I had expected to do this week’s write-up after Wednesday’s game against Chicago, but I have accumulated too many thoughts to hold out on this column any longer.
Double Teaming Post Players?
Per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, our team has used this break between games to work on defense, specifically addressing the looks we have given up a the rim (we rank 30th in opponent field goal percentage from closer than 5 feet). Bonnell’s article also suggested the notion of us doubling team opponents in the post in the future and this is where the matter got me interested. Steve Clifford is an established defensive mind who’s coaching an NBA team. I, obviously, can’t compare my knowledge about the game to his. However, I have to wonder whether that really is a legitimate solution to our woes.
First off, our whole defensive success last year was built on the idea of being conservative and not doubling opposing players (with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony famously going off against us and us sticking to a one-on-one match-up for most of the night). It suited our team as our bigs wouldn’t do well in a more aggressive defensive scheme. Moreover, our wings are capable dribble penetration stoppers which solves a lot of problems. Second off, scoring from the post is a feature of the past. With illegal defense rules that prevented defenders from over-crowding the strong side of the court, capable scorers could often basically go one-on-one with their match-up during the 80s and 90s, that especially being the case in the post. Nowadays these looks tend to be way more difficult, not to mention that many of today’s players lack the skillset necessary to excel with their back to the basket. And that’s why, third off, playing through the post (or for that matter attacking by isolating a good player anywhere on the court) has become more of a mechanism to force a double team and thus swing the ball for a better shot. I’m concerned whether this isn’t exactly what will happen if we do apply this strategy in games, especially with our rotations having been quite sloppy in comparison to last year.
Disregarding the overall possible impact scoring from the post can have in today’s NBA, I just don’t see how our team is suffering from this problem. Al Jefferson is, perhaps, best when he’s in fact guarding a post player, instead of facing a play that requires more agility. Al is stout enough not to be pushed around by any player and his swipe-happy defense actually often yields results when defending the post. If he maintains his position and doesn’t get too close to the opponent (unlike in the following play where he got too excited to play his buddy and former team-mate, Paul Millsap) he is fine in these situations.
Meanwhile, Marvin Williams has been surprisingly competent at battling bigger fours. Us having him front certain power forwards has obviously been a plan from the start of the season and it has worked out quite well. Marv’s hard work when fronting mostly paid off against behemoths like Zach Randolph and LaMarcus Aldridge (just as he also has had a few lucky Al Jefferson-like swipes):
Our bench is rather uneven in this aspect of the game, but definitely not bad enough to suggest installing double teams in our defense as I would only like to see opponents trying to go at Bismack Biyombo that close to the basket. Biz will fall for fakes and moves of more experienced players, but he still is a guy with a freaking 7’7 wingspan. Cody Zeller is better when stepping out to the perimeter but has seemingly become strong enough to get by as a post defender.
Maybe I’m overreacting by dedicating a part of this column to Jefferson’s quotes on this matter. Perhaps, it’s simply Clifford, a defensive coach, trying out different things and having his players ready to attempt all sorts of schemes if the need ever comes up. Either way, I’ll hold myself accountable if these doubles do start occurring and will analyze them in further blog entries.
What actually bothered me on defense last week was…
The Marreese Speights Game
The seeds for the 27-point Speights game (with 16 of those points coming in the fourth quarter) were planted before Marreese even hit the floor, with us again struggling to contain pick-n-rolls. Al Jefferson being easy to target in these instances was something you could expect, whether he awkwardly tries to step out on Steph or backs down and gives Curry place to operate:
But Cody Zeller having similar problems as well was an unpleasant surprise. Zeller seemingly just couldn’t find the right timing on his hedges which resulted in open shots for Golden State:
In his defense though, doing this is a tough task as evidenced by this possession on which he did stop Steph’s movement with a hedge, only for Curry to instantly force a breakdown by passing out of the trap:
When the much more trigger-happy Speights hit the floor to replace Andrew Bogut, Al Jefferson was toast. We even had him attempting the rare hedge in hopes of finding something that could work in stopping a screen-and-roll that is so tough for Al to guard. The combination of dangerous shooters and ball handlers running the pick-n-roll (and thus our guards having to go over the Speights screen, which forces Al to drop back far) and Jefferson having to step out so far to contest a jump-shot seemed almost unfair:
Meanwhile, the Mo Speights assignment proved to have different challenges for Bismack Biyombo. In his case it was more about Biz’s problems with positioning. Here’s the usual Biyombo mistake of him being too jumpy whenever he has to guard his player further away from the basket:
And then there, of course, also had to be the play without a proper box out that Biz tried to fix with a mistimed jump for the rebound:
While on this play Bismack gets tricked by a subtle Brandon Rush hesitation that gets the guard past Biyombo and results in a tip-in by Speights:
That last play is a good example of how the guards also were a part of the breakdowns. In our schemes a pick-n-roll that close to the side-lines has to be “iced”, meaning that Roberts had to deny Rush the opportunity to properly run it by stepping in front of Speights’s screen. This play wasn’t the sole exception as Roberts and Stephenson repeated this mistake later on, while Kemba got caught when trying to defend with his hands instead of his feet:
That’s how little daylight a good team like Golden State needs to create a shot. You allow their guards to get in the paint through the middle and it can be over in a matter of a few seconds.
