Remember how simple the pick-and-roll game used to be? A big man would set a screen in a certain direction and the point guard would attack that way. The play, as best demonstrated by John Stockton and Karl Malone, usually came from the midrange area, giving the point guard a shorter jump shot and the big man a one-bounce-pass-to-a-dunk opportunity.
Watching the game today, you'll immediately notice that the simple pick-and-roll is no longer so simple. Point guards are fearless shooting threes, big men have the skill to shoot from 23 feet out, defenders are quicker and scouting reports have more intel on teams' pick-and-roll sets and provide detailed individual breakdowns that emphasize subtle advantages, such as which players bite on certain kinds of head fakes and dribbling moves.
All that's led to more dynamic high pick-and-rolls to put extended pressure on defenses and more player creativity within those schemes.
It's common to see star point guards—players like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul—try to dribble to get around a screen or work a pick-and-roll twice with their big-man teammate on both sides of the point-guard defender to try to throw him and the big-man defender off. Even with the passing element, sometimes point guards will make a behind-the-back dish out of a pick-and-roll to their big-man teammate for a three-pointer.
Overall, today's point guards are more adept at cleverly maneuvering around pick-and-rolls, and they know how to work screens back and forth with an array of different dribbles. For a long time, coaches have told players not to "dance" with the ball, which is what a player like Jamal Crawford is known for, but that dribbling flair in pick-and-rolls can help the sets become effective. It also provides entertainment value to what can feel like a very routine play from the stands.
For example, there's one creative move that stands out, which Irving and Paul have mastered. When they're making a hard cut with the ball one way, as it's coming back up to their strong hand, they'll quickly take it with their opposite hand and go in the other direction. It was made famous on the streetball courts, but because of the advances in pick-and-roll play and extra bounce needed at times, it's popping up now in the league.
"There have been nice combo moves and some ankles getting tweaked this season," Miami-based NBA trainer and dribbling specialist Darren Weissman said. "Guys are reading the defense well, making creative moves and reacting with different counter moves. It's been fun to watch—not fun to guard. One time, Kyrie was playing with a guy on a screen and faked like he was using it and went behind his back the other way, making the defender spin around."
The success of the dynamic high pick-and-roll not only has helped point guards and big men pull up for more three-pointers and has made middle-of-the-paint penetration easier, because the offensive set extends the defense, it's also allowed for more corner threes and opened up the baseline area for players to attack the basket for potential alley-oops, as help defenders have to close in on the point guard.
Miami Heat center Chris Andersen, for example, made a living down the baseline last season during the team's championship run, finishing passes from the driving LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.
One result of the growing popularity of this play: There are so many standout point guards this season, the All-Star voting committee is going to have sleepless nights thinking about who suits up in New Orleans next year. Another reason: Since Monday, point guards Lillard (twice), Kemba Walker and Brandon Jennings have all hit game-winning shots. And that's only the beginning.
Here are 10 other observations from around the league this week:
1. D-Wade's wits keep getting better with age: On Wednesday night, Wade finished with 32 points on 15-for-25 (60 percent) shooting—and if you watched closely, he consistently outsmarted his main defender, Lance Stephenson, all night. Wade played the Pacers shooting guard with quick leak-outs to the wing in transition, misdirection moves to the basket in half-court sets and clever dashes to the paint to get early positioning.
That intelligence in the later part of Wade's career has helped him shoot a career-high 54 percent from the field. A key component for Wade, like LeBron James (who's shooting, mind you, nearly 60 percent from the field), is that they've realized that to prolong their career, they need to be more effective closer to the basket—and they've backed that up with their basketball IQ.
In addition to getting guys to bite with his trademark mid-post fakes, Wade is also showing trickery on the block, with backdoor cuts and other clever off-the-ball movement. Instead of looking to dunk like his younger "Flash" self, he's been utilizing his extra muscle, using more spin moves to get around quicker defenders and unveiling one particular move more often: the jump hook.
"He's smart, very efficient," Weissman said. "He's getting into the paint, but not off of as much slashing and penetration. He's doing it on a lot of post-ups, backing down guards who aren't as strong as him, and he attacks the basket and protects the ball with his back to the basket. He gets into the lane and scores on a lot of jump hooks in the paint.
