Denver assistant coach Adrian Dantley didn't have a particularly triumphant 2010 postseason. Dantley was handed the first chair after head coach George Karl took a leave of absence to receive cancer treatment, but the Nuggets were outwitted during their first-round series against Utah and promptly bounced from the playoffs a year after taking the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference finals.
For all the trouble Dantley had maintaining tactical control over his squad in the series, he had a knack of boiling down complicated questions with plainspoken wisdom. After Jazz point guard Deron Williams shredded the Nuggets with a high pick-and-roll attack, Dantley was asked to evaluate his big men's pick-and-roll defense. Dantley thought about the question for a second, then rubbed his cheek before explaining that NBA big men were uniquely unsuited to defending the pick-and-roll. That's the whole point. That's the reason almost every team in the real runs a high pick-and-roll 60 or 70 times per game. And Dantley wasn't about to publicly kill his front court for not having the coordination or footwork to backpedal against one of the most capable point guards in the world.
A couple of months later, Vinny Del Negro emerged as a top candidate for the Los Angeles Clippers' head coaching vacancy. One of the criticisms commonly leveled at Del Negro was a lack of offensive creativity in Chicago. Naysayers pointed out that the Bulls ran a predictable series of middle pick-and-rolls for Derrick Rose and little else, but Del Negro's defenders would tell you that it would've been malpractice for him not to run a high screen for Rose almost every time downcourt. Since the Bulls had few other offensive assets on the floor, a 1-5 pick-and-roll for Rose was far and away the unit's best opportunity to score on a given possession, even though the big men for Chicago rolling to the hoop lacked offensive polish.
Maybe Del Negro's supporters have a point. Rely on the high pick-and-roll exclusively as Del Negro did, and you're obtuse. But ride it to success, the way Stan Van Gundy has in Orlando in recent seasons, and you're a genius. Few teams have gotten more mileage out of a high screen from its center for its point guard at the top of the floor -- or the 1-5 pick-and-roll -- than the Magic have with Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard.
Using FastDraw, Eddy Rivera of Magic Basketball has diagramed some of Orlando's primary sets predicated on the 1-5 pick-and-roll, and has linked to a corresponding video for each play.
A suggestion: Watch each clip twice. On first viewing, take a look at the primary action -- how Nelson and Howard (and often Rashard Lewis with a staggered screen) initiate the screen-and-roll. But on the second viewing, watch what's happening off the ball, especially after the defense collapses on Nelson. That's what separates Orlando's execution from lesser teams. It's important to note that talent plays a role. For instance, Orlando has uncommonly good shooters spaced along the perimeter at the 2, 3 and 4 positions. But good teams, even in the absence of knockdown shooters from long distance, can still manufacture quality offense off the ball in these sets. It generally requires smart reads, something you see when Boston runs stuff up top for Rajon Rondo, or when San Antonio utilizes the high screen for its ball handlers.
Now that you've seen the offense in action, take a look at Sebastian Pruiti's manual at NBA Playbook on how to defend the pick-and-roll. Pruiti looks at traditional methods for defending the pick-and-roll -- hedging and switching. But the most interesting element in this primer focuses on Tom Thibodeau's aggressive tactic -- blitzing the point guard off the action, something more and more teams are doing. One NBA coach told me last season that the frenetic trap or "blueing" the screen (an attempt to get between the point guard and the pick man to force the point guard sideline) is really a NBA defense's only option against the league's young speedsters. "Penetration is what kills you in the half court," the coach said. "Keep the guy out of the paint and you have a fighting chance."
Sounds well and good, but a blitz leaves the back side of the defense vulnerable. They essentially have to zone up in a 3-on-4 scheme, something that requires heady defenders who know how to make smart decisions in a snap. Most NBA offenses can swing the ball around the floor in a flash, even against pressure. Unless there's a defender who can quickly rotate onto the open man or pick up the weak side cutter (which, in turn, means that another defender must rotate onto that defender's man), there's likely to be a breakdown.
As the Lakers and Celtics worked their way through the bracket last spring, it became increasingly clear that we don't pay enough attention to a player's skills as a team defender after the initial action (most frequently a high screen-and-roll). Here's where I believe guys like an aging Jason Kidd, Luol Deng, Andre Miller or Kyle Korver get short shrift. None of these players can be fairly regarded as a lockdown defender, but you have to watch a lot of film before you see them make an ill-advised decision late in a possession, long after the base defense has broken down.