In lieu of there being no defense played in the All-Star game, I decided to switch gears for this weeks column. We usually break down Xs and Os on the offensive side of the basketball. This week, however, we will look at some of the things I liked and disliked from the last week on the defensive side of the basketball court. We kick it off in Philadelphia, where the Sixers decide to activate drop coverage against the Jazz. Then, I take you all on a trip to Sacramento, where we take a look at why the Kings’ defense is worst in the league. Our last stop is in New York, where the Knicks have Nerlens Noel hedging every ball-screen he sees.
The Sixers Deploy The Drop
I don’t really care about the advantages of drop coverage defense. It makes a shred of sense for teams that deploy intuitive rim-protecting bigs, like the Jazz or the Sixers. It effectively funnels ball-handlers right to the rim to go up against the defensive anchor, and you take those odds when you have an elite rim-protector. But, like I implied in the first sentence, I am anti-drop regardless of the perceived, theoretical advantages. Why, you might ask? Well, have a look.
First of all, the Sixers resort to it without even having Embiid in the game. Mitchell can change speeds and blow by Mike Scott if he really wants to. But, look at this pocket of space.
Dropping the big man to the rim affords the ball-handler a treasure chest of space out of which he can make decisions. Here, Mitchell has two options that are both far too easy to execute. He can keep teasing Scott to stop the ball, and then dime Derrick Favors as he dives to the rim for an easy flush. If Mitchell feels the rhythm, like he did in the clip above, he can rise up for an uncontested floater. You might think, ‘Oh, well a floater isn’t the worst thing in the world.’ In the modern game, guards, wings, and bigs alike have evolved enough to where the best of them are all capable dribblers, shooters, and passers. The floater has become a second nature to all of the players you’re going to see with the basketballs in their hands in crunch time.
Sure, the drop is a livable concept when you want to give the opposition a bit of a different look as the game unfolds. But, the modern game has rendered it basketball’s version of Russian Roulette when it comes to winning time.
Throw Down In SacTown
The Sacramento Kings are giving up more than 119 points per 100 possessions. That is redeemable for worst in the NBA. But, that’s not quite doing it justice, as a matter of fact. The Kings are flirting with sporting potentially the worst defense in NBA history. Plays like this one make it easy to see why.
First of all, Cory Joseph is following Dennis Schroder through the ball-screen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that at all. But, look at where Marvin Bagley III is positioned. He never quite retreats his position, so it’s not a hedge. It’s obviously not a switch since Schroder has two defenders on him by the time the ball is scored. In essence, the play ends up being a trap out of the pick-and-roll. It is, of course, completely unintentional. This play has “miscommunication” written everywhere. There is no effective talking on the screen. If there were, Joseph would not be riding Schroder’s hip right into Bagley III.
Outside of communication, there is a lack of attention to detail on this play from Bagley III. When the screen is set, Bagley is squared completely towards Schroder. His position makes it impossible to recover in the event that Schroder dimes the diving Montrezl Harrell. Moreover, Bagley’s lack of denial on the dive by the screener basically invites Harrell to cut right to the rim in vacated space. The rest is fundamental.
Sure, these are the little things. But, the little things always compound in basketball.
Garden Full Of Hedges
Let’s take it over to the polar opposite end of the spectrum. The Knicks are affording opponents a smidge over 108 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for second best in the league. Yes, the Knicks. Yes, the second best defense in the league. I know. Tom Thibodeau has done an outstanding job in his first season at the helm. One of the ways the Knicks are seeing success is by hedging ball-screens. For those who need a refresher, hedging screens involves the big man stepping up to stunt the ball-handler from exploding out of the pick and then diving back to recover to the roller so as to strain the entry to the screener. I’ll let Nerlens Noel demonstrate.
Noel shows a bit of a soft hedge here. He starts his coverage very high up on the screen, and then slowly backs down and retreats as Dennis Smith Jr pushes the rim. You could talk yourself into this being a version of drop coverage, but Noel never quite abandons the ball-handler out of the screen action. The purpose of the hedge is to prevent the ball-handler from penetrating the interior. While Dennis Smith Jr isn’t quite denied the driving lane, he isn’t able to pose a threat on his own scoring. It does make sense that Noel would not be as aggressive out of the screen, as Smith is not a good shooter. You’ll give him the freedom to pull up if it means denying a point guard with well-documented athleticism an angle to explode.
The Knicks are tenth in the NBA in points allowed from the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll. Even if the hedge didn’t deny penetration on this play, it’s doing it’s job for the Knicks more often than not.
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