While all NBA teams look to take the same efficient shots, I enjoy seeing the different ways they go about manufacturing these looks. In some cases it is obvious. We all know how LeBron James and James Harden create offense. They get downhill, force help, and find the opening in the defense. Most teams do not have a one-man offensive engine like the Lakers and Rockets, though. The pick and roll, and all its slight variations, is the most common play in the NBA. It is a two-man engine that looks to either create an easy shot for the roll man, ball handler, or for a surrounding shooter. The ball handler must determine the best path towards a high-percentage shot within a slim time frame. This is a difficult task and players who can reliably score and hit the open teammate out of the pick and roll are rare.
Since the initiator has the hardest job, front offices ease this player’s decision making process by surrounding him with off-ball players who have complementary skill sets. The Jazz often have three strong shooters around Donovan Mitchell, who is still learning advanced pick and roll passing reads. All of Utah’s wings can extend the play with a quick pass or closeout attack or, in Joe Ingles case, can run the offense. If Mitchell or another guard is only able to find a not-super-wide-open Ingles one play, that’s still enough to keep the offensive gears turning.
Certain bigs dramatically lower the difficulty curve of running a pick and roll. They can also augment the strength of a pick and roll ball handler to form and unguardable tandem. Let’s look at two of the most potent pick and roll-duos in the league and dissect why they are so effective compared to most.
John Collins and Dwight Powell provided value over the average roll man simply by being human pogo sticks who will catch anything remotely near them. It is nearly impossible to shut off a floater specialist capable whipping cross-court passes like Luka Doncic or Trae Young and also prevent the lob to Collins or Powell. Both Powell and Collins finished in the 87th percentile for effectiveness as a roll man among all players this season according to Synergy data provided by NBA.com. This high mark is aided by playing with elite initiators, but also speaks to their ability to punish defenses that do not tag them. Nobody rotates baseline to help on this pick and roll and Al Horford is left without a paddle.
Not only does Powell’s bounciness lead to free lobs, but his roll gravity creates openings in the corners when the baseline help commits to him. Zach LaVine tags Powell here and Markkanen is slow to rotate over to Tim Hardaway Jr. who drains the open three.
In a pick and roll with a more ground-bound center, the rim protector can manage these situations without baseline help. In this play, Brook Lopez feints towards Gobert to make it seem like the pass is not available. Gobert does come up with the offensive rebound but the initial action was neutralized. Synergy ranks Gobert in the 68th percentile of roll men on the year.
While quick leaping and a huge catch radius allow Powell to galvanize the Mavericks offense, it is not the only way bigs can provide a crutch for their partner in the pick and roll.
Another way teams are able to stymie a rim protector is by having a center who can bowl through contact and finish even if the defending big is in proper position. Memphis guards grew used to dumping it down to Jonas Valanciunas knowing the big man would power through most in his path. Valanciunas is in 73th percentile as a roll man and 70th percentile as a post scorer this season, a rare combo that portends to making positive plays in a variety of situations.
Gobert could compensate for his lack of outlier hops if he could finish through contact like Valanciunas, but struggles to power through bigs. One area he does excel at more than most bigs is passing out of rolls. Gobert can reverse the ball to the opposite corner after catching the roll pass, which often leads to an open three. This scenario does not come up often, though, and his lack of dribble utility prevents him from creating off short rolls. Furthermore, the utility of short roll creation is overstated in the current NBA now that fewer teams trap the pick and roll ball handler, opting instead for drop coverage. It is now harder to engineer the 4-on-3 situations that are the crux of short roll creation.
The Stretch Big
Bigs who can shoot make the ball handler’s life easier against drop coverage. If the opposing big has dropped, the screener will likely be wide open and the pass will be obvious. If the opposing big follows the screener towards the arc, that ball handler often has a lane to the hoop. Pick and pop bigs are universally appreciated, especially if they offer rim protection on the other end. Yet there is a shortage of terminology to parse between the different types of stretch bigs. Some are merely play finishers, some are, to borrow a term from former Stepien writer Ben Rubin, participators. Play finishers will shoot if they are open, but offer little beyond that. Rubin describes participators as “players who can be counted on to foster the movement of the offense once a possession has begun, even if they do not have an obvious scoring opportunity.” They do not start the possession, but like Ingles on the Jazz, participator stretch bigs serve as important connective tissue between the play initiator and finisher.
