The Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled in this young season, that is not in doubt, especially following the man handling by the San Antonio Spurs. Why the Cavs have struggled has been discussed, reviewed and pondered by many across the media, and league, including us here at FoS. From team drama, getting used to playing with new players, Mike Brown’s coaching, etc; the explanations are wide and far. There is also some practical reasons, that can be reviewed statistically, including shooting, defensive percentages and turnovers.
Today we look at the most fundamental play in the NBA: the Pick and Roll. Besides isolation, which isn’t a play that is run, PnR plays are the primary way teams look to score in the NBA. The PnR allows for the ball handler to attack a defense in multiple ways while creating spacing and lanes for the other offensive players. In the last 15 years an off shoot of the PnR has been the Pick and Pop play where the man setting the pick pops out for an open shot instead of rolling towards the rim. For the case of this article both of these will fall under the PnR label. There are 4 goals/outcomes from the PnR for the offensive team:
1) The roll man seals the man he picked onto his back and rolls to the rim for an easy pass from the ball handler. After coming off the pass the ball handler allows space for the roll man and should be able to find him on a path to the rim for a layup, dunk or short shot.
2) The roll man pops out to an open area as the man he picks, and his defender, drop into the lane to defend the ball handler and the roll. The ball handler provides space, moving away from the pick, to give the pop man open space for a mid-range jump shot.
3) The ball handler uses the pick to get to the basket for a layup, dunk or short shot. As the ball handler goes through the pick and both defenders stay tight to the pick man, the ball handler can quickly attack the opening.
4) Based on one of the above movements the offensive team gets the defense off balance, and rotating, and quick decisive passes lead to an open shot or drive to the lane. Often the Spurs use this type of PnR and ball movement to get wide open 3 pointers or drives to the lane.
Simple right? Each of these 4 goals/outcomes should get the offensive team a acceptable shot at the basket. The key is spacing. If the ball handler stays close to the pick man it creates 2 negatives: the roll/pop man has no space to move or receive a pass and both defenders can easily guard both men. The other spacing is that of the other 3 player not involved with the PnR. Being setup ready for a catch and shoot or finding backdoor cutting lanes as a defender turns to help the PnR are 2 primary roles of the rest of the offense.
It is in both of these areas that the Cavs have struggled. Irving, Jack and Waiters focus primarily on #3 above, driving to the hole off the PnR. This often creates very little space for the roll/pop man to be involved in the play. Instead spacing between the ball handler and the pick man is very tight with the pick man often just trailing the play as you see Anderson Varejao doing above, or waiting to set a 2nd, 3rd and 4th pick for the ball handler. Defenders then pack the paint and the passing lanes playing 5 on 4 basketball. This either leads to a contested shot at the rim or a simple pass out to the wing to restart the offense.
The other 3 offensive players often are caught unsure of what will happen in the play and where to be to provide spacing for their teammates. Cuts are often lazy or just to try to get out of the way of the ball handler as they try to dribble their way to success. Passes out to the wing, after too many dribbles are often difficult to make, due to the packed paint and passing lanes. The team then struggles with quick decisive ball movement to try to get the defense moving, instead just passing the ball around the 3 point line without a purpose.
When, always hopeful here in Cleveland, the Cavs start to show offensive improvements look for the spacing between the ball handler and the pick/pop guy to increase. You will see more dives to the basket leading to easy layups and dunks, more hockey assists (where 1 pass leads to an open 2nd pass for a basket) and more pop opportunities for in rhythm jumpers. For that to happen Irving, Waiters and Jack have to believe in the play and their teammates, focusing on total team offense instead of individual play. If they are unable to, especially Irving, we may be looking at players who can score a lot but are ball stoppers. Those players have not had a history of success in the league, including the teams Carmelo Anthony has played on.