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Timberwolves pick-and-roll defense primer

The Wolves have serious problems defending the pick-and-roll and need a big man to fix it

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

File this in the "keep it in mind" column.

It's no secret the Wolves were absolutely atrocious on defense this year. Abjectly, horrifically so, placing near last to dead last in just about every defensive category.

Opponent Scoring 106.5 30th
Opponent FG% .487 30th
Opponent 3pt% .367 28th
Defenseive Reb% .716 30th

The rebounding problem we at least saw coming. Kevin Love - for all his faults as a defender - is an incredible rebounder on the defensive glass. Replacing him with power-forward-in-a-small-forward-body Thad Young was inevitably going to hurt the Wolves on the glass. The injury woes to Nikola Pekovic only made it worse. The only high impact rebounders the Wolves carried on their roster were the combined 23 games between Jeff Adrien and Kevin Garnett, neither of who averaged more than 20 minutes a night.

The rest, however, is disappointing (although, considering the coach and non-injured players, maybe not entirely surprising) The Wolves struggled mightily in every facet of competent defense: man-to-man, hedging, rotations, weakside help, communication...all of it.

A lot of that shouldn't require much explanation. Ex: the Wolves were miserable at one-on-one post defense (4th worst in PPP given up and Scored On frequency, 2nd worst in FG% given up) but it's not like that requires any sort of long exposition, charting or video to understand. The ball goes into a player in the post. His defender then either stops him from scoring or doesn't.

What I want to focus on is pick-and-roll defense because it's a much more complicated sequence, so it's harder to figure out what should be happening on defense.

The pick-and-roll is the staple of just about every NBA basketball playbook. Only the Phil Jackson/Tex Winters Triangle offense completely throws it out. Several coaches - Rick Adelman, Randy Wittman, Flip Saunders - build their playbooks on high post curl action, but still run pick-and-rolls (granted, not often...) This has been the case for decades; the infamous "Stockton to Malone" call is pick-and-roll.

The basic action is a big man comes out and sets a screen for a guard with the ball. The guard then goes around the screen, 'picking' his defender off on it. The big man then 'rolls' to the hoop. Because the screen switches the defenders for at least a couple of seconds, the guard then has the choice of attacking the much bigger and slower defender on him, or passing to his rolling big, who has a much smaller defender.

If you're still unsure of the details, here - just watch the masters.

The reason I want to focus on this is not only were the Wolves hopeless at defending this action, but they have been for a long, long time, and there seems to be a lot of confusion about who is supposed to be doing what.

Let's start by looking at the right way to defend the pick-and-roll.

First, ignore the fact that a team that was blatantly trying to lose games showed more defensive competency than anyone not named Garnett displayed for the Wolves.

Second, let's walk through the action here:

When Tyler Zeller sets the screen on Hollis Thompson, look where his defender - Nerlens Noel - is on the floor. As soon as Marcus Smart goes around the screen, he runs straight into Noel, down in a defensive stance, which stops his drive cold.


This is what "defending in space" means: a big man stepping up to stop the ball in the open spaces on the floor.

Zeller doesn't roll to the hoop in this particular instance, but wouldn't have had the time or space to anyway. Because Noel stopped the ball and gave Thompson the chance to catch back up, Smart has no choice but to pass out to Zeller on the elbow, which is well outside his shooting range.

Let's look at an example where the big does roll to the hoop:

Here, Al Horford jumps so far out on the screen (this is what NBA-ers mean by 'hedging') that Kyrie Irving literally has to back up and nearly turn around. This is the ideal result. Hedging this hard forces the guard back towards his original defender, zeroing out the play. Or, as you see in this example, sometimes even resulting in a very effective trap.

But here's the thing: it starts with Al Horford. It starts with Nerlens Noel.

One of the strangest debates we've had here, in my opinion, was Kevin Love's bad defense and how much we wanted to blame everyone but Kevin Love for it. Which I get the perspective, believe me...Love was very nearly the only good thing the Wolves had for at least 3 of his years here. To be clear, he was not why the Wolves were a bad team.

At the same time, he was...and is...a bad defender, particularly in space. Again, with the understanding that teams run the pick-and-roll all the time, Love is one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders in the league no matter which way you slice it.

Points/Possession given up 1.18 6th worst in NBA
Field Goal % given up 62.5 2nd worst in NBA
Scoring frequency given up 54.4 4th worst in NBA
P-n-R Defensive Percentile 1.4 6th worst in NBA

To put it in simpler terms, Kevin Love defends the pick-and-roll about as well as Doug McDermott (their PPP defending the ball is literally tied, and their 0.3% apart in their rating) When Love's man sets a screen and a guard comes around it, he's basically a red carpet to the hoop.

Compare his spacing on the floor (again, defending in space) to say, Kevin Garnett's in his first game back against the Washington Wizards:



This is why Kevin Garnett is a former Defensive Player of the Year and 9-time All-Defensive First Team, while Love has spent a good portion of the past season getting yapped at by LeBron and sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter.

Another example is how just about every halfway decent point guard was able to light up the Shaq-era Lakers. Teams would run pick-and-roll on his side of the floor, and Shaq would never step out on the ball. The point guard - whether it was Mike Bibby or Tony Parker or Chauncey Billups or Troy freakin' Hudson - would come around the screen and have a wide open floor, because Shaq was camping out underneath the hoop. Free shots and layups for everyone!

