Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
It's not pretty.
You do it, I do it, we all do it. Everyone who follows the Philadelphia 76ers complains about how little contact the frontcourt makes on screens. In case you haven't noticed, everyone is right. They don't.
It's hard to succinctly describe the general philosophy behind Sixers 29th ranked offense (OK, everyone make a long two joke. Feel better? Great). Even after thinking for awhile, it's hard to pinpoint a specific identity like San Antonio or New York's spread pick and roll, Denver's drive and kick, the Horns and Flex sets Brooklyn favors, etc. The way I'd describe the Sixers' offense is basically just a bunch of random, slow developing ball screens. Unless Doug Collins calls a play, there doesn't seem to be any rigid principles besides one of the two big men on the floor methodically setting a ball screen.
If you put two and two together, it's obvious this is a problem, building an offense around something that your team doesn't do well, that is. According to Synergy, the Sixers are *22nd in the league when the P&R Ball Handler shoots (or turns it over) and 29th when the P&R Roll Man does the same.
*Like always, please note that these numbers are imperfect. For example, they don't reflect the seemingly high amount of wasted pick and rolls the Sixers run that don't end the possession. The fan service only records plays that finish in a shot, shooting foul or turnover.
A lack of quality personnel is largely what is responsible for the Sixers' poor offensive performance this year, but make no mistake, the scheme ain't helping things either. I decided to go to Synergy and take a look at how the Sixers' big men did when they were the ones taking the shots off the pick and roll. Mainly, I focused on two things:
1. The quality of the screens. Are they making contact with the defender?
2. What do they do afterwards? Dive to the rim (pick and roll) or flare out on the perimeter (pick and pop). The rudimentary way I determined this was by simply looking at the shot location. If it was inside seven or eight feet, I called it a "layup," indicating a roll to the rim. Outside of that, it was a "jumper," indicating a pop. With turnovers, I went with how far from the basket that the player lost the ball. Not close to perfect, but I was just trying to get a general feel.
I looked at all of this season's shots from four big men (Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Thaddeus Young, and Arnett Moultrie) and charted three things on each shot: If there was any contact made on the screen or not, where the shot was taken from, and the result.
One more thing before moving onto individual players: In order for me to chart a play, the screen had to be utilized. While the ball handler "refusing the screen" and dribbling in another direction is definitely part of the pick and roll, I wanted to focus just on the plays where the ball handlers used the screen. So plays like this one, where Hawes sets up for a screen but Jrue Holiday doesn't use it, weren't charted:
Spencer Hawes: 67 "Jumpers" to 49 "Layups", 72 "No Contact" to 44 "Contact" screens, 96 points on 116 possessions.
On the season thus far, I found that Hawes has 116 possessions that qualify. First, I have him at 72 times where his screen made zero contact and 44 times where he was able to at least get a body on the defender guarding the ball handler. The quality of the contact Hawes made on the 44 screens was generally poor, with the exception of the 12 shooting fouls he drew. At least for Hawes, good things tended to come after a solid initial screen.
67 of the 116 shots were classified as "jumpers" and his grand total was 96 points on 116 possessions (99 shots, 24 free throws, and 5 turnovers). As a frame of reference, I gave Hawes 75 % of the points from his shooting fouls, which is close to his average. That number ended up being 18 points out of 24 free throws.
Throughout the whole exercise, my least favorite plays were the ones where screeners make no contact and then flare to the perimeter for a jumper. Hawes did this a lot, and it wasn't effective, as he scored only 36 points on the 48 possessions that qualified for this category. Here are some examples:
On the team level, it's hard to see what good comes out of any play like these ones. By running this action, you are often guaranteeing yourself a low efficiency jumper. When the "screener" crosses paths with the ball handler without actually setting a screen, the defense is given a golden opportunity to trap the ball-handler without any resistance. With some teams (especially the ones with LeBron), this is OK, because the screener can be a potent offensive threat. In the Sixers' case though, it seems quite counterproductive, because the guy getting trapped is by far the team's best playmaker. So when a defense can get the ball out of Holiday's hands in order to surrender a long two point jumper to a guy who shoots 39 percent on those shots, they're going to do it.
It seemed to me like the aforementioned combination of no contact and flaring to the perimeter really hurts the Sixers' pick and roll game. But it's not like they have to avoid both distinctions, either. I liked the couple of times when Hawes slipped to the basket after sensing his defender cheating over the top of the ball screen. In these examples, it's not a disaster that he didn't make contact on the screen.
