Denver’s Screening Problem

One of the biggest obstacles I run into when trying to project what Denver will look like going into next season is the absence of any idea what the system will be like under Brian Shaw. The Nuggets have spent the better part of a decade running the sometimes varied but always unorthodox George Karl system, and the extent to which Shaw deviates from that remains to be seen. He has been on the record as saying he will ditch the triangle offense that his coaching had been pigeonholed into (a wise move) and that he will continue to utilize Denver’s unique home court advantage with an uptempo offense (another smart move), but other than that it is mostly a mystery.

However, I am pretty confident that at least a good portion of Karl’s dribble-drive offense will be replaced with a more traditional pick-and-roll centric system. I will defend Karl’s dunks-and-threes system till the day I die in terms of how well it succeeded in the team sense but it is undeniable that the Nuggets have many players who would thrive in a more pick-and-roll featured scheme (Ty Lawson especially). There’s just one problem. There are precious few Nuggets who know how to properly set screens.

Screen setting is an oft overlooked skill, being as it’s statistically un-trackable (at least for now) and how readily it’s assumed to be a pretty base skill. It’s not. Like every other skill in the NBA, screening ability comes in degrees, from the excellently tricky Spurs (Splitter, Duncan, and Diaw) to the perpetually fouling Kendrick Perkins to the too often apathetic Melo. A quick glance over the Nugget’s roster reveals an alarming amount of guys on the wrong end of that spectrum.

  • JaVale McGee

JaVale treats setting screens like a child treats eating spinach. To him they are nothing but a formality, a mere hinderance in his never ending quest to flamboyantly dunk on the world. It’s almost laughable how poorly executed some of these “screens” are, he either accidentally runs into the opposing player rather than coordinating a two-way attack with the point guard or he’ll extend his hip out for a half a second before bounding off to the basket.

Due to his otherworldly pogo-stick athleticism and Iggy’s excellent court vision (I miss him already), McGee is able to capitalize on many of these broken screen-and-rolls. But there was a reason he was featured in the pick-and-roll as little as he was and why the ball handler in these tandem’s turned the ball over much more when paired with McGee over any other big. There is no real structure to where or when he sets the screen and many times he’ll just hover, shrinking the spacing, while the ball handler is forced to dribble ad infinitum or until he turns it over.

JaVale needs to work on his entire approach to pick-and-rolls, not to mention the trickier stuff like pin-downs and flare screens, of which he (probably on Karl’s instruction) almost never attempted.

  • Kenneth Faried

Faried has gone through his own learning process but seems to have grasped the intricacies of screening on pick-and-rolls at the very least on a fundamental level (finishing around the rim though…well that’s an article for another time). Like McGee he gets a tad overexcited at times and cuts off his screen too soon, with dreams of the rim flashing prematurely before his eyes. He also overcompensates for this tendency by lingering too long at times and defenders rarely seem bothered to stay attached to him with little to fear from his jump shot.

Here Faried whiffs on his screen and it leads to Philadelphia’s trapping of Andre Miller in a play that ends with a Faried jumper, always a win for the defense.

Timing is huge when it comes to setting screens and Faried is still in the process of calibrating the internal clock that most veterans possess intuitively. But he’s on his way and the flashes of improvement he showed in his sophomore year are encouraging. However he’s going to be asked to shoulder much more of the off-play type screening load, the job that Koufos did almost by himself last year. Nearly every successful Iggy cut and dunk came off a pin-down screen by Koufos. Faried, through both his size and his inexperience, often hijacked the play with a mistimed screen or an inability (or unwillingness) to make direct contact with the opposing player in favor of diving for the rim.

He gets Iggy in trouble with Conley by missing on his pin-down screen because he was so busy trying to get to the rim (Conley also did a great job of staying attached to Iggy all the way through). These are the types of things the Nuggets are going to need him to improve on, with an already spacing-deficient offense, these type of screens are going to be the biggest key to opening lanes to the basket.

  • J.J. Hickson 

Hickson suffers from a lot of the same problems as Faried, his timing on screens can get him in trouble and he tends to float around the play rather than actually dive right in. Still, Hickson was a rim-running monster last year so whatever his tendencies are in the pick-and-roll, they aren’t too damaging.

