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Picking, Rolling, Balancing

At the beginning of last week, I wrote a piece about the Sacramento Kings, looking at their lack of assists and what it means for their offense as a whole. Two personally enduring ideas came out of that piece. The first was a graphic representation of the King’s assists, something that I’ll be looking at for every team in the near future. The second was the discovery of a pick-and-roll attack that seems, on the surface, to be decidedly unbalanced.

More evidence of this comes in the balance of their pick-and-rolls. The Kings have run 260 pick-and-rolls this season,  17.1% of their total offensive possessions. 76.15% of those pick-and-rolls have been used by the ball handler, either through a shot attempt, turnover or foul. Only New York, Orlando and Philadelphia have boasted an attack that is more lopsided. The Sacramento ball handlers are seeing that screen as a chance to remove defensive pressure, opening a lane, however narrow, to get to the basket. They are missing the dynamic, multi-channel scoring opportunity that the play is meant to be. It doesn’t help that their ball-handlers aren’t particularly effective in looking for their own shots off the pick-and-roll, averaging 0.76 points per possession, 25th in the league. You can direct plenty of the blame towards Evans, who’s averaging just 0.52 points per possession in those situations.

There may not be a whole lot that can be done with the roster as is, but a place to start may be in finding a balance on the pick-and-roll. Cousins has been very effective in the pick-and-roll as the screener, averaging 1.06 points per possession, but he’s finished a possession that way just 17 times this season.

The pick-and-roll is among the foundational pieces of an NBA offense, and every team runs it to varying degrees. This play is, at it’s core, about multiple options. The more that core is obscured, the easier it becomes to defend. The red flag for me in looking at the Kings’ attack was not actually the balance per se, but their lack of success with the pick-and-roll. Each team must use the pieces at its disposal to strike their own individual balance.

Starting with this idea of balance, or the lack thereof, in the pick-and-roll I attempted to create some more context for the Kings’ situation. The graphs below show the balance between pick-and-rolls finished by the ball handler and those finished by the screener, for each team in the NBA. The average points per possession that each team scores on all pick-and-rolls is noted in the center of the graph, and the graphs (which can be clicked on to enlarge) are listed in order by this number, from Phoenix to Milwaukee. The numbers are courtesy of mySynergySports.

If you prefer a numeric format, the table below covers the same data. For each team you can see what percentage of their pick-and-rolls are used by ball handlers and screeners, as well as the points per possessions averaged by each. You can also find the percentage of each team’s overall offense used on pick-and-rolls and the points per possession that are averaged overall.

[table id=36 /]

On average, NBA teams see a little more than two-thirds of their pick-and-roll possessions being used by the ball handler. However, there don’t appear to be any hard and fast rules. There are successful pick-and-roll teams that are quite a bit more ball handler oriented (Orlando, Charlotte, New York). There are also those that run in the other direction (Toronto, Miami, New Orleans).

This entire piece is a little like taking a photo of the people of New York City from the top of the Empire State Building. We see only broad strokes and large themes which hint at the multitude of unique and individual stories within the image. Returning to Sacramento, we see that the real problem is the lack of effectiveness. Their pick-and-roll attack scores the 6th fewest points per possession in the league. The fact that they don’t score as often as they should is what defines their pick-and-roll possessions as unbalanced, more than the actuals splits. Later this week I’ll be trying to dig out some of the other micro stories here, looking at how each team is striking their own balance. In the meantime, have fun with the graphs.

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