How Important Is the Pick-and-Roll in Today’s NBA?

Pick-and-rolls are everywhere in today’s NBA

Slowly, surely, they have become one of the most common plays offenses run. Five years ago, during the 2009-10 season, the average team ran pick-and-rolls that ended in a shot, turnover or foul 16.4 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). By the end of last year, that number had climbed to 21.8 percent. 

With offenses employing—and defenses seeing—these plays more than 20 percent of the time on average, the importance of understanding and excelling within and against pick-and-rolls should prove principal to overall success. 

In theory.

To find out how much of an impact pick-and-roll savvy has on offensive and defensive performance, we turn to the numbers. 

Synergy breaks pick-and-roll efficiency into two categories: plays that end with the ball-handler and possessions that end with the roll man. Since the distribution of pick-and-rolls varies by team, we’ll need to find a weighted efficiency mean that accounts for differences in frequency.

Teams won’t split pick-and-rolls between ball-handlers and roll men evenly. For example, 23 percent of the San Antonio Spurs’ offensive plays came within pick-and-rolls last season. About 16.6 percent of those sets ended with the ball-handler, while 6.4 finished with the roll man.

And yet the Spurs’ roll men averaged more points per possession (.97) than their ball-handlers (.88), hence the problem at hand…which has been solved.

Bleacher Report’s resident math wizard Adam Fromal provided yours truly with an equation to combat such imbalance. 

The equation itself can be seen here. If you’re not into that sort of thing, just know it yields an accurate, all-inclusive average that sheds light on the correlation between pick-and-roll performance and general success.

Does that light reinforce the value of pick-and-roll comprehension, or is its increase in popularity more reasonless celebrity than substantiated significance?


Pick-and-Roll Offense

Everything starts on the offensive end.

Offenses dictate the frequency with which pick-and-rolls are enacted and seen. Lately, they’ve been cropping up more than regularly, emerging as something of an offensive monopoly.

Wrote SB Nation’s Doug Eberhardt in April:

The pick and roll is the genesis of the modern NBA offense. It forces the defense to make a decision on each and every possession. That decision then opens up a multitude of offensive options: the pull-up jumper, the drive to the paint, the pass to the rolling or popping man, the kick-out pass, the dish to someone coming off an action on the opposite side, etc. There is so much going on.

Stressing the point from earlier, here’s a look at how often offenses have worked in pick-and-rolls since 2009:

There has been a 32.9 percent increase in the average league-wide use of pick-and-rolls over the last five years. That’s quite the jump. Frankly, it’s absurd. 

Perhaps in a good way.

Looking at last year only, here’s how a team’s weighted pick-and-roll efficiency—in points per possession—compares to its overall offensive display:

That’s a fairly strong correlation.

Each of the seven most efficient pick-and-roll offenses also finished in the top seven of Synergy’s overall offensive rankings. Pure happenstance? It could be.

It just doesn’t seem to be.

When analyzing the pick-and-roll data since 2009, the relationship at hand doesn’t change:

The 16 best pick-and-roll offenses over the last five years all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency or better.

Stretching even deeper, only two of the top 30 pick-and-roll performers—Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors—weren’t top-10 offenses as well. Both aberrations coincidentally came during the 2010-11 crusade.

Subpar execution has also spelled bad things for general offensive efforts. Just two of the 30 worst pick-and-roll acts since 2009 ranked in the top half of offensive efficiency during their respective years. 

Take a look at where the 34 worst pick-and-roll offenses—bottom-30 marks plus four statistical ties—ranked in general since 2009:

Good luck trying maintain a top or even run-of-the-mill offense without pick-and-roll success. 

With little doubt that strong pick-and-roll attacks positively impact offensive displays, there’s but one question left to ask: Is one version more important than the other?

Plays ending with ball-handlers make up the majority of pick-and-rolls. Not one team ran more plays for its roll men last season.

And truthfully, that’s no surprise.

Ball-handlers control the rock. They’re the decision-makers. It’s fitting they’re the ones finishing plays more.

Below you’ll see how a team’s rock-wielder efficiency last season compared to its offensive standing:

Without pause, let’s see how things look on the roll men side of things:

Results on both ends continue to support what we already know. But there is a tighter correlation between offensive success and ball-handler efficiency.

This also shouldn’t come as a mind-bending shock.

Roll men are, well, rolling. They’re moving toward the basket, whereas ball-handlers are more likely to find themselves on the perimeter. Converting shots closer to the iron is easier. That’s what the numbers show here.

No team averaged fewer than .84 points per possession in roll-man offense. The league-wide average for ball-handlers was noticeably lower, checking in at 0.79.

