown stretches of knocking it down, but he’ll have to extend those into week-long binges if defenses are to take notice.

If he’s able to hit mid-range jumpers, defenses will be forced to react, and that means shadowing him above the screen. (Hedging isn’t the wisest option with Rondo for two reasons: 1) He’s fast enough to get around the edge, 2) opposing frontcourt players have to stay with their original man because Boston’s loaded with capable jump-shooting forwards like Garnett and Brandon Bass.)

There’s a bit of an irony here. Defenses are giving Rondo open jump shots, and the result is a struggling pick-and-roll offense. For the Celtics to make this set more of a versatile weapon, they need Rondo to develop that jumper.

But once the shot begins to fall, it’ll quickly be placed in his back pocket, because the entire point of setting screens for a point guard is to separate him from his man, allowing him enough space to attack the paint. Once he gets there, the options explode.

Getting Rondo into the paint with a single screen can only happen once defenses begin going above the screen. Until then, he needs to show he can knock down multiple jump shots per quarter.

(Grantland’s Brett Koremenos recently wrote a wonderful article detailing several signature sets used by some of the league’s top contenders, including Boston’s Rondo/Pierce 1-3 pick-and-pop. This has primarily been used in the past to get Pierce good looks, but as Koremenos mentions, expect Rondo to utilize it for himself by attacking the rim with it this year—especially when the defense is forced to switch.)

 

Utilizing The Flat Screen

A flat screen occurs when the screener plants his feet parallel to the baseline (as opposed to parallel to the sideline, which is much more common), and comes at the defender’s backside. It was designed with a player like Rajon Rondo in mind. Here are two examples.

 

With the beefy addition of Jared Sullinger, the Celtics should be in a position to run even more flat screens next season—not just for Rondo, but for Bradley, Terry, Courtney Lee, and Leandro Barbosa as well.

It allows speedy guards a running start into the lane, basically setting up a half-court fast break and throwing the defense into a panic.

As was already mentioned, Rondo is extremely fast. Also already mentioned: Going above a set screen doesn’t make too much sense for multiple reasons, the most obvious being it can allow a split-second switch where Rondo can blow past an overmatched big man. If the defense isn’t rotating on a string, he goes all the way to the basket. 

If the Celtics want to shake doubters who point to their eyeball-burning offense as a reason why the Miami Heat have already locked up the Eastern Conference, they'll need to improve their pick-and-roll play. They don't need to become the Spurs or Clippers, but placing second-worst in a league currently predicated around the pick-and-roll as a foundation for success simply isn't an option. 

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