Participator vs. Finisher
The best contrast in impact between a stretch play finisher big and a stretch participator big is the Raptors’ center tandem of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Ibaka has improved his passing every year, but is not close to Gasol in this department. Their offensive rating reflects Gasol’s playmaking boost. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors posted an offensive rating of 112.0 with Gasol at center and 110.7 with Ibaka at center. Toronto finished 14th in offense with a rating of 111.6 and probably would have sniffed the top ten had Gasol not missed half the season. The Spanish big man creates opportunities for his teammates by demanding a closeout after popping and quickly finding the seam that ensues.
Fred VanVleet’s job in this play was easy relative to the jobs of Mitchell or Luka in the previous clips. He sees Meyers Leonard between the rim and the basket, which means that Gasol is open behind the arc. Gasol immediately senses the Robinson closeout and moves the ball to Anunoby before the defense can shut off OG’s lane to the hoop. VanVleet has historically struggled to hit the roll man and is not going to whip cross-court passes with ease. Gasol is part of what makes him and other Raptors viable initiators. Norman Powell became the Raptors’ main bench creator and played the best basketball of his career. I believe Gasol’s playmaking factored into his performance. It also aided Siakam’s adjustment to being the number one scoring option.
Since players who can reliably initiate positive plays are scarce, having a screener who allows middling creators to thrive in the pick and pop is a stark competitive advantage. It helped the Sixers maintain a league-average offense despite a roller coaster year. Al Horford and Joel Embiid served as stretch participator bigs for Philly’s sub-elite ball handlers Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris. Horford has disappointed as a power forward this season, but when he played center, the Sixers had a net rating of a 55-win team per Cleaning The Glass. His combination of perimeter gravity and playmaking provided a key release valve for Philly’s initiators. In this sequence, Harris draws two after receiving the dribble hand-off and uses Horford who draws attention and quickly moves the ball to the open corner shooter.
Embiid made strides as a passer and ball handler this season. He still does not make the lightning quick reads of Gasol or Horford, but can function as a stretch participator big. In this play, Embiid turns this routine pass from Raul Neto into a positive play by demanding respect from three, attacking the closeout and finding the open Matisse Thybulle.
Zach Lowe said on a recent Lowe Post episode that Embiid has a chance to be the best player or co-best player with Giannis for a season or two. I agree, and think that he reaches there not only by being the best defender in the league, but also through functioning as a participator big on the perimeter. His post-up play will always be his calling card, but it’s difficult to transition from a Tobias Harris pick and pop or a Shake Milton closeout attack into an Embiid post-up. By providing a release valve on the perimeter, he will be a positive on offense even when the play is not for him.
Another player I am eyeing not to eventually be the MVP, but to be a borderline top-20 player because his stretch participator skill set is Domantas Sabonis. He already mastered the passing component, and despite not having three-point range, operates in a Gasol-like role from mid-range. He provided a necessary hub for Malcolm Brogdon and the guys foisted into handling the ball without Oladipo in the lineup.
Once he extends his range, and I believe he will eventually, he will improve his efficiency and will demand more attention. Sabonis is a solid mid-range shooter, draining 44% of these looks according to Cleaning The Glass. However, defenses often lived with him taking this shot. They will be less willing to leave him open from three. If Sabonis forces a harder closeout, he will have more opportunities to drive and make the correct read. He has great dribble fluidity for his size and is a bruiser in the paint. His lackluster rim protection may hold him back from becoming a top-20 player in some eyes, but with Myles Turner there to aid him defensively and space the floor as a play finisher stretch big, he will have a top-20 level overall impact on the Pacers.
Perhaps a new coverage will come along that renders the pick and pop playmaking big less useful. But with drop coverage in vogue among the best defensive teams, stretch participator bigs can have an outsize impact on their offense and cover up the warts of their pick and pop partners. Gobert’s transcendent defense justifies his spot in the Jazz lineup, but other teams with sub-elite creators should look to acquire participator stretch bigs to make their ball handlers’ jobs easier.