Now I'm not picking on Love just to pick on him, but rather to make a point: pick-and-roll defense begins with the big man defender stepping up. It starts with Al Horford. It starts with Nerlens Noel. As soon as the ball goes around the screen, it's the big's responsibility to contain the ball, and Love is a clear example of how things fall apart when a big doesn't do that.

And there's definitely different degrees of effectiveness in fighting through screens, as we've clearly seen this season in the gap between Ricky Rubio and Mo Williams/Zach LaVine. If the guard goes under the screen, then the ball handler is left with a wide open shot. If the guard never fights through the screen at all, then the action essentially turns into a 2-on-1. At that point, it doesn't matter if the big contains the ball - he's outnumbered anyway. The guard definitely has a responsibility of his own to get back into the play.

And of course, it's on the guard first in isolation situations, or if a screen is set but the ball goes away from it.

But in pick-and-roll, even the best perimeter defender is going to be knocked out of the play initially for a couple seconds. That's the point of the screen in the first place: the guard defending the ball can be held responsible for not getting back into the play after the screen, but he can't be held responsible for letting the ball get past him to begin with because he has someone physically getting in his way.

So what does this mean for the Wolves? Well, those of you who have watched FSN this year have heard Jim Peterson harp on the team over this, and he's right to. Everyone runs the pick-and-roll. It's not a secret. As Jim often said, it's beyond vexing that the Wolves so thoroughly and consistently fail to defend the most frequently run set in NBA basketball, or even show competent understanding of what the pick-and-roll is.

The Wolves give up 1.03 PPP in pick-and-roll defense, which is 26th in the league (best is Memphis at 0.84 PPP) They're 28th in pick-and-roll FG% defense (52.6%) and 21st in fouling % (how frequently they foul when teams run pick-and-roll sets against them) Their overall defensive scoring frequency - how often teams get at least 1 point when they run pick-and-roll against the Wolves - is 51.6%. Only the Magic, Clippers and Lakers were worse.

The biggest culprit for this is Zach LaVine, who quite frequently just never gets back into the play after running into a pick. But still, that's not a huge concern to me overall. Zach can only do damage here when he's playing, and the only reason he played so much was because Ricky Rubio was hurt. The Wolves' two primary perimeter guys - Rubio and Andrew Wiggins - both notched fantastic pick-and-roll defensive numbers on both the ball handler and the roll man. Andrew limited his man to 0.70 PPP on 37% shooting when defending the ball handler, and 0.77 PPP on 35% shooting defending the roll.

So, assuming Rubio can get healthy and stay healthy (knock on wood), the Wolves should be in decent shape on the perimeter here.

What I'm much more concerned with is the big man end of this. The Wolves only have one great pick-and-roll big defender (Garnett) and he's 38 years old and only plays half of any given game. Justin Hamilton's probably the next best the Wolves have, as he's pretty solid on pick-and-roll defense and rotations, but he struggles mightily in straight post defense. And Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng, Anthony Bennett and Adreian Payne are just....not very good at defense, period.

Pekovic I understand. He knows what he's supposed to do, but is so physically limited it's hard for him to cover enough ground to be effective. Pick-and-roll defense is a lot of motion, and Pek...even when healthy...has never been particularly quick. This season has been particularly bad, as his gimpy ankles have led him to try and free safety things more and more, rather than hedge and contest, but....well, that situation is what it is.

And he's not a shot blocker even in the best of circumstances. I love Pek, but even were he healthy, he's no help in this department.

Meanwhile, Bennett and Payne have the opposite problem - they're both more than physically able to defend the pick-and-roll, but don't get how to mentally. Payne gets so lost he alternates between standing out in the middle of nowhere doing nothing and turning himself into an active danger to his teammates, moving to the wrong spots on the floor and crashing into them at random.

Dieng is the one I don't understand. He's certainly physically capable, and given his background as a Big East DPotY and defensive anchor at Louisville, he should get what to do. Rick Pitino understands basketball and how to teach it. Yet Dieng, for whatever reason, will not only forego attempting to hedge screens, he'll stand still or backpedal as guards come around them, thus never stopping the ball either.

(He also gets caught watching, leading to teams scoring on him when his man sets a screen away from the ball)

As Eric noted in his season grades, Dieng had basically no practical impact on defense despite being the team's only legitimate 7-footer for long, long portions of it. Is it coaching? Is it his relative newness to basketball? Is it his somewhat awkward physicality? (He doesn't get into a stance so much as just half-hunch over...) I honestly don't know the answer, which is why I wouldn't bet on Dieng being the answer. If he does become the solution, then great, but the Wolves need to plan for otherwise.

So keep this all in mind in the coming weeks as draft coverage ramps up. Hedging, defending in space and the Wolves' dire need of a big man who does both will all be talked about frequently, particularly in regards to Jahlil Okafor and Willie Cauley-Stein. WCS can barely score, no doubt, but if you at all believe that defense is a thing that matters, well....let's just say we should all become KAT ladies. Men. Whatever.

Finally, I'll leave you with this thought for now: In his admittedly very limited 98 minutes, Kevin Garnett posted a defensive rating of 93.8. In those 98 minutes of those five games...with Kevin Martin and Zach LaVine and Chase Budinger and all of that...the Wolves were better on defense than the Memphis Grizzlies. That's how much one big man who's great on defense can change the game. What the Wolves need is someone who can do that for them all the time.