How Important Is the Pick-and-Roll in Today's NBA?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2014

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Pick-and-rolls are everywhere in today's NBA

Slowly, surely, they have become one of the most common plays offenses run. Five years ago, during the 2009-10 season, the average team ran pick-and-rolls that ended in a shot, turnover or foul 16.4 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports. By the end of last year, that number had climbed to 21.8 percent

With offenses employing—and defenses seeing—these plays more than 20 percent of the time on average, the importance of understanding and excelling within and against pick-and-rolls should prove principal to overall success. 

In theory.

To find out how much of an impact pick-and-roll savvy has on offensive and defensive performance, we turn to the numbers. 

Synergy breaks pick-and-roll efficiency into two categories: plays that end with the ball-handler and possessions that end with the roll man. Since the distribution of pick-and-rolls varies by team, we'll need to find a weighted efficiency mean that accounts for differences in frequency.

Teams won't split pick-and-rolls between ball-handlers and roll men evenly. For example, 23 percent of the San Antonio Spurs' offensive plays came within pick-and-rolls last season. About 16.6 percent of those sets ended with the ball-handler, while 6.4 finished with the roll man.

And yet the Spurs' roll men averaged more points per possession (.97) than their ball-handlers (.88), hence the problem at hand...which has been solved.

Bleacher Report's resident math wizard Adam Fromal provided yours truly with an equation to combat such imbalance. 

The equation itself can be seen here, and it calculates weighted pick-and-roll efficiency. If you're not into that sort of thing, just know it yields an accurate, all-inclusive average that sheds light on the correlation between pick-and-roll performance and general success.

Does that light reinforce the value of pick-and-roll comprehension, or is its increase in popularity more reasonless celebrity than substantiated significance?

Pick-and-Roll Offense

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 1: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers drives against the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 1, 2014 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User e
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Everything starts on the offensive end.

Offenses dictate the frequency with which pick-and-rolls are enacted and seen. Lately, they've been cropping up more than regularly, emerging as something of an offensive monopoly.

SB Nation's Doug Eberhardt wrote in April:

The pick and roll is the genesis of the modern NBA offense. It forces the defense to make a decision on each and every possession. That decision then opens up a multitude of offensive options: the pull-up jumper, the drive to the paint, the pass to the rolling or popping man, the kick-out pass, the dish to someone coming off an action on the opposite side, etc. There is so much going on.

Stressing the point from earlier, here's a look at how often offenses have worked in pick-and-rolls since 2009:

There has been a 32.9 percent increase in the average leaguewide use of pick-and-rolls over the last five years. That's quite the jump. Frankly, it's absurd. 

Perhaps in a good way.

Looking at last year only, here's how a team's weighted pick-and-roll efficiency—in points per possession—compares to its overall offensive display:

That's a fairly strong correlation.

Each of the seven most efficient pick-and-roll offenses also finished in the top seven of Synergy's overall offensive rankings. Pure happenstance? It could be.

It just doesn't seem to be.

When analyzing the pick-and-roll data since 2009, the relationship at hand doesn't change:

The 16 best pick-and-roll offenses over the last five years all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency or better.

Stretching even deeper, only two of the top 30 pick-and-roll performers—Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors—weren't top-10 offenses in that particular year as well. Both aberrations coincidentally came during the 2010-11 campaign.

Subpar execution has also spelled bad things for general offensive efforts. Just two of the 30 worst pick-and-roll acts since 2009 ranked in the top half of offensive efficiency during their respective years. 

Take a look at where the 34 worst pick-and-roll offenses—bottom-30 marks plus four statistical ties—ranked in general since 2009:

Good luck trying maintain a top or even run-of-the-mill offense without pick-and-roll success. 

With little doubt that strong pick-and-roll attacks positively impact offensive displays, there's but one question left to ask: Is one version more important than the other?

Plays ending with ball-handlers make up the majority of pick-and-rolls. Not one team ran more plays for its roll men last season.

And truthfully, that's no surprise.

Ball-handlers control the rock. They're the decision-makers. It's fitting they're the ones finishing plays more.

Below you'll see how a team's rock-wielder efficiency last season compared to its offensive standing:

Without pause, let's see how things look on the roll-men side of things:

Results on both ends continue to support what we already know. But there is a tighter correlation between offensive success and ball-handler efficiency.