The problem comes, as it has with every player thus far, with the extra stuff, which he seems to mistake as being extraneous. He takes a rather apathetic approach to screens that do not directly lead to him getting the ball, and there were countless times in the tape I watched where he basically took on the role of a turnstile, much to the determent of the surrounding play.

Hopefully the only problem is that of effort, as that can be curbed with the right coaching and team situation, but compounded with his already lackluster screening skill in the pick-and-roll, it’s something to worry about.

  • Timofey Mozgov 

All of Mozgov’s basketball “problems” stem more or less from the same place. He doesn’t really know how tall he is. He has yet to let his seven foot frame manifest itself in the way he plays basketball and the trepidation he has from that on the court is palpable. But the unknown (which, considering the minutes he’s played the last couple of years, he still kind of is) brings much more hope than the established, and he may well turn out to be the team’s salvation. But it is probably not too wise to bank on that.

  • Darrell Arthur

If you want salvation than here is where you’d likely have to look. Not only does Arthur bring a pick-and-pop skill set that is sorely needed on this roster, but he combines that with multifaceted competency as a screener not seen on the team since the loss of Kofous.

In the first clip Arthur stays with the screen just long enough to free Conley but not too long as to get out of position for his roll to the rim. It’s a relatively small thing but his internal clock is tuned in the way that Faried’s, and maybe even Hickson’s, is not. The second clip emphasizes why it helps to have a jump shot as he essentially screens two players at once, one by the actual screen and the other by merely having the range that requires his defender to stick with him.

Arthur is far and away the best screening big on the team and if you compound that with him being one of the select few Nugget’s who’s not a minus on defense, odds are he’s going to see quite a few minutes in the rotation.

After Kosta, Wilson Chandler and Gallinari were the two most utilized screeners on the team last year. Chandler’s “pick and fade” (credit to Mike Prada) and the Lawson-Gallo pick-and-roll became staples of the offense, but Gallo is coming off knee surgery and Chandler’s play relied heavily on his high three point percentage, an outlier in terms of his career and something I’m dubious he can repeat.

This means the bigs are going to have to develop quickly. For guys like Ty Lawson to truly take advantage of a more pick-and-roll centric offense they’re going to need proper screening. Karl compensated for the spacing issues by basically banning the mid-range shot, something impossible to do when you’re running the pick-and-roll frequently. Denver has to compensate another way, through well timed screens to free up the mid-range shot and the lane to the rim.

Setting screens may be the most mundane and unfulfilling skill in all of basketball, but it’s still an intrinsically valuable skill to have. It may well be the difference between a playoff birth and a fire sale at the trade deadline for the Nuggets.

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David Walker

Freshman at FSU. Love the Nuggets, the beach, and the game that involves a ball that occasionally goes into the hoop.
  • KOTC

    my reaction to some of the clips is that sometimes a “whiff” is merely when
    the defender recognizes the screen coming and opts to go under before
    it is set. also, slipping screens is a valuable tactic – sometimes hard
    to tell whether its a lazy screen or an intentionally brief stay. good writeup though, denver does need improved execution. will be interesting to see how things flow when karl-less.

    • DavidRMC

      Fair point. But if the defender is able to avoid the screen without it impeding his progress then the screener failed. Obviously it varies on the competency of the defender but the best screeners either always make contact or at the very least send the defender on a roundabout way.

      • KOTC

        personally, i wouldn’t go that far. the ballhandler has a large amount of control in the situation; if the screener doesn’t make contact, we can often look to the ballhandler’s problematic spacing/timing as well. the screener doesn’t have that in control, nor does he have a say in the defense’s ability to read a situation and react ahead of time.

  • toluene hawk

    That pick and fade is nasty! Such an asset!

    • Bricks

      Great clips of Chandler. No other Nugget provides inside-outside scoring like Ill Wil. Looking forward to seeing him provide starter mins. at 3 until Gallo returns.

