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Every Play Counts: The Phoenix Pick-and-Roll

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 12/5/05

In "Every Play Counts,"'s Kevin Pelton focuses on one player or team in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be fascinating. Also see Michael David Smith's original "Every Play Counts" at

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is no stranger to controversy, but his last foray into the news was contentious even for him.

After the Mavericks narrowly defeated the Phoenix Suns 111-108 in double overtime in the opener for both teams, TNT "Inside the NBA" analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith criticized the Mavericks' defense of the Suns' bread-and-butter pick-and-roll.

"They switch the pick-and-roll, which I still don't understand when you put Dirk Nowitzki or your four or three man on Steve Nash, their best player, and put him at your mercy," said Smith.

"Teams that switch all the time, they can't play defense," added Barkley. "It destroys your defense; it gives you too many mismatches - you've always got little on big, big on little."

Cuban fired back on his blog:

"Kenny, if you want to bust on us for switching on the pick and roll, get some stats to back it up. We track conversion rates on everything we do. High pick and roll, elbow pick and roll, whatever, we track it. If its (sic) not working Kenny, we adjust. I know that is probably a new concept to you and Charlie B, but thats (sic) the NBA of 2006. With all that money you guys make (hey if you are going to talk salaries, lets (sic) see how you like it), go out and hire some kids to track what actually happens in a game rather than having TNT bring in kids to go out and get donuts."

From there, the feud between the three descended into something straight out of a middle school or an Internet message board (you can read all about it on, but I'm interested in their core area of disagreement -- pick-and-roll defense.

I've decided to take Cuban up on his challenge to Barkley and Smith (and their interns). Unfortunately, I don't have tape of the Mavericks-Suns game, but I did watch a game a week and a half later between the Suns and the Detroit Pistons, another one that came down to offensive and defensive execution in the half-court in the closing minutes.

Basically, there are four main ways NBA teams defend the pick-and-roll:

Switch it - The players defending the ballhandler and the picker switch, usually creating a mismatch. Barkley and Smith do not believe this is a successful defense (at least against Nash and the Suns).

Trap - Both defenders go towards the ballhandler and aggressively trap him while the other three defenders zone against the four remaining offensive players.

"Show" or "Hedge" - The player defending the picker briefly steps out into the ballhandler's path, slowing him up enough that the player defending the ballhandler has time to recover. Then the player defending the picker recovers to his original man. It's worth noting that this is how the Spurs usually defend the pick-and-roll.

Go under the pick - Done only against weak shooters, the player defending the picker steps back to allow the player defending the ballhandler to go between him and the screen and get to his man. This leaves an open jumpshot for the ballhandler.

There are also two main locations for pick-and-rolls -- at the top of the key and at the elbow (the free-throw line extended to approximately where it would intersect the 3-point line). Because these are played in different ways, I've separated them out for my analysis.

Here are the charts showing how Phoenix performed given the way Detroit defended the pick-and-roll:

Switch   11    7  63.6   2     0    0
Trap      2    2 100.0   0     0    0
Show     10   18 180.0   1     3    1
Under     4    5 125.0   2     0    0

Switch    8    4  50.0   1     0    0
Trap      5    2  40.0   0     0    0
Show     19   20 105.2   1     6    1
Under                 N/A

TOTAL    54   56  103.7
OTHER    48   36  133.3

"BSC" is times when the ballhandler scored, "BAST" when he had an assist. "SSC" is when the screener scored. "RTG" is points per 100 possessions, and at the bottom I've compared how the Suns did when they used at least one pick-and-roll (and that doesn't quite add up to the above totals because of multiple picks on some possessions) as compared to other possessions. Presumably the advantage on the other possessions is largely due to transition, though it also reflects that Phoenix's pick-and-roll was ineffective at times.

With the benefit of hindsight, I kind of wasted my time scoring the first 40 minutes or so of the game, because where things really got interesting was in the final eight minutes, when the Pistons went from typically showing (one thing I learned by watching pick-and-rolls is that the defense is often pragmatic; if the defender on the ballhandler falls down going through the screen, for example, the defense will have to switch) to typically switching -- same as the Mavericks in the opener. The results were remarkable. Phoenix actually started hot, scoring eight points on its first three possessions in this stretch, but scored just six points over its last 11 possessions and went without a score on its last six. During this stretch, the Pistons switched nine pick-and-rolls (including multiple ones on several possessions) and Phoenix scored just five points.