Creating separation and finding success in the latter category is harder. By and large, the teams that did boasted better offenses overall; only two top-10 offenses ranked outside the top half of ball-handler efficiency.

Generally speaking, though, teams—as we’ve seen—shouldn’t rely on one specialty.

As always, balance is important.


Pick-and-Roll Defense

Time to flip the script.

As the NBA has evolved, so has its players and rules. And like Forum Blue & Gold’s Darius Soriano explained in March 2013, this gradual and ongoing transformation has not only impacted how teams defend but what they’re defending:

With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.

Upticks in pick-and-roll implementation has put pressure on defenses to master prevention against it. If teams are going to see it, they must be able to stop it. 

Multicolored dots abound below once again, showing the link between a team’s weighted pick-and-roll defense against blanketed defensive results last season. Note that in this case, lower numbers—points allowed per possession—indicate a better defense:

Things have certainly changed here.

A relationship exists, but it’s far weaker than the one on offense. The league’s best pick-and-roll defense came from the Miami Heat, yet they ranked just 13th overall. The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves tied with the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards for second place, and their general defense was awful.

Outliers of that kind weren’t found on the offensive end. Again, the seven best pick-and-roll offenses all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency. Four of the top 10 pick-and-roll defenses came complete with top-10 overall finishes here. 

It’s not a big difference, but it is a difference.

But it’s one that erases itself when poring over pick-and-roll defenses since 2009:


Journeying back five years has strengthened the relationship. Three of the 15 best pick-and-roll defenses since 2009 finished outside the top 10 of defensive efficiency. That’s it.

Moreover, the difference in teams that found defensive success while struggling against pick-and-rolls is even bigger.

Here you’ll see where the 37 worst pick-and-roll defenses—bottom-30 marks plus seven statistical ties—ranked on defense overall since 2009:

Best of luck to defenses not thriving against pick-and-rolls. These numbers are nigh identical to the offensive ones above.

That brings us back to identifying the driving force behind strong pick-and-roll defenses.

Last season’s results are especially important when separated, since the immediate correlation wasn’t as strong, so here’s the link between ball-handler defense and total protection:

Pausing remains overrated, so here’s how it looks when charting roll-man prevention:

Stronger connections are found between roll-man defense and overall guardianship this time.

Four of the top 12 ball-handler defenses ranked outside the top half of defensive efficiency, or 33 percent. Only three of the top 14 roll-man defenses—top-12 marks plus two ties—finished in the bottom 15 of defensive rank, or 21 percent. 

This one’s more of an inconclusive difference. Having a specialty seems to help teams more on defense than offense, yet the dichotomy changes nothing.

Defending the pick-and-roll one way or the other—or both—counts for more than brownie points.


Finding Value

Offenses won’t stop running pick-and-rolls.

Defenses won’t stop seeing pick-and-rolls

They’re everywhere, on both ends of the floor, omnipresent and never-ending.

“Coaches see something and say, ‘Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that,’” current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson told Sports Illustrated‘s Jack McCallum last year. ”Screen-roll…San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.”

That hasn’t changed, nor will it any time soon.

To succeed in the NBA, teams need to have a pick-and-roll identity, whether it’s on offense or defense. They aren’t everything—the Sacramento Kings, a 28-win disaster, ranked in the top 10 of both pick-and-roll defense and offense last year—but they’re a start, a foundation.

Most of the league’s 2014 playoff teams (13) ranked in the top 10 of pick-and-roll offense or defense during the regular season.

Two teams finished in the top 10 of both.

Those teams were the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat and the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

Grasping the pick-and-roll—on either end of the floor—matters. There will always be exceptions and anomalies, but pick-and-rolls are, at this point, an NBA constant. 

And so, too, must be the ability to navigate them. 


All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports unless otherwise cited. 

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Ranking the Most Important ‘Glue Guys’ in College Basketball in 2014-15

Star power is a great asset to a college basketball team, but having too many elite talents can cause its own problems. Sometimes, the most valuable asset to a coach is the kind of player who doesn’t always look good in a box score but does a little of everything to help his team win.

The archetypal “glue guy” does the dirty work as a defender while also grabbing key rebounds, making the right pass and knocking down the occasional big shot when the defense ignores him. He’s usually a team leader; therefore, upperclassmen are the norm in this category.

Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser, who has been helping the Badgers grind their way to wins for three years already, has a chance to do the same for a national champion to close out his college career.