      • toluene hawk

        And D-Arthur – that duo will provide such sound fundamental, tough minded basketball

      • herpderpnuggets

        i also really like when gallo and wilson are on the floor together, some pretty good spacing, and wilson can guard almost anybody

        • Bricks

          I’m hoping Chandler starts at 2 when Gallo gets back, with Foye and E4 rotating off the bench. (That is if KronCon doesn’t bring in a competent starting SG.) And wouldn’t it be great if DArthur shows that he’s a reliable backup at 3. . . that would mean we’re not glutted at 4, and when Gallo’s back at 3, Chandler can provide solid defense and shooting with starter mins. at 2. With the roster we currently have I’m thinking that might work pretty well.

          • herpderpnuggets

            i think you are wishing for a bit much there, i bet chandler can play the 2 spot, but i think DA is pretty far away from playing a 3 spot

            • Bricks

              Well, we’re going to find out in Oct. Pretty sure Arthur will be first rotation at 3 spot, subbing in for Chandler.

              • herpderpnuggets

                we will find out, but i want to know your reasoning for him playing at the 3, he played nearly all of his minutes at 4 last year

              • Bricks

                You are correct, Arthur did play almost exclusively at 4 in MEM, except when he filled in (admirably) for Pondexter when he sprained his MCL mid-season. Arthur’s decent play at SF prompted Lionel Hollins to comment: “He can shoot the ball. That’s why he is a good candidate to play the 3-spot, because he can spread the floor when he is in there.”

                But, as for why Arthur is the best backup at the 3 in Denver, it’s more a process of elimination. He’s simply more capable than anyone else on the roster. DavidRMC just mentioned that Arthur will be the Nugs’ best screen-setter, pick-and-pop shooter (from 12-18 ft), and a reliable defender. Yes, he’s slow for a 3, but who’s going to play serious minutes at SF behind Chandler? JHam, QMiller or Randolph? No, no and no. I think we can count on it, at least until Dec. or Jan. (when Gallo comes back), Arthur’s going to chalk up minutes at the 3. I’m hoping he does well enough there to back up Gallo the second half of the season so we can use Chandler generously at the 2.

              • herpderpnuggets

                im not a fan of this idea but you do make some good points.i would rather have j ham pick up the slack at 3 just for the sake of player development. I also disagree pretty heavily with chandler taking most of the minutes at 2 because that would create another jam, fournier and foye are fully capable players at the 2 spot, even j ham. i would just rather have DA play a stretch 4, who knows, maybe he could play the 3. Not trying to disrespect you, just bringing up questions and trying to make my own points.

              • Bricks

                Arthur definitely needs to prove he can hold his own at SF. If not, I agree, JHam should see good mins. there. Someone on RMC recently suggested Chandler as a worthy 2 candidate, and at first I couldn’t see it, but currently with the very mediocre Foye and inexperienced Fournier at SG, I’m now pretty convinced that Chandler needs to seriously be considered as the starting 2 when Gallo’s back. Chandler, when healthy, is a top 3 player on this team — scoring (41% 3P, amazing penetrator for 6-8), above-avg. defense, solid hoops IQ — and he HAS to be on the floor. So, my opinion, season starts with 1. Lawson, 2. Foye, 3. Chandler, 4. Faried/Hickson (they’re even till one emerges), and 5. McGee; 2nd team, Robinson, Fournier, Arthur, Faried/HIckson, Mozzy. When Gallo returns, lineup is the same except Gallo starts at 3 and Chandler starts at 2; and 2nd team is same except Foye/Fournier will share rotation mins. at SG. I’m not sure where JHam and AMiller get their minutes . . . but if they remain on the team, they’ll both be valuable backups, and Shaw will find mins. for them. To me it looks like QMiller, Randolph, and whoever else will stay at the far end of the bench this season . . . . . But it’s all speculation, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see how it all comes together . . .

              • loops

                I felt Chandler should be considered the starting 2 when Gallo got back the second Iggy left town. I think he would perform well there. Chandler is a very versatile piece on this team. Very underrated. I’d rather JHam play at the 2 over Fournier from a depth perspective.

              • loops

                JHam can def play SF. I like him more at the 2 but I don’t see why he shouldn’t get a fair amount of minutes backing up the 3.

  • googergieger

    Didn’t Karl and company preach always slipping the screen?

    • loops


      • googergieger

        Shouldn’t that kind of general Denver Nugget know how be included in the article?

  • loops

    How well it succeeded in a team sense…but not in a