"He'd beat a guy off the dribble and instead of trying to jump over him at the rim, he will do a spin move or a drop step or fake a drop step and then go up with a jump hook. Athleticism can help you a lot, but more importantly, if you got what it takes upstairs, you can play as long as you want."
2. Defense outstanding, but offense overlooked: Boston Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley is arguably the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA. In a late-game situation on Wednesday night, with Detroit Pistons point guard Jennings looking to score in an open-court isolation situation, he couldn't weave by Bradley on several attempts and ended up forcing an ill-advised fadeaway from the wing.
Now Bradley, who's long been streaky on offense, is finally becoming a consistent scorer—and a big reason has been his improved timing and pull-up jump shot in pick-and-rolls, and his spot-up three-point shooting playing alongside Jordan Crawford, who's been stepping in for injured Rajon Rondo. While Bradley and Crawford have gotten more comfortable playing off each other, the replacement point guard gives all the kudos to Bradley for his offensive turnaround.
"Confidence," he said. "It's all him."
In November, Bradley averaged 13.0 points per game and shot 38 percent (0.7-for-2.2) from three-point range. Through his first eight games in December (5-3 record), he's at 15.3 and 54.8 percent (2.1-for-3.9), respectively. If he keeps up, that's good for the Celtics, who expect Rondo to return around late January. But that's potentially bad for their future—as Bradley, according to a source close to the team, declined a four-year, $24 million deal this past summer. The source said he wants at least $8 million, and if his current value continues to climb, he'll have an argument in his favor.
That's not all. Listen to this stat from Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com: Bradley's defensive rebound percentage this month, before Wednesday's game, was 14.1, 0.5 of a percentage point higher than Jared Sullinger (13.6). Bradley's rebound rate is nearly double his career average (7.7 percent), per Forsberg, and he's hauling in 4.1 defensive rebounds per game this month (third-best on the team behind Kris Humphries and Brandon Bass).
3. Rise and screen: In Tyson Chandler's return on Wednesday night after missing 20 games with a leg injury, he quickly made an impact without getting on the scoreboard. That's because he still had his underrated screening ability and heads-up timing in pick-and-rolls. The New York Knicks had been sorely missing those assets to establish a more fluid offense with easier shot opportunities, rather than over-relying on Carmelo Anthony to go to work in isolation (according to Synergy Sports, he has 151 isolation plays this season—by far the most in the league).
Here's how Chandler's impact unfolded in just the first few minutes of the Knicks' game against the Milwaukee Bucks: 1) Pick-and-roll screen to help free up J.R. Smith for a jump shot; 2) Down screen for Beno Udrih to get open for a three-pointer; 3) Pick-and-roll screen with Smith that led to a Chandler dunk. These successful plays represented three of the first six Knicks baskets of the game.
Offensively, Chandler is also a smart passer at the top of the key, watching for teammates trying to get open from other screens. He's also looking to post and shoot elbow jumpers more often—two things he's been working on more in practice. While he was a bit rusty on Wednesday with his offensive attack, losing the ball a couple of times while dribbling, that comes with just getting back on the court.
Chandler was also slow getting up the court. Typically, he has the foot speed to set up or fake screens cleverly in transition to enable Smith, Anthony or whoever to knock down a quick three-pointer as a fast-break trailer—an overlooked sequence in which the Knicks stood out last season.
4. Lucky lefties: It's hard to recall the last time—if ever—a team had three left-handed shooters in the starting five. This season, the Pistons are starting southpaws Jennings, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe, and they're all, coincidentally, connected by some geography. Jennings and Smith both attended Oak Hill Academy as teenagers in Virginia, while Monroe went to college at Georgetown.
5. Speaking of the left hand: Thursday's news about Kobe Bryant's injury was disheartening since he recently returned from another, but he's only expected to miss six weeks. Then, he'll be able to continue a surprise element he's brought more to his finishes near the basket: using his opposite hand with shooting.
That was the case with his first field goal of the season against the Toronto Raptors, when he drove to the basket on the left side, pump faked twice and banked in a left-handed shot. A few games later against the Charlotte Bobcats, he got into the low post and spun inside for a short lefty jump hook.