Here is a closer look at Gasser and the rest of the 10 best glue guys in the country, with an eye to picking the ones who will make the biggest difference in the way the 2014-15 season unfolds.

These rankings are based on three major factors: how good the player is at making the variety of contributions the role calls for, how badly his team needs someone to do what he does and how much of an impact his team is likely to have on the national scene.

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Duke Basketball: Most Important Games on Blue Devils’ 2014-15 Schedule

College basketball seasons are defined by performances in March, but there are still plenty of important games that help pave the road to the Madness.

Duke is looking to bounce back from a rather disappointing 2013-14 campaign by its lofty standards. An ACC title and deep run in the NCAA tournament are all well within the realm of possibility for a squad that will be anchored by a talented batch of freshmen.

Some games will be more important than others if the Blue Devils want to achieve those goals. Here is a look at three critical contests in particular while a full schedule can be found at Duke’s official website.


At Wisconsin, Dec. 3

There is plenty at stake in this early season showdown with Wisconsin.

For one, it is an incredible test for a young Duke team because the Kohl Center is one of the nation’s most intimidating venues. Duke always brings out the best in the opposing crowd, and playing in a raucous venue like this will help get the freshmen ready for ACC play.

This game also represents an opportunity to grab a marquee victory on the road for seeding purposes and the overall resume because Wisconsin may very well be in the top five at tipoff.

Finally, Jahlil Okafor will have the chance to prove himself as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft against one of the most established big men in the nation. Frank Kaminsky could test Okafor’s ability to extend his game beyond the paint if they guard each other, and he will battle on the boards all game with the Duke center.

The Badgers were a Kentucky miracle three-pointer away from playing for the national title last season and return the majority of their core in Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. No team on Duke’s schedule bring the combination of Final Four experience and overall talent like Wisconsin does. 

Throw in conference pride as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and this is an important early game for Duke as it tries to set the tone for the entire season.


North Carolina, Feb. 18

You are reading an article about Duke basketball, so there should be no explanation necessary about why a contest with hated rival North Carolina would be on this list.

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels split their two regular-season showdowns last year, and both have serious ACC title aspirations this time around. Picking up a head-to-head victory would be critical in the conference race, and it is necessary for Duke to defend its home court considering it also has to travel to Chapel Hill. 

If Wisconsin represents a test for Okafor against Kaminsky, then this game is the test for young point guard Tyus Jones. Marcus R. Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press was looking forward to this showdown as early as last season:

Marcus Paige could challenge for ACC Player of the Year thanks to his ability to control the flow of a game from the point guard spot, hit from beyond the three-point line and set up his teammates with crisp, precise passes. If North Carolina is going to win the ACC, Paige will be the primary reason why.

No pressure or anything, Mr. Jones.

This team isn’t just Paige and company, though. Head coach Roy Williams has Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks at his disposal, giving him options all over the floor. 

A Scrabble contest between Duke and North Carolina would be important, so a basketball showdown with ACC title implications certainly qualifies for this list.


At Virginia, Jan. 31

This is Duke’s only game against the defending ACC regular-season and tournament champions, so if it is going to be the bully on the conference block this year, it has to wrestle the title away from Virginia.

The Cavaliers lost Joe Harris, which should not be overlooked, but that doesn’t mean they are going to return to mediocrity. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson are a formidable trio while Mike Tobey and London Perrantes could develop into a solid one-two punch on the post and perimeter over the course of the year.

However, the overarching concern with this game could be Virginia’s unique, slow-it-down style of play.

Duke is a young team that features a number of freshmen, which means it will be critical to avoid frustration with a slower tempo. It will also be important that the Blue Devils don’t try to compensate for that when they get the ball by pushing the pace too much in transition and making sloppy turnovers and mistakes.

Another subplot here is the fact that Mike Krzyzewski was upset and fearful for his players’ safety when Duke lost at Virginia last season and the crowd stormed the floor.

He suggested as much in the aftermath, according to The Associated Press (via

Look, do you know how close you are to—just put yourself in the position of one of our players or coaches. I’m not saying any fan did this, but the potential is there all the time for a fan to just go up to you and say, ‘Coach you’re a [expletive],’ or push you or hit you. And what do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story. We deserve that type of protection.

I’m always concerned about stuff like that, especially at this time of the year. What if that happened and we get a kid suspended? That becomes the national story. It’s not all fun and games when people are rushing the court, especially for the team that lost. Again, congratulations to them, and they should have fun and burn benches and do all that stuff. I’m all for that. They have a great school, great kids, but get us off the court. That’s the bottom line. 

As long as the Blue Devils win this time around, they won’t have to worry about it.


