The NBA's best defensive units find ways to defend two things: the pick and roll and the three-point line.
Because Drake didn’t personally invite me to the ‘6’ to watch Aaron Gordon, Zach LaVine, and the other All Star festivities, I was able to spend some time in solitude digesting the first half of the NBA season. Besides being enraptured by all things Warriors, I spent a lot of time trying to examine what made the league’s best defenses better than the rest. Before we can fully appreciate the great tactics that the NBA’s top defenses implement it’s important to understand the driving force behind most NBA offenses.
Nearly all NBA offenses, regardless of scheme, place a sizable emphasis on pick and rolls and three-point shot creation. The best offenses are able to maximize the value of each pick and roll and create a large number of makeable threes for their best shooters. The easiest point of reference for most of us is probably the lethal Steph Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll. While these two are seemingly unstoppable, the NBA’s best defenses have become so by limiting offenses in both pick and roll efficiency and three-point shooting. Take a look at the 11 best defenses in the NBA, in terms of Defensive Efficiency, at the All Star Break:
Not surprisingly, the list is comprised of some of the league’s best overall teams and some teams known for their defensive mindedness, like the Chicago Bulls, despite the departure of Coach Tom Thibodeau. When examining further, the biggest indicator of an efficient defense is pick and roll defense. As shown below, all but two of the 11 best defenses rank in the top 10 in defensive pick and roll points per possession, with Cleveland and Toronto being the only exceptions.
While there is certainly not one cure all in pick and roll defense, there are some commonalities between the majority of these teams. When it comes to the side pick and roll, eight of the 11 most efficient defenses employ ice (also known as blue, or down defense) to limit middle penetration from ball screens. In ice coverage, the primary defender forces the ball handler away from the screener and down toward the baseline. When it comes to the middle pick and roll, an “over the top and drop” strategy seems to be the preferred defense. Such a tactic sees the primary defender chase hard over the top of the pick while the secondary defender (often a big man) sags off to protect the paint. The goal of this defense is to run the ball handler away from the valuable and highly coveted three-point shots while also protecting easy shots at the rim. The defense is willing to concede open or late contested midrange jumpers as they are the least efficient shots on the court.
While the over the top and drop strategy makes perfect sense, the strategy is as much a personnel decision as it is a math calculation. Coaches such as Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Frank Vogel, and Billy Donovan can comfortably elect the over the top and drop defense because they currently have or have had a recent history of lumbering big men that could potentially make a mess of pick and roll defense if asked to sprint out past the three-point line to impede the most agile players on the opposing team. With the likes of DeAndre Jordan and a healthy Blake Griffin, Coach Doc Rivers usually opts for the high hedge strategy where his athletic bigs quickly step out as far as possible to thwart the dribbler and then hustle back into position as help defenders tag the roller. In Miami, Coach Spoelstra uses his athletic seven footer Hassan Whiteside as both a hedge man and also a sag man at times. As we’ve seen repeatedly with Whiteside, though, it is hard to know what he is doing out of strategic design or just his own volition.
The next part of the defensive efficiency equation is defending the three-point line. I prescribe to the school of thought that it is more worth your effort to try to limit the other team’s three-point attempts than it is to try to minimize three-point percentage. There are many great resources that espouse this theory in great detail, but in short, three-point percentage is a harder variable to influence because you have no control once the ball leaves the professional shooter’s hands. Just watch. So for some teams, the aforementioned over the top and drop isn’t only a principal pick and roll strategy, but it also is a tenet for limiting opponent’s three-point attempts.
It should be noted that three-point attempt defense and three-point percentage defense can work symbiotically. As you can see below, teams that are successful in limiting three-point attempts also find success minimizing three-point percentage. One possible explanation is that as teams continue to engineer their offenses to find efficient threes, they are more susceptible to settle for several difficult and contested threes even against defenses geared specifically to take away trey land.
As it stands, 10 of the 11 best defenses rank in the top 10 of at least two of our three defensive efficiency indicators. Three of those teams, including the two best defenses, rank in the top 10 in all three categories. For the teams that don’t rank in the league’s top half in any one of these three major defensive categories, it is easy to see that their strength in the other two areas is the equalizer. The Indiana Pacers, for example, overcome their 21st overall ranking in defensive three-point attempts by being ranked in the top eight in both pick and roll points per possession and defensive three-point percentage. The lone outlier to this theory are the Toronto Raptors. Toronto is middle of the pack or worse in our three major defensive efficiency indicators but still boast the ninth most efficient defense in the NBA. Maybe their ability to limit paint points (4th overall) and fast break points (6th overall) are the major keys to their defense. Or if you’re looking for a different key, here’s another one. Maybe they have some type of Canadian x-factor that can get in the way just enough at just the right time. Either way, Raps fans are still enjoying Views from the 6.