One other thing I noticed is that many of Hawes' threes in the pick and roll come after a guard "refused the screen." Again, I didn't chart these plays, but they still were interesting. Hawes basically channeled Newton's Third Law because whenever the guard dribbled away from the screen and penetrated, he drifted back behind the three-point line. Here are few of his "Laimbeers," which he's actually shooting at a respectable 7/20 clip on the year:
The verdict with Hawes is that placing him in the pick and roll is unsurprisingly inefficient. Hawes' limited athleticism prevents him from being a threat on rolls to the basket (even though he has a pretty creative array of flip shots and runners off the glass). But because the pick and pop is one of Hawes' strengths, that's what the team will run when he's in the game.
Lavoy Allen: 43 "Layups" to 33 "Jumpers", 47 "No Contact" to 29 "Contact" screens, 64 points on 76 possessions.
Using the same criteria I did with Hawes, I had Lavoy for 64 points on 76 possessions, 43 layups and 33 jumpers, and 47 screens where there was no contact as opposed to 29 when he did make contact.
Personally, I found Lavoy's "contact numbers" pretty disappointing. In Hawes' case, he has below average strength for his position. Lavoy doesn't have that excuse. He's strong as a bull. Look at what he can do, and feel free to add your own Emeril LaGasse sound effects:
BAM! Lavoy barely had any base and he absolutely crunched 235 pound Paul Pierce. That's what he's capable of, and yet on 62 percent of the screens I watched, he completely whiffed. As far as setting screens goes, Lavoy Allen has the ability to be the next Kevin Garnett. He should be making contact on every screen. He should be setting moving screens until referees start to consistently call it, which they often won't. Other teams and their fans should complain about the screens he routinely gets away with. Basically, none of this:
As far as his shot locations, I was surprised he rolled to the basket more frequently than flaring for a jumper. Still, he should be attacking the basket more. By no means will Lavoy be in a dunk contest anytime soon, but there's potential for him to be a decent pick and roll big man in spurts: On the 13 possessions I tracked where he made contact and took a shot within eight feet, he scored 18 points. Again, that's a small sample size with a lot of subjectivity involved, but the potential is there.
Allen also takes a decent amount of jumpers after guards "refuse" his screens, with even less success than Hawes:
This should never happen with him. Jrue should be seeking Lavoy out to set hard screens on his defender. There's a good pick and roll player somewhere in Lavoy Allen, but right now, it's just not there.
Arnett Moultrie: Watch and learn.
In all honesty, that was four out of the five possessions Synergy has Moultrie listed as the P&R Roll Man. So yeah, he's probably not going to score every time that he shoots going forward. Still, there's no denying the fact that he dives hard to the basket has the athleticism to finish at the rim. He should play close to 25 minutes a game, not be getting DNP-CD'd like he did against Minnesota. The Sixers should want to see what they have here in Moultrie for the future anyway, but right now, he gives their offense an element it doesn't have otherwise.
Thaddeus Young: 43 "Layups" to 15 "Jumpers", 36 "No Contact" to 22 "Contact" screens, 56 points on 58 possessions.
Thad's numbers are harder to put in context. Like basically everything he does on a basketball court, Thad's ball screens are quirky. Here's what I got: 43 layups to 15 jumpers, 36 no contact screens to 22 contact ones, and 56 points on 58 possessions. Young's low free-throw percentage certainly didn't help things.
Thad's speed allows the Sixers to utilize him in different ways than their other big men. I liked how on a couple of plays, they had him on the weakside, where his speed really complemented the misdirection action.
The beautiful part of running pick and roll with Thad is that it doesn't always have to be the case where he's flaring or rolling all the way the basket. Many times, he'll find the soft spot in the defense somewhere in between, which is fine because he's comfortable taking a dribble or two and finishing.
It seemed like to me, the Sixers guards are most comfortable refusing Thad's screens, because they know he can make plays and attack the rim in space. If Thad's man has to help on the drive and recover back to him, it's difficult to stay in front.
Thad's screens aren't really about helping free up the guards, and his shaky jump-shot will always prevent him from being a nightmare to guard in the pick and roll. Still, his athleticism is something I'd like to see the Sixers feature in more creative pick and roll sets, like some "screen the screener" action.
Conclusion: Dennis Green was right. They were who we thought they were, at least generally. I wonder if part of the general lack of contact and frequent pick and pops is coaching. We know Doug Collins hates turnovers and is more willing than most coaches to allow his team to shoot long jumpers. Is he telling Lavoy to avoid moving screens at all cost? Is he not properly valuing Moultrie's potential as a pick and roll partner with Holiday? I don't know, but it's fair question to ask.
The team's lack spacing, specifically not having a four who can legitimately stretch the floor, definitely hurts the pick and roll game. Then again, not making a ton of contact on screens and seemingly running plays for low percentage shooters doesn't help things either. Like I mentioned earlier, the Sixers' offensive personnel isn't very good. But the scheme, specifically how little production they get from their ball screens, still leaves a lot to be desired.
Hopefully at some point next week, I'll look to look at the guards and see how they do when there is contact being made on screens.