The problem of Kemba’s size against bigger guards reared its ugly head again as well. Someone like Shaun Livingston can come in for 14 minutes to supposedly “only” score 4 points and dish out 4 assists, when, matter of fact, he actually gave Kemba fits and it created scoring opportunities for the Dubs:
Us repeatedly having issues in pick-n-roll defense is a real problem. The feeling that an open two from the screener is an inevitable outcome and a possibility that is always there for the offense isn’t a soothing one. Teams are prepared to play against us this way and, as crazy as a Marreese Speights 16-point quarter might seem, there is a reason why it did happen, with the same applying for the Channing Frye game. So far we’ve been quite conservative in such situations and, perhaps, that might change given the overall message of the quotes Bonnell used in his article. Besides toggling between hedging and dropping back on the pick-n-roll, the only real adjustment I noticed in this game was Brian Roberts “stunting” down late in the fourth quarter, which is a Tom Thibodeau-like tool for conservative defenses – a third defender appearing to close out on the shooter in order to contest the shot, yet quickly darting back at his assignment before actually doing so:
I will hold back on tearing apart the Atlanta game so I would not create an overabundance of these defensive breakdown clips. The game at Phillips did feature similar plays – Teague crossing Jefferson and getting to the middle on “iced” pick-n-rolls, Elton Brand and Mike Scott getting open looks on pick-n-rolls where our bigs drop back, Kemba making positioning errors (and getting burnt for going under screens, something which he probably didn’t do against Golden State due to their three-point shooting reputation) and our guards having a few unforced breakdowns. However, the one play I do want to single out is Roberts attempting the same “stunt” on a Mike Scott pick-n-roll:
The key of this play is that you can’t call this a “stunt” since Roberts actually ends up rotating onto Scott. Now, the interesting part is that after the obvious pass to Schroder follows, Brian finds himself clawing his way back to his original man, instead of Kemba rotating over. I wouldn’t call this a error on Kemba’s part as he’s probably following our defensive rules and being concerned about the corner shooter, Kent Bazemore. This creates an interesting situation where one of our players attempts to stop the steady flow of open pick-n-pop jumpers by helping from the weak-side (it’s hard to say whether that was an actual suggestion by Clifford after the Speights game), yet the rest don’t follow suit since it’s not a part of our usual defensive rules. These sort of judgments, which have to be made in a split-second, will become critical if our team does indeed start doubling more.
Brian Roberts’s Offense
Moving on to this week’s likes… With Roberts being a 27-year-old rookie at New Orleans during the 2012-13 season and a back-up point guard in general, I can’t say that I had a great grasp on his abilities beforehand. I knew him has a great shooter, I remember him breaking out in what is the “Anthony Davis Sorrow Bowl” for Charlotte fans (Brian scored 16 points and dished out 8 assists against the Bobcats in what was his fifth NBA game) and I thought of him as a better driver to the rim (more on this in a second).
After 18 games played I can say that I like and fully support the pick-up. Roberts had a slow start to the season, but that seemingly had more to do with him simply not knocking down shots. During the last 11 games Brian has averaged 9.8 points per game on .478 FG% shooting. His three-point shooting, which looks bad for the whole season (.302%), has also picked up, in contrast to the one make he got on his first 11 treys. Roberts’s off-the-dribble game in the pick-n-roll has been on point as he’s in the top-20 in FG% in pull-up shots, per SportVU (a pull-up shot is any jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting).
Returning to a point I made earlier, his performance so far has displayed his limitations though. Basketball-reference’s stats do, however, prove my hunch that he drove the ball a bit more often during his stint at N’awlins:
The drop in percentage of field goals attempted at the rim or between 3 and 10 feet from the basket is there, but the increase in their efficiency is encouraging (as it is for longer twos also displayed in the table). And that’s exactly what pleasantly surprised me during the last few games. According to NBA.com, Roberts has made 11 of his 16 attempts from less than 8 feet during that afore mentioned stretch of 11 games (which is good for 68.8%).