That kind of cleverness is more useful now for Bryant, who doesn't have the same hops he used to now that he's 35 years old and coming off a full left Achilles tendon repair. The same goes for when he returns from a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.
6. The diminutive 2-guard: With the Orlando Magic using Victor Oladipo more at point guard this season, 6'0" Jameer Nelson has adjusted to playing more off the ball—and he's shooting the lights out this month. Make that 45.3 percent from three-point range (3.0-for-6.6). A key for Nelson is that he's been mostly healthy after a few injury-plagued seasons.
Nelson is a rarity in the league today, having suited up with the same team for his entire career (nine years now). In fact, since the Magic went to the Finals in 2009, he's the only player still remaining on the roster—and he'd like to finish his career in O-town.
"My loyalty is here in Orlando," Nelson recently told reporters. "I don't know what they feel like they are going to do with me, whether they want to move me or continue to have me here. Me personally, I would like to stay."
7. Ceasing the opportunity: Last season, according to NBA.com, small forward Rasual Butler, then a free agent, thought he would sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but then the team traded for another swingman, Ronnie Brewer. So Butler, at 33 years old at the time, unusually took his talents to the D-League when he could've likely signed overseas somewhere for millions.
He went on to kill the D-League, averaging 17.8 points in 32.7 minutes and earning the Impact Player of the Year award. That caught the eye of Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird, who, along with Kevin Pritchard, are regarded as two of the best talent evaluators in the business.
Now, after the Pacers had 13 priority guaranteed contracts entering the season, Butler is unexpectedly part of the team's nine-man rotation. What helped him climb up the depth chart was the three-point shooting woes of Orlando Johnson, who has not connected on a long ball in his last seven games (0-for-10). Butler stepped in and knocked down six of 10 from downtown in the Pacers' past five games, whereas Johnson has only logged four minutes in the past three games.
8. Catch me if you can: Utah Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward has logged the most distance traveled this season on the court (72.85 miles), according to SportVU, with an average of 2.6 miles per game and average speed of 4.3 mph. That's what happens when a 7-21 team struggles to score—93.1 points per game; fourth-worst in the league—and has only one talented, versatile wing threat.
There's not a play that coach Tyrone Corbin doesn't run for Hayward. He takes the ball up the court, he runs off down and baseline screens—as well as screens where he cuts through the paint—and he looks to score in isolation and pick-and-rolls. He does a lot in 36.3 minutes, averaging 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Perhaps with point guard Trey Burke's recent surge—he had a career-high 30 points on Wednesday night in a win over the Magic—Hayward can breathe a little easier.
9. Chasing history: Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are nine wins away from having the third-most wins of any teammate tandem in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs stars are now at 610 wins, but they're still a long way from catching first-place Stockton and Malone (906). Parker and Duncan would have to play together for at least five more seasons to overtake the legendary Utah Jazz duo.
Also ahead of Parker and Duncan are Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale and Robert Parish (656), and Celtics' Sam Jones and Bill Russell (618 wins).
10. Food for thought: As former Chicago Bulls center and recent coach Bill Cartwright watches the NBA at home, not only is he amazed that no sideline boss runs the Triangle offense anymore—which led to 11 championships in Chitown and Los Angeles—but also that most teams don't have an offensive system.
"Nobody runs the Triangle—not one coach in the league," Cartwright told Bleacher Report. "Also, what other sport does a coach stand up on the sideline and tell you what play they're going to run besides the NFL? There are very few systems being run out there in the NBA. There are guys standing up on the sideline calling individual plays out."
The record 13 coaching changes this past offseason are one good reason there aren't many offensive systems being implemented. Cartwright said sometimes it takes more than a season to learn a system, which is how he and his teammates felt with the Triangle. And in the league today with less patience and more personnel movement, coaches don't have much time to massage a system.
In fact, a source close to the Washington Wizards told Bleacher Report that the team basically runs plays for only John Wall and Bradley Beal. This shift is happening: With the high pick-and-roll becoming a staple for nearly every team, and players skillfully and athletically being able to score more quickly in transition or within the first half of the shot clock—known by some as the secondary fast break—methodological halfcourt-style offenses are not as prevalent.