In Boston’s 121-114 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Kyrie Irving splashed in the tough shots that solidify him as a superstar. Most of those baskets came courtesy of the pick and roll, where he exposed a familiar problem in Philadelphia.
While Irving’s second-highest scoring total of the season would induce some sort of epiphany to most teams, Philadelphia abides by a cautious defensive scheme in pick and rolls — drop coverage — which inherently allows Irving to finagle shots in the mid-range, while (supposedly) starving him of easy layups.
At its core, that’s the goal of drop coverage: buy enough time for the trailing on-ball defender to catch up to the ball-handler, and in turn, give up the least-efficient shot in basketball. But in the case of the stars and superstars of the world, that’s the grey area they specialize in.
And prior to this game, lead guards — from Victor Oladipo and Kemba Walker to Mike Conley to Devin Booker to Spencer Dinwiddie to Rodney Hood — have capitalized, evidencing that Philadelphia’s defensive scheme isn’t immune to non-stars either.
Simply put, the scheme has created problems that haven’t been answered by the arrival of a terrific on-ball defender in Jimmy Butler. Yes, one would assume trading an off-ball risk-taker in Robert Covington for an on-ball stalwart in Butler would improve the pick and roll defense, and while that’s true to a point — lineups with Butler average a 97.1 defensive rating — one player is never the be-all, end-all on either side of the court.
To wit, the Sixers have dropped from the 9th best defense (106.7 defensive rating) to the 16th best defense (108.4) during the Butler experience. That being said, the problem isn’t so obvious as to say one individual defender is plaguing them, but rather one that permeates through the entirety of the roster.
So how do the star guards do their damage?
The star guards probe defenders in the pick and roll until the defender guarding the roll man has to decide between 1) abandoning drop coverage and thus allowing more operating room for the ball-handler or 2) staying put on drop coverage and thus freeing the roll man.
Meanwhile, the on-ball defender — no matter the circumstance — is “chasing” the screen, desperately trying to catch his prey like a game of cat and mouse.
To be clear, this is a problem stemming from Sixers’ personnel. First, they aren’t agile enough to chase through the screens, with T.J. McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, J.J. Redick, and Wilson Chandler all rating as below-average defenders.
And then there is the wilting safety net the team is too often relying on: the big in drop coverage. While Joel Embiid showed flashes of jittery feet in the early season, his stamina is juiced-out by the second half. Mike Muscala has improved as of late in drop coverage, but still, he’s clunky and awkward.
Suppose the big chooses to stick to the roll-man to get rebound positioning. In this scenario, the star guard will simply “snake” the ball-screen speedily, hinging open the tightest of windows for a pull-back for a mid-range jump shot:
As previously articulated, the problem isn’t limited to non-stars, either. And while it’s preferable to allow the likes of Rozier and Collin Sexton to coil into the mid-range, the strategy sometimes bleeds open the lane for them to stab all the way to the basket for high-arcing floaters:
The second option is the big helps onto the ball-handler, giving more room to the rolling big man. As a byproduct, the ball-handler will seep into the lane, then dump it to the rolling big man at the last second, who is either rolling for an open layup or popping for an easy mid-range shot:
The point is that while this scheme works sometimes, and while the mid-range shot is an inefficient shot (especially off-the-bounce, through a pick and roll), it’s an open shot every time for some of the premier marksmen in the game. Budding star Donovan Mitchell is next up on the schedule, and with more star guards in the path this will remain a persisting issue barring drastic change.
Where lies the potential answer?
It’s not so easy to say that Philadelphia should change their defensive scheme a third of the way of the season considering it took a whole summer to introduce drop coverage. Although by implementing tiny wrinkles each game, this team will see immediate improvement.
Look no further than the Oklahoma City Thunder, who boast the staunchest defense in the NBA (first in defensive rating), even sans potential defensive player of the year candidate Andre Roberson. With their defensive scheme, they’ve turned garbage into gold; Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, and Dennis Schroder are undergoing career revivals.
So how do the Thunder defend on a nightly basis that makes their role players defend like stars? Like the 76ers, they deploy drop coverage, but how they use it couldn’t be drawn any more different.
Oklahoma City paints artistic flair on the canvas of Philadelphia’s drop coverage defense by gifting Steven Adams creative freedom. Billy Donovan allows Adams to make decisions at his own discretion; Adams confronts ball-handlers who are adept in the mid-range, or he backpedals into drop coverage to box out the roll man if the ball-handler is prone to clanking shots off the front iron.
One way Adams leverages the newfound freedom to flaunt his defensive prowess is by “showing.” By showing, Adams spooks the ball handler for a split-second and then retreats onto the roll man, who hazardly encroaches the basket. Even though Harden scoops in a careening layup here, Adams averts him from his path before contesting him at the rim:
Another way Adams guards the pick and roll is by switching onto the ball-handler. Irving hit many shots in the pick and roll because he snaked through the screen at a deafening pace and by fully switching — with helpside on their toes — Embiid could have funneled the ball out of Irving’s hands. Here, Paul George gets pancaked by a Clint Capela ball-screen and Adams slides once with Harden before the latter is forced to pitch the ball out:
Part of the problem can be attributed to the players. Philadelphia’s wing players can wiggle through screens better and the bigs can work on their footwork down-low, but at some point, the coaches have to step in and demand change. If they don’t experiment with different forms of drop coverage, star guards will continue to tear the defense to shreds in the pick and roll.