There’s a certain niftiness to these floating scoop shots that I enjoy, which is, perhaps, one you could say Kemba Walker lacks and would sometimes need to have, instead of barreling in with his small frame into 7-footers. I mean, look – given his age (and dare I say even if he was a bit younger this applied) Brian Roberts’s ceiling is being a back-up point guard. He doesn’t excel as an athlete whether you’re talking about his speed, athleticism or strength. His FG% therefore on these close shots is pedestrian when compared to the top guards in the league. Such little things help his case and add more appeal to his potential as a player, given that his only real strength is his shooting.
His defense has mostly been average. He doesn’t go out his way to make plays but he also has made few mistakes. There have been certain breakdowns on, per example, back-door cuts, but I’m grateful that he’s at least competent at that end of the court and isn’t from the mold of border-line unplayable small back-up guards who can light it up on one end, yet get lit up on the other one due to their size. That did happen with him on Wesley Matthews in the second Portland game, but that’s more on Steve Clifford for benching Lance Stephenson as you can’t expect Roberts to guard twos (our injury situations didn’t help either).
All in all, it might seem a bit too little to ask out of one of your players but, hey, at the end of the day that’s the reality of back-up guards in this league. I’ll take Roberts’s shooting and average defense, and will hope that he switches it up a bit from time to time and makes some of these lay-ups to keep defenses guessing.
PJ Hairston Keeps Firing It Up
For a rookie, Hairston hasn’t been shy about shooting the ball at all. He’s 15th in the league in PTS per touch where he’s ranked right under Kobe Bryant, who’s having a legendary shot-chucking season himself. Out of curiosity, I went through the entire league to see just how often Hairston fires it up since NBA.com, unfortunately, doesn’t provide a stat of FGA per touch. PJ is taking a field goal for every two front court touches he gets (5.9 FGA per game to 12.0 front court touches per game, that’s 2.03 touches per field goal attempt). There is only one wing in the entire league who chucks it up as often as Hairston does and that is Shabazz Muhammad (1.92 touches per field goal attempt) who’s having a rather productive trigger-happy season himself by currently being first in PTS per touch (shout out to Terrence Ross, just trailing Hairston in the front court touches/FGA department).
(For those wondering – I didn’t include bigs in this comparison since they’re much more likely to only touch the ball in situations where finishing the possession is the right course of action, examples being Brandan Wright and Marreese Speights. That’s also why I sorted the players by PTS per touch, instead of PTS per half-court touch. Bigs have more total touches by the way of getting their fingers on the ball when rebounding and that number falls mightily when limited to the “half court touch”.)
This small research felt relevant after Hairston got very trigger-happy during the two games of this past week. This sequence of three three-point attempts in a small stretch of time was amazing for all the reasons, whether it’s his supreme confidence, the hilarity of his shot selection (I don’t think I’ve laughed as much during this season as after that third try by PJ from downtown) or the fact that a Horncats team could actually pull off such a three-pointer reliant stretch and get back in the game:
These two possessions at Atlanta weren’t shabby for his shot-rate standards either:
The funny part is that we need this in the worst way possible as long as he stays successful at making these shots (Hairston is currently shooting the three at .372%) as previously highlighted in the week 3 blog.
Atlanta Shutting Our Offense Down
On a relevant note, what Atlanta did to our offense was just embarrassing. I understand that me bringing this up every other week could get wearisome to you, but the extent to which our spacing hurts us surprises me every time even more. The convenient wisdom against our starters can be just going under every single screen, the defenders not having to worry about Kemba’s, Stephenson’s and Hendo’s (or MKG’s) pull-up shooting. The Hawks, however, did also defend those pick-n-rolls aggressively on plenty of our possessions and thus displayed our inability to properly create good shots (on a side-note – such examples make me pessimistic about the idea of our team thriving on offense for 48 minutes if we didn’t have Al as our players just aren’t good enough offensively). These 48 seconds of feebleness with our wing players not being able to create anything takes the cake for the Lolcats Play of the Week award:
And can you blame them? Atlanta’s bigs are comfortable coming up quite high when defending the screen-and-roll in what ends up being a “drop back” on it, while weak-side defenders ignore other players to clog Hairston’s driving lanes to such a degree:
Perhaps, this next possession illustrates my point about their willingness to play our pick-n-rolls aggressively much better. Notice how they disregard the screener and freely opt to have two guys on our ball handler for a second before everybody getting back to their real assignment:
These are depressive times. Here’s to hoping that a part of the reason for our 4-14 record has been the tough schedule and that Kidd-Gilchrist’s return will happen soon..