Going back to the charts, it's easy to see what happened when Detroit defended the pick-and-roll in different fashions. Showing allowed the ballhandler, usually Nash, to gain an advantage heading toward the lane. This forced a help defender to rotate over, leaving the Suns an open look from the perimeter, which they frequently hit. When the Pistons switched, that forced the ballhandler to try to exploit a mismatch with a bigger defender, and the Suns -- Nash, basically -- were unable to do so.

Now I should pause here to note that few teams are better equipped to switch pick-and-rolls than the Pistons, who boast two agile big men in Ben and Rasheed Wallace and a physical point guard in Chauncey Billups. Still, the success enjoyed switching by a team that has won the last two Eastern Conference Championships and is famed for its defense seems to put the lie to Barkley's contention that teams that switch can't play D.

What was particularly interesting, given that this game too was broadcast by TNT, was the reaction to Detroit's strategy. Commentator Doug Collins, as good as anyone in the business, noted at the 6:07 mark coming out of a timeout, "Remember what happened against Dallas - they started switching all those screens and the Suns got very stagnant." Magic Johnson on "Inside the NBA" also noted that switching was key to the Pistons' victory. Did anyone criticize Detroit coach Flip Saunders' strategy or the validity of switching? Nope.

Here is where I think Cuban has a legitimate criticism of Barkley and Smith. Not that the numbers and charting do not help, but they're not necessary to see whether a team's pick-and-roll defense is working. But Barkley and Smith weren't looking at Dallas' defense with an objective eye; they were looking for evidence supporting their long-held contention that the Mavericks do not play enough defense to win a title. When a team known for its defense did the same thing, it didn't fit Barkley's and Smith's storyline. (Predictably, Barkley went off on "Inside the NBA" about Phoenix not defending well enough, ignoring the Suns' offensive collapse.)

The other interesting aspect of this exercise is its implications for the Suns. Phoenix lost three of its first five games, including both the Dallas and Detroit games, down the stretch in games decided by half-court offense and defense. The reason this happened is that their famed pick-and-roll let them down in the face of opponents switching.

As Smith astutely noted on "Inside the NBA," last year the Suns had multiple options on their pick-and-roll, with Amaré Stoudemire's roll to the basket at least as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than Nash isolated against a big man. New Phoenix big men Brian Grant and Kurt Thomas do not present the same challenge for defenses.

The Suns acquired Thomas largely to run the elbow pick-and-pop, where he can slide to the baseline and hit his trademark mid-range jumper. But Thomas has struggled with his shot (he's currently at 43.1% from the field) and is relatively ineffective on the high pick-and-roll. Grant, who is now expected to miss three months after surgery on his patella, sets terrific screens and gives the Suns much-needed rebounding (why he was in the game down the stretch against Detroit), but he's only an offensive threat at this point inside of five feet.

One play in particular illustrated Phoenix's problems. With just under a minute and a half left in the game, the Suns set a pair of ballscreens, the first for Raja Bell and then one for Steve Nash, both by Brian Grant. This left Richard Hamilton defending Nash, Billups on Grant and Ben Wallace on Raja Bell. Bell can't create his own shot (that was, I think, the only pick-and-roll run for him all game), so that mismatch was meaningless. Grant tried to post Billups, but could not get good enough position, forcing Nash to fire an ill-fated pass attempt into the post that was stolen by Rasheed Wallace. Hamilton scored on the other end, Nash turned it over again trying to pass to Thomas, Billups hit a 3 and the game was over for all intents and purposes.

To his credit, 2004-05 NBA Coach of the Year Mike D'Antoni has adjusted, going even smaller by making more use of Boris Diaw at center in place of Thomas or Grant. Leandro Barbosa, another player who can create off the dribble, also saw more action before he suffered a sprained knee. Combined with much-improved work at the defensive end of the court (don't tell Barkley, but the Suns are fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating now, allowing 101.2 points per 100 possessions, down from 107.0 a year ago), that's helped Phoenix win six straight games to move a half-game out of first place in the Pacific Division even without Stoudemire.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA. He can be reached at

Also see Kevin's previous columns for
The Year in Stats
Why I'm an APBRmetrician
Wanted: Open Minds
Investigating Dwyane Wade's Injury Risk
The Similarity of Eddy Curry and Mike Sweetney
Rating the Rookies: Projected Fantasy Stats
Valuing the Preseason
Every Play Counts: Kobe Bryant
Comparing the 50 Greatest

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