October 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Can Patrick Beverley fix Clippers’ pick-and-roll woes?

It was telling, Wednesday night, that Clippers coach Tyronn Lue focused on one particular area where he believed Patrick Beverley’s return, after eight games away with a knee injury, would help his team the most.

“Being able to guard the basketball,” Lue said. “Being able to guard pick and roll, which we struggled in the last few games.”

The Clippers hadn’t just struggled: By points allowed per possession, and the frequency with which opponents scored while running the staple of the modern NBA playbook, the Clippers rated as low as the league’s second-worst defense before Wednesday’s 119-112 win in Minnesota.

Lue has called the pick and roll “the hardest play in the game,” because stopping it requires all five defenders working in concert, rotating as if connected by one string. Yet the “drop” coverage run by the Clippers, and the way they’d stuck with it, had too often given opponents’ easy opportunities in exploiting it, said Mo Dakhil, a former NBA video coordinator with the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.

In drop, a screener’s defender stays several feet behind the pick, sagging back in the paint, to cut off the screener’s roll to the hoop while also avoiding being blown-by on a ballhandler’s drive. But by cautiously dropping too close to the basket, Clippers big men had created open runways toward the rim for guards whose defenders had become stuck on screens out by the three-point arc.

“I don’t think they’re getting enough help from the guards fighting through the picks or recovering in time to release the big so they can go back to their man,” said Dakhil, who analyzes the NBA for Bleacher Report. “And I think the bigs are just way too far back, so it’s letting [guards] tee off, either from long range or just go right into a mid-range pullup. That’s something that analytics will say you’re OK giving up. But they’re also letting these guys get to the rim.”

For Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, that buffer created an opportunity to walk into uncontested open midrange jumpers. For Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, it meant enough space to rev up his speed on drives. For Boston’s Kemba Walker, it was enough space to fire a game-winning 12-foot jumper.

“As a big, being in drop, that’s a shot we’ll live with, but when the guards keep making them, when they’ve got it going for them, it is frustrating,” Ivica Zubac said Feb. 3, after a win in Cleveland.

It is by design that the majority of pick-and-roll points in recent games had been scored by the ballhander. By sliding over to help on picks and rolls too generously at times, Clippers defenders had left passing lanes open for kick-out three-pointers, Lue said. The team adjusted to stay home on shooters around the perimeter, essentially seeking to limit the number of outcomes from any given screen by funneling the ballhandler into a contained area.

In that regard, Lue believed they had done a “good job.”

“So now we got to do a better job of our bigs moving up a little bit more,” he added. “I think they are too far back in the drops. So try to move our bigs up to at least the free-throw line and just give teams a different look.”

By sending less help, more pressure was placed on the two defenders directly involved in the action. What surprised Dakhil in rewatching recent games against Brooklyn, Cleveland, Boston and Sacramento was the frequency of breakdowns and how rarely, if ever, the Clippers made alterations mid-game in spite of them.

“At a certain point you have to adjust,” he said. “Guards have gotten so much better at attacking the drop that it’s almost a defense to me that I think needs to be used more sparingly.

“[Ty] is right, the bigs need to be higher up. … The other big issue is I just don’t think their guards are doing a good enough job avoiding the screens. I feel like they’re getting pretty much picked pretty easily and thinking, ‘OK the big guy’s got it now.’ That’s kind of a tough scenario in a lot of these instances.”

Zubac felt the same after the victory in Cleveland, feeling guards hadn’t chased over screens hard enough at times, leaving the sagging defender to make a choice as both the ballhandler and screener approached the rim. The Cavaliers made numerous floaters in the paint in the first half before struggling after halftime as the Clippers were quicker to contest from behind.

Opposing ballhandlers are committing turnovers on 11% of pick and rolls, the league’s fifth-lowest rate, while shooting 44.7%, the league’ seventh-highest percentage.

“For sure it gets frustrating for a big because like I can’t really do much in that situation when it’s two-on-one,” Zubac said. “If I step up and try to block it, I’m gonna leave the big open for a dunk or for an offensive board, so it gets frustrating. But that’s our defense and we’ll live with those shots.”

In beating the Timberwolves, the Clippers displayed some adjustments, notably switching some ball-screens involving center Karl-Anthony Towns. On another, guard Malik Beasley turned the corner after a screen by Towns only to see Ibaka lurking at the free-throw line, leading Beasley to reverse course and use the screen moving the other direction.

“It helped us just with switching,” Kawhi Leonard said. “Keeping them in front of us, not letting their guards get downhill.”

The return of Beverley, a former all-defense honoree, should help the Clippers (18-8), whose defense remains far from a finished product, in part because of the lack of practice time afforded during a compressed schedule. By Lue’s own admission, he prefers to wait until the postseason to unveil some strategies.

“I think they’ll get better as they go,” Dakhil said. “But I think the team itself would do fine if they just switched up the coverages a little bit more, maybe, and make offenses have to think a little bit more.”

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AT CHICAGO

When: 5 p.m. PST, Friday

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Update: The Bulls (10-14) are 4-8 at home. In his last matchup against the Clippers, Chicago guard Zach LaVine scored 45 points. He is coming off a win Tuesday in which he scored 46 against New Orleans, including nine three-pointers.