This also shouldn't come as a mind-bending shock.

Roll men are, well, rolling. They're moving toward the basket, whereas ball-handlers are more likely to find themselves on the perimeter. Converting shots closer to the iron is easier. That's what the numbers show here.

No team averaged fewer than 0.84 points per possession in roll-man offense. The league-wide average for ball-handlers was noticeably lower, checking in at 0.79.

Creating separation and finding success in the latter category is harder. By and large, the teams that did boasted better offenses overall; only two top-10 offenses ranked outside the top half of ball-handler efficiency.

Generally speaking, though, teams—as we've seen—shouldn't rely on one specialty.

As always, balance is important.

Pick-and-Roll Defense

December 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) controls the ball against the defense of Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA
USA TODAY Sports

Time to flip the script.

As the NBA has evolved, so has its players and rules. And like Forum Blue & Gold's Darius Soriano explained in March 2013, this gradual, ongoing transformation has not only impacted how teams defend but what they're defending:

With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.

Upticks in pick-and-roll implementation has put pressure on defenses to master prevention against it. If teams are going to see it, they must be able to stop it. 

Multicolored dots abound below once again, showing the link between a team's weighted pick-and-roll defense against blanketed defensive results last season. Note that in this case, lower numbers—points allowed per possession—indicate a better defense:

Things have certainly changed here.

A relationship exists, but it's far weaker than the one on offense. The league's best pick-and-roll defense came from the Miami Heat, yet they ranked just 13th overall. The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves tied with the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards for second place, and their general defense was awful.

Outliers of that kind weren't found on the offensive end. Again, the seven best pick-and-roll offenses all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency. Four of the top 10 pick-and-roll defenses came complete with top-10 overall finishes here. 

It's not a big difference, but it is a difference.

However, it's one that erases itself when one pores over pick-and-roll defenses since 2009:

Welp.

A look back over the past five years has strengthened the relationship. Three of the 15 best pick-and-roll defenses since 2009 finished outside the top 10 of defensive efficiency. That's it.

Moreover, the difference in teams that found defensive success while struggling against pick-and-rolls is even bigger.

Here you'll see where the 37 worst pick-and-roll defenses—bottom-30 marks plus seven statistical ties—ranked on defense overall since 2009:

Best of luck to defenses not thriving against pick-and-rolls. These numbers are nigh identical to the offensive ones above.

That brings us back to identifying the driving force behind strong pick-and-roll defenses.

Last season's results are especially important when separated, since the immediate correlation wasn't as strong, so here's the link between ball-handler defense and total protection:

Pausing remains overrated, so here's how it looks when charting roll-man prevention:

Stronger connections are found between roll-man defense and overall guardianship this time.

Four of the top 12 ball-handler defenses ranked outside the top half of defensive efficiency, or 33 percent. Only three of the top 14 roll-man defenses—top-12 marks plus two ties—finished in the bottom 15 of defensive rank, or 21 percent. 

This one's more of an inconclusive difference. Having a specialty seems to help teams more on defense than offense, yet the dichotomy changes nothing.

Defending the pick-and-roll one way or the other—or both—counts for more than brownie points.

Finding Value

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Offenses won't stop running pick-and-rolls.

Defenses won't stop seeing pick-and-rolls

They're everywhere, on both ends of the floor, omnipresent and never-ending.

"Coaches see something and say, 'Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that,'" current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson told Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum last year. "Screen-roll...San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll."

That hasn't changed, nor will it anytime soon.

To succeed in the NBA, teams need to have a pick-and-roll identity, whether it's on offense or defense. They aren't everything—the Sacramento Kings, a 28-win disaster, ranked in the top 10 of both pick-and-roll defense and offense last year—but they're a start, a foundation.

Most of the league's 2014 playoff teams (13) ranked in the top 10 of pick-and-roll offense or defense during the regular season.

Two teams finished in the top 10 of both.

Those teams were the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat and the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

Grasping the pick-and-roll—on either end of the floor—matters. There will always be exceptions and anomalies, but pick-and-rolls are, at this point, an NBA constant. 

And so, too, must be the ability to navigate them. 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports (subscription required) unless otherwise cited. 


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