Trends to watch: The pick-and-roll is being inverted
We're been looking at stylistic trends that are beginning to take hold in the NBA, and could define the league in 2023. For our final entry: the rise of inverted pick-and-rolls.
Ball-handlers continue to get bigger around the NBA.
Scan the league landscape and you'll find it dotted with supersized lead initiators (LeBron James, Luka Doncic), point centers (Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis), playmaking power forwards (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, Zion Williamson), jumbo wing creators (Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Franz Wagner), and big power guards (Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Josh Giddey).
That trend is altering the shape of the league's bread-and-butter offensive action.
It's always made sense to run pick-and-rolls with players on opposite ends of the size spectrum. Defenders are usually best equipped to guard like-sized opponents (bigs have a hard time corralling smalls in space; smalls can get overpowered by bigs). A pick-and-roll also relies on cooperative skills that are naturally conducive to a divergent size dynamic: Smalls are traditionally the best ball-handlers, passers, and shooters on the floor, while bigs tend to be the best screeners and finishers. That's why, until fairly recently, those actions almost uniformly featured the bigger player screening. But the sands are shifting.
"Inverted" pick-and-rolls aren't novel - LeBron's been running actions with guard screeners for years, targeting weak links and putting panicked defenses in rotation - but they are gaining a lot more traction. This season, guards are setting 15.9 ball screens per 100 possessions, according to a source with access to Second Spectrum data. That's the most in any season on record, and it's up from less than one per 100 in 2013-14. A lot of those screens are coming in guard-guard actions, but a big chunk of them are being set for the giant on-ball creators mentioned above.
Plenty of those guys excel at exploiting larger defenders and utilizing 7-foot roll men, but many of them are as good or better at attacking smaller players - via bully drives or post-ups or iso jumpers with a clear field of vision. Add in the fact that bigger players often struggle to navigate screens as on-ball defenders, and guards are less accustomed to defending the screeners in those actions, and it's easy to see why flipping the traditional ball-screen configuration has become so commonplace.
An inverted pick-and-roll forces defenses to make a difficult choice to either a) switch themselves into an unfavorable matchup, b) go under the screen and potentially allow space for a shooter like Durant/Tatum to pull up, or a driver like Zion/Giannis to gather a head of steam, c) have a small drop back, with little hope of slowing the bulldozer rolling downhill toward him, or d) hard-hedge or trap and let the screener - who is often a 3-point threat - fly into open space.
A hedge-and-recover coverage can work (Steph Curry and the Warriors have basically distilled it to a science) but that requires a lot of connectivity, as well as guards who can be real obstacles to those new-age jumbo playmakers trying to turn the corner. Switching is the best way to short-circuit those actions, provided you can survive the ensuing matchups without having to send emergency help. But outside of maybe the Celtics, with Marcus Smart and Derrick White in the backcourt, it's hard to think of a team that's really equipped to do that. Most wind up overloading to one threat or the other, like the Hornets do here:
The best inverted ball-screen pairings play the ball-handler's driving or mismatch-destroying prowess off of the screener's movement shooting ability. It's just really difficult for a defense to account for two distinct threats moving very rapidly in opposite directions of the same action. Things become even trickier when the guard "ghosts" the screen and zooms straight out to the 3-point line while the defense is still trying to sort out its coverage.
Doncic, like LeBron, blends pick-and-roll playmaking with switch-mashing post-up brutality, making him a nightmare to deal with in inverted actions. (Though it's worth noting that the Warriors, having had years of practice against LeBron and James Harden, handled those scenarios with aplomb in last year's West final.) Jalen Brunson was a great screening partner for Doncic when he was on the Mavericks. Tim Hardaway Jr. has done a lot of the guard screening in his stead this season.
The Raptors have found success in recent years by running inverted actions featuring Siakam as the ball-handler, partly due to his ability to explode through gaps and feast on switches, and partly due to elite guard screeners who are also serious threats to shoot after ghosting or popping out of those screens. For a while, Kyle Lowry was Siakam's primary small screening partner, and now it's Fred VanVleet, who has developed a similar two-man synergy with the All-NBA forward. Lowry has since taken his screening talents to South Beach, where he routinely links up with Butler on the screening end of profitable two-man actions.
In Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo has received plenty of guard screens this season while taking on an increased ball-handling load for the Bucks in the absence of Khris Middleton. He can work the pick-and-pop game with stretch-fives in Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, but pairing him up with a smaller player who can shoot, like Grayson Allen or Pat Connaughton, usually forces the defense into more of a bind. Those actions are most effective when the small sets the screen at the free-throw line or lower, and flattens or flips the angle to make going under more difficult.
The Pelicans do a lot of the same stuff with Williamson, who might be the only player in the world with stronger downhill gravity than Giannis. Williamson also prefers to attack from the wing, rather than from the top. CJ McCollum's shooting makes him a natural complement to Zion, but Jose Alvarado is arguably an even more effective inverted pick-and-roll partner because he's such a nasty screener.
Durant isn't nearly the driving threat those two battering rams are - in fact, he has one of the lowest at-rim attempt rates in the league among high-volume scorers - but it's no more tenable to switch against him because of his ability to rise and fire over smaller defenders. The Nets can have Seth Curry screen for him and leverage two distinct but almost equally dangerous shooting weapons.
Even guards who aren't serious threats beyond the arc are being used as screeners more often, though they'll typically roll rather than pop. That may not be quite as seamless, but it's preferable to having those guards stand off to the side cramping spacing, and it's a great way to drag an opponent's worst defender (for whom a non-shooting guard is otherwise an ideal hiding place) into the action. These are the scenarios in which defenses are most likely to put two on the ball to avoid a switch, in which case the offense can have a guard slip into the middle of the floor with a four-on-three advantage.
Bruce Brown was one of the progenitors of this movement. His solid frame makes him a good screener, and when he slips into space, his sharp playmaking instincts and deft floater make him a dynamic short-roll weapon, even at just 6-foot-4. A couple years ago, the Nets started using him as their primary ball screener and roll man, and while he's become more of a spot-up and backdoor cutting weapon in Denver, the Nuggets still use him in the odd inverted action with Jokic.
Several guards are now making hay as roll men. The Celtics often use Smart and White in similar fashion. So do the Lakers with Austin Reaves, the Clippers with Terance Mann, the Bulls with Alex Caruso, and the 76ers with De'Anthony Melton.
This is the way the NBA has been trending: not just toward center- and forward-sized players with guard skills, but toward guard-sized players with big-man skills. Maybe as the league continues to move toward positional fluidity, those qualifiers will cease to even be necessary. Maybe eventually, we'll just be watching a bunch of different players of different sizes who can do a bit of everything.