A bit of a different approach for the Week 7 blog. Following an 0-4 week, two of the losses again coming in close games, I was tempted to re-watch every close game of this season and chart Al Jefferson’s defense in pick-n-rolls, something which I have written about plenty of times before.
25 games in we’ve been the third worst team in clutch situations in the whole league, according to NBA.com (the last 5 minutes of a game where the point difference is 5 points or less). Both our offense (85.9 points per 100 possessions) and defense (112.5) would be the equivalent to the league’s worst during the stretch of a full game. To make matters worse, we’ve played the second most “clutch” minutes having been in such situations in 16 games and for 83 minutes. You can imagine how so many bad “clutch” minutes have worked out for us. I’ve touched on our pathetic last possessions before (an update to the video that accumulates all of the Kemba screen-and-rolls has been made this week as well), yet, besides terrible play-calling down the stretch, it is quite obvious that our starting line-up will have trouble scoring against the best opponent line-ups due to spacing and lack of creativity issues talked about beforehand (so many times that I don’t even feel like adding a hyperlink).
What I didn’t know and only had a hunch about was how damaging Al Jefferson could be on defense down the stretch. Charting his pick-n-rolls and coming to a conclusion is a tricky task. One could easily swing the outcome one way or the other by making some executive decisions that favor his narrative. I do, however, believe that I maintained my integrity throughout the process. Pick-n-rolls that Al Jefferson guarded in fourth quarters and that ended in a turnover, foul, assist or a field goal attempt were the ones being charted. There, of course, are plenty of variables that present themselves when counting up such plays. Jefferson might, hypothetically, give up a mid-range shot by a point guard when in fact his team-mate didn’t properly “ice” the pick-n-roll. Perhaps, a weak-side defender shouldn’t have helped out so much and thus given up a three on a drive off a pick-n-roll that Al would have otherwise contained.
Throughout the process Jefferson’s allowed points-per-possession remained between 110 and 120 though. A couple of shots might have hurt him unfairly (and I will place blame on the suspects as well), but then again some turnovers would be forced by guards (or committed by the offense due to carelessness) where Al had nothing to do with it. The fact that the points given up/pick-n-rolls faced ratio didn’t wildly fluctuate on a game-to-game basis allows me to believe that it can be trusted and by my observations and calculations it is 116.2 points given up per 100 possessions (86 points off 74 pick-n-rolls). During the slate of a full game it would mean the we trail the 30th placed Lakers (110.5) about as much as they trail the 18th best Orlando Magic (104.4).
Let’s break down a game of this past week, the time we lost to the Grizzlies in double overtime as it is still somewhat topical and provides a larger amount of plays to display. In this game the 9 pick-n-rolls which Al faced produced 10 points for the Grizz what would amount to a defensive rating of 111.1.
This game is the perfect example to show off the most recurrent theme throughout all of the charted games which is the fact that the offense can set up an open mid-range shot for the screener any time it wants to. With Marc Gasol getting more touches this year and also launching up more of his field goals between 16 feet and the 3-point line than ever before, I would say Memphis was satisfied to close out their possessions with such a shot. Jefferson simply lacks the quickness to recover from a drop-back to the shooter:
(side-note – some might argue that the third and fourth play aren’t real pick-n-rolls. I’d say that for all intents and purposes they still are. Gasol is there to set the screen and it simply never hits Kemba since he “ices” it, forces the action towards the base-line and away from the pick. Watch how similar Gasol’s movements are on plays one and two, the “real” pick-n-rolls, and on these two. It’s still the same slip before he actually screens Kemba as Marc knows that the desirable outcome of this play is the long two which Al will have no chance of contesting.)
I’ve previously mentioned how Al “seems even more like a man restricted to only one set of movement who is physically incapable of getting back into the play after the primary action taken by him”. It’s time for another thesis on Jefferson’s motions. When last year he would often give up on contesting a three-point shot, it seems like his area of not giving a damn has got closer to the basket as this year you’ll find him ignoring 16 and 17-footers. Random examples like these do not look good and help you understand how there also are so many wide open looks off pick-n-rolls:
I don’t know about you but this being a regular occurrence concerns me. At the end of the day, a fully complete close-out and contest of a raised hand must help to some degree.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Al also has a difficult time dropping back and pulling off the task of both controlling the cut of the screener and the possible dribble drive. Gasol got something out of it both times he did this (and by missing both of his free throws didn’t fully damage Al’s defensive rating numbers):
Obviously, these particular instances can’t be put on Jefferson. Our weak-side defenders have been out of place when helping on these Jefferson-guarded pick-n-rolls and our defense hasn’t been “on a string”, as NBA writers so often like to say. The lack of this particular cohesion where wings want to help out the vulnerable Jefferson has created a lot of open corner threes as previously detailed here and displayed by Quincy Pondexter and Gary Neal on this play:
To paint the full picture and give you insight on the whole process, here are the type of plays I also dealt with and which could have skewed the outcome of the research (yet as stated before did not because of the overall consistency of the points given up/possessions ratio and such plays going both ways, helping Al’s cause as much as hurting it). An example of moreso an unforced error than good defense:
While on this play you have to give credit to Kemba who successfully evades the screen and manages to contest Conley’s shot:
To stress the fact that this is not a case just against Jefferson but that the whole team could improve on this, I have to remind you that our guards haven’t been perfect either. Obviously, not having any data to prove this, I can’t claim that this is true but I would say that our back-court this season has been worse at “icing” pick-n-rolls and providing the necessary first action of denying the ball-handler access to the screen.
