You've probably heard it said that the NBA is a "pick-and-roll league." There's a reason for that. It's the foundation of just about every offense in basketball, and the reason for that, is that it's the hardest play to defend. So how do teams in the NBA defend it?
What Is the Pick-and-Roll?
While most probably know what the pick-and-roll is, some newcomers to the sport might not know what it is. It's actually a pretty simple play.
A pick-and-roll means that a big man on the offense will set a pick, normally at the perimeter, meaning he stops in front of a defender, thereby freeing up the ball handler from his defender. That's the "pick."
Then the player who sets the pick "rolls" toward the basket where he can receive a pass. If the defense "switches," meaning that the defenders swap the players they are guarding, the faster ball-handler can work his way around the slower big, or he can pass to the "roll man" who has a size advantage in the paint.
Here is the pick-and-roll being effectively run against the best team guarding it last season, the Boston Celtics (who, because they were the best, we'll be using for all the illustrations, but even the best get beaten). Lavoy Allen (No. 50) sets the pick on Kenyon Dooling, and Jrue Holiday drives past him for the easy layup, as Ryan Hollins is not quick enough to even contemplate getting over for the help.
The premise of the pick-and-roll is that a team is trying to create a mismatch, with a big guarding a small at the perimeter or a small guarding a big.
Thus, the key to defending it is to prevent that from happening, and the primary responsibility for that falls on the player defending the ball-handler and how he handles the pick.
There are a few ways of trying to do that, but everything depends on who is handling the ball. Whether or not the player with the ball is a good outside shooter, and either good or bad at handling the ball, makes a big difference.
Determine Whether to Go Over the Screen or Under the Screen
The first thing that the defender of the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll must do is determine whether he should go "over" the screen, meaning he tries to squeeze between the picker and the ball handler, or "under" the screen, meaning he goes between the pick-setter and the basket.
If the ball-handler is a good shooter, such as Chris Paul, then the preference is to try and keep the primary defender on the ball-handler. This requires communication from the defensive team and the defender to be quicker than the picker.
The defender of the player who is setting the pick must holler as soon as he sees the pick is going to be set, allowing the on-ball defender time to get "over" the pick.
Essentially, this foils the pick. There are a couple of drawbacks to this. If the defender doesn't make it over the pick in time, the ball-handler will have straight line to the basket.
Here is Rajon Rondo, who is exceptional at doing so, fighting over the pick and keeping Jrue Holiday from getting a good shot.
However, if the defender goes "under" the pick, while he has a better chance of the ball-handler getting a straight line to the basket, there's a greater chance that he's going to be open for a three-point shot.
Here is an example of Paul Pierce going under the screen.
That's why with players like Rajon Rondo, who are extremely quick but don't have good range, the defender will normally go under the pick. If the guard is a player like Steve Nash or Chris Paul, who have good range, the best strategy is to go over the pick.
There are two ways that defenders can compensate if the best method is to go over the pick and they get beaten to the pick.
When a player is forced to go under, the best method to use is what's called the "double-switch," which means that there are two "switches." A switch occurs when the defenders "switch" the men they are guarding.
The primary defender, i.e. the one guarding the ball-handler, upon being screened will go under the pick and his teammate, temporarily picking up the defensive responsibility for the man who set the pick. That's the first "switch." While he's in a mismatch, it prevents the big from having an easy "roll" to the basket.
However, he also quickly comes back up to the top of the play, where he picks his man back up and the players "switch back," each resuming the defense of their man, thus creating a second switch. Note that this happens pretty quickly, and that's the key.
Watch as Paul Pierce and Greg Stiemsma successfully execute a double-switch and force the 76ers into a shot-clock violation.
The danger is, if the ball-handler is a great passer, he can feed the ball into the big man who will generally have a big size advantage on the first switch. The big man can either then "roll" to the basket and score down low, or if the help defense is there, he can "pop," meaning he pulls up and takes the jumper, a la Dirk Nowitzki.
That's why it is good to have a quick big man.
Players like Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Kevin Garnett, Anderson Varejao, LeBron James and Tyson Chandler can be extremely helpful because they have the quickness to stay in front of the ball-handler and have quick hands to cut off passing lanes even though they are bigs.
This gives the smaller man just enough time to get around the screen and resume their normal defensive responsibility.
Another method of compensating for getting beaten to the pick is to "hedge," meaning that the man who was guarding the big steps out and essentially creates a double-screen, forcing the ball-handler to run around him, which gives the ball-handler's defender the time to run under the screen and pick his man up on the other end.
The danger here is that if the big steps out too far, the ball-handler can "split" the defense, driving between the big and the screen to have a quick and easy drive to the rim.
Therefore, the big must step out, hedge and step back in without giving the ball-handler a chance to dribble between himself and the screener. Here we see an excellent example of Greg Stiemsma doing just that.
Whichever method the team ends up using, the goal is to minimize the time where the players are guarding out of position. The more effective a team is at doing that, the more effective they'll be at guarding the pick-and-roll, and in the NBA, that means being a better defensive team.