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Michigan Basketball: Ranking U-M’s Most Important Role Players in 2014-15

Heading into the 2014-15 season, we know by now that the Michigan basketball program will be led by its core of Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.; but they cant carry the team alone and that’s where the importance of role players comes in.

The Wolverines lost a lot of manpower from last season and will now have to make up for the loss of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. With head coach John Beilein introducing six true freshmen and one redshirt freshman, several players will have to step up if Michigan wants to keep its successful string of NCAA tournament runs intact.

That said, here are the five most important role players (excluding LeVert, Irvin and Walton Jr.)—and ranked in order of importance—that must emerge for Michigan to have a successful 2014-15 season

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Ohio State Basketball: Most Important Games on Buckeyes’ 2014-15 Schedule

The Ohio State basketball schedule is officially out, and the Buckeyes will certainly have their hands full in a number of games this season.

The luxury of playing in the Big Ten is that strength of schedule is never really an issue when Selection Sunday rolls around. While the overall slate is difficult, there are a few games in particular that stand out as the most important contests. 

Factors such the conference standings, rivalries and building a strong profile were taken into account when determining the most important games. Let’s take a look at them.


North Carolina, Dec. 20 in Chicago

A home win over Marquette in November would certainly look decent on the Buckeyes’ tournament profile, and a win at Louisville would turn heads throughout the nation.

Still, the thought here is that the daunting atmosphere and the number of young freshmen head coach Thad Matta is breaking in isn’t a great formula for success on the road against Louisville early in the season. This means that the neutral-site game against North Carolina will be critical if Ohio State hopes to pick up a marquee nonconference victory for its resume.

Matta discussed this matchup and the event itself, via Adam Zagoria of and Zagsblog:

We are excited to be part of the CBS Sports Classic the next three seasons.The four teams competing have a tremendous history of success in college basketball. We have partnered with terrific cities and venues to make this a great experience for our program, our student-athletes and our fans.

Anytime you play against North Carolina, it is going to be circled on the calendar. We are talking about Tar Heel blue, Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and a storied history of national titles and overall dominance.

This year’s version won’t feature James Michael McAdoo, but Marcus Paige is back to wreak havoc on opponents. The athletic point guard could challenge for National Player of the Year honors and will be a significant test for young D’Angelo Russell before conference play begins.

Head coach Roy Williams also has Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto at his disposal. However, the matchup to watch will be the Buckeyes guards against Paige. 

The guess here is that Matta uses Shannon Scott on Paige for most of the game. Scott will spearhead the defensive pressure this season and should make life a bit more difficult for Paige with his overall quickness and ability to stay in front of ball-handlers.


Michigan, Jan. 13 in Columbus

Ohio State versus Michigan is an important game every season, and the Buckeyes will be looking for some revenge after losing at home in the 2013-14 campaign.

This will be Ohio State’s best chance to establish its position in the Big Ten pecking order early because the conference is wide open behind Wisconsin. A victory over a relatively inexperienced Michigan squad would make a statement and let the rest of the league know the Buckeyes will at least contend for the No. 2 or 3 seed in the conference tournament.

Gone are Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary, which means the Wolverines will be particularly reliant on Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr.

Both shot better than 40 percent from behind the three-point line a year ago and will stretch the perimeter defense. Walton posted a double-double against Ohio State last year (13 points and 10 rebounds), so there will be even more emphasis on slowing down the point guard in this matchup.

Sophomore Zak Irvin and freshman Kameron Chatman will also play important roles in Michigan’s attack. The athletic and versatile forwards have the potential to cause matchup problems for most teams in the league, but Ohio State can counter with Sam Thompson and Keita Bates-Diop. 

This may be a game that the Buckeyes enjoy an advantage down low as well now that McGary and Jordan Morgan are no longer at Michigan. Amir Williams and Anthony Lee both have the potential to control the glass and the lane throughout this contest.


Wisconsin, March 8 in Columbus

This is Ohio State’s only game against the Big Ten’s top team this season, and there could be plenty at stake.

For one, if the Buckeyes have any hopes of winning a conference title, they will have to get past Wisconsin. Positioning in the Big Ten tournament and a chance to secure a marquee win right before Selection Sunday also make this game rather important.

Remember, the Badgers were an Aaron Harrison miracle three-pointer away from playing in the national title game last season and return the vast majority of their core. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are all expected to play major roles for Bo Ryan’s squad in 2014-15.

That combination of Final Four experience and overall talent is a scary proposition for the rest of the Big Ten.

Kaminsky in particular could give Williams and Lee problems by extending his game beyond the three-point line. Lee is better suited to venture outside the paint than Williams, but stopping Kaminsky will be a team-wide effort. 

If the Buckeyes are able to do that, they may just secure a victory against a top-five team and the momentum that comes with that distinction heading into the NCAA tournament.


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The five most important players in the NBA

Eddie Johnson breaks down which players are most crucial to their team’s success in the upcoming season.



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Ranking the top five most important players in NBA

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Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell Will Be More Important Than Ever for Chicago Bulls

All of this summer’s attention has been on Derrick Rose and the new additions to the Chicago Bulls: Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. But a large part of their success in 2014-15 will depend on the performance of two recently overlooked wingmen. Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell need to come through.

Butler’s offensive production took a deep dip in 2013-14, as the time he spent working tirelessly on his shot last summer seemed for naught. His percentage from beyond the arc dropped from 38 in 2012-13 to 28 this past year. It’s possible that Butler’s defensive intensity has taken enough energy away from his legs to worsen his touch—many have called for coach Tom Thibodeau to not work Butler so hard.

At 38.7 minutes a game, Butler was tied with Carmelo Anthony for most playing time in the league last season. And his defense was terrific over each of those minutes, as he earned All-Defensive second team honors for the year. With an emergence from the lengthy, hard-nosed Snell, however, Butler might be able to take many more minutes on the bench and save some of his energy for a more balanced game.

Butler is likely to start between Rose and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to begin the season, but his job status may depend on how far Snell can progress. A Summer League standout, Snell’s sophomore year as a pro, and his second in Thibodeau’s system, looks to be a coming-out party of sorts. 

Snell could surge into a starter’s role by outplaying Butler—just as Butler did in 2012-13, outplaying a limping Richard Hamilton—but, alternately, he could end up starting next to Butler as opposed to in his place. Snell could certainly prove himself more valuable than Dunleavy at the small forward spot (especially as a defender), and he makes sense next to Butler. Thibodeau, alternately, may just move Dunleavy to the bench for more veteran solidity in his second unit. This could also put Snell into the starting spotlight.

Snell is mobile and long enough to challenge elite Eastern Conference wings like LeBron James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony physically. While he’s only listed at 6’7”, his wingspan is massive. The question will be whether he’s yet heady enough to keep up with the craft of such players. Defense comes first in Thibodeau’s world,  so Snell’s minutes will depend upon his ability to do so. Butler’s Iron Man marks are a testament to that truth.

Rose’s presence will make life much easier for both players, as will Gasol’s. Rose and Gasol’s abilities to create for themselves and mis-direct defenses will give Snell and Butler breathing room they haven’t yet seen as Bulls. Open shots and open lanes are forthcoming for both, and nothing more than simple offensive execution (making jump shots and timely cuts and screens) will be asked from either.

There’s little doubt that both players will buy into Thibodeau’s vision, regardless of what role he designates for them. The Bulls’ front office, in tandem with its coach, makes sure only to draft players ready to sacrifice their egos in the name of the team’s goals. Recent comments made by Butler, reported by CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman, reflect this:

“My role’s going to be to help win games, whether it’s on offense, on defense, on the bench cheering, whatever it may be. I think that’s all of our jobs, all of our role is help bring this city a championship.”

Snell and Butler are both soldiers in the Thibodeau mold. They’re sure to stay in tight defensive strings according to their leader’s league-permeating principles. But the Bulls, more than anything, may need something that depends more on touch and finesse than on ceaseless pressing from both: shooting. Whether either can consistently provide high marks from deep is a bit of a mystery until the season starts.

As such, both embody the crux of the Thibodeau-era Bulls. Although scoring is a huge question mark, the defense will always be there, because their coach—in tandem with the indomitable Joakim Noah—will always make sure of it. Grantland’s Zach Lowe had this to say about the team’s “quest for perfection”:

Scary news for the rest of the league: The Bulls are pretty close [to perfection]. Watch film of Chicago’s defense until your eyes bleed/your wife kills you — and I did — and the precision, so close to perfection, is overwhelming and almost beautiful. The Bulls, more than any team I’ve ever seen — including the Duncan-era Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, for whom Thibodeau was the defensive coordinator — just do not make mistakes.

The Bulls’ two young perimeter warriors will surely help cement their team’s untouchable status as defenders. But on offense, the Bulls are still just an inside-out team without dependable help in the middle, between Rose and Gasol. Chicago has a hole in the shape of either of these young studs at their best, so if Snell or Butler (or both) can add the less harvestable factor of scoring power into their games in 2014-15, it will help the Bulls reach new heights.

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