That’s Lance Stephenson, who being caught on a subtle fake by Iggy, all of the sudden is no longer in the position of denying the middle. It is way harder for the big to contain the pick-n-roll if the ball handler can use his strong hand and drive interrupted through the middle, while the screener is cutting alongside him. This play ended in a Speights lay-up at the rim and Golden State taking back the lead with 5 minutes left in the game.
To conclude, it is indeed a group effort. This isn’t solely a testament to Al Jefferson being the reason for our late-game slippage. But the following statements are factual. Al Jefferson is on the court to score, however, our four most usual closing-fives have been anemic in fourth quarters, none scoring more than 93.4 per 100 possessions (obviously, Al not being in the best environment to do so contributes to this factor). Opponents will target Al Jefferson in pick-n-rolls. These pick-n-rolls can get a wide open mid-range look at will. A compilation of all the close game fourth quarter pick-n-rolls against Al that end with a jumpshot by the screener (skip the first 49 seconds to get past the Marc Gasol jumpers which you already should have watched):
That’s 135.29 points per 100 possessions or 11 out of 17 field goals, good for 64.7% (one of them being a Pero Antic three). Sure, our defense is constructed conservatively so we wouldn’t over-help on mid-range jumpers but either way they are so open that opponents have been making them. Moreover, what’s important in these “mid-range efficiency” debates is that you can’t underrate their impact. Yes, the game nowadays is much more three-pointer reliant and mid-range looks are a thing of the past. But when they are being made, they still scare defenses into helping (as evidenced by the previously mentioned corner three looks which start with help defenders trying to help Jefferson).
Some like and dislikes to close out the column:
The Roberts/Neal/Williams/Biyombo Line-Ups
It’s just hard to watch our starting line-up against other team starting fives. The Cavaliers, per example, can run any sort of pick-n-roll between Irving, LeBron or Love whenever they want to. They’ll get a good shot out of it or get defenses scrambling to prevent that shot which in turn will create another good look. All we can basically get is an Al Jefferson post-up shot over two defenders or a Cody Zeller jumper off a pick-n-pop. That’s it. Our starters so rarely will break down defenses. It’s swinging the ball around the perimeter and finding nothing until someone has to put up a mid-range shot off the dribble or enter it into Al. Defenses flat-out don’t care about our starting guards and wings coming off screens or running a pick-n-roll. They’ll gladly go under it. That’s how you get a 0-21 start at Cleveland or be horrible at closing out games on offense.
Meanwhile, our bench has been a pleasant surprise with another shooter in Marvin Williams being added to their possible line-ups. Even though not universally respected, Biz can still set a mean screen and dart to the rim the next second (he lacks the proper timing but at least Lance has rewarded Biyombo with a few lobs for alley-oops this year as opposed to previous seasons), while the other three guys are quick to pull the trigger when the chance presents itself. They’ve scored 117.0 points per 100 possessions during the last six games (in 39 minutes; a defensive rating of 101.9), while their offensive rating for the season has been 118.5 (though that adds only five more minutes of a sample size). Those numbers have been high even with Stephenson not meshing with them to such a degree, recording an offensive efficiency of 98.6 when playing with this 4-man line-up (7 games, 23 minutes) and hurting their cause.
Stretches like the second quarter comeback at Cleveland have been very refreshing in contrast to what the starters tend to put up. That formation of guys can find shots like this one:
Matthew Dellavedova has to “tag” (bump the screener to stop his free movement and get back to his position) Biyombo since Cleveland tends to hedge pick-n-rolls. Only the screener in this pick-n-roll is Marvin Williams who can drift off for the open three with Delly “tagging” the cutting Biz.
The majority of defenses don’t give you these opportunities, but if they do hedge, Marvin can hurt them as he did a couple of times at Cleveland. Kudos to the guys and here’s hoping they keep it up.
Biyombo’s Offensive Rebounding
Biz grabbed 9 offensive rebounds in the 60 minutes he played in four last week’s games, good for 2.2 per game. That actually is on par with what he has been doing all season long as you can always find his spot among the best offensive rebounders fluctuating around the top5.
Him having career-highs in points, rebounds, free throw attempts and blocks per 36 minutes is indicative of his highly-efficient hustling this season. It seemingly has translated itself into much more positive plays and less blunders than the previous years.
Cody’s Defense at Memphis
I’ve praised Zeller’s perimeter defense before, but at Memphis he showed that he can also be successful in the post. Z-Bo threw him around like a rag doll, but that didn’t stop Cody from getting back up and battling with Randolph the next time down the court. Whether it was fighting for rebounding position or guarding Randolph in the post, like in the following video, Cody was dedicated and mostly successful:
Too bad Clifford ignored this and went with Marvin Williams on Randolph down the stretch (devil’s advocate point of view is that Randolph mostly hedges pick-n-rolls and, as pointed out above, Williams can hurt teams in this way):
When later on Cody was switched on Gasol, he also gave us a nice example of how it is possible to stop these pick-n-roll jumpers which I kept raving about in the Al Jefferson 4th quarter breakdown. Great defense:
Too bad that while Zeller also blocked a potential game-winner by Marc Gasol in the first overtime, Jefferson continued to struggle as the Z-Bo match-up also presented him with plenty of troubles.
Lolcats Play of the Week
No contest here. Gerald Henderson leaving Courtney Lee and switching onto (instead of “stunting”) Marc Gasol takes the cake.
Hornets Last Possessions (Update 3.0)
Updated with the last possession against Phoenix and an early-season play against Atlanta that I initially had forgot about since Lance would finish the game with his banked-in game winner. Amazingly, we managed to get another game winner this way with the miraculous Hendo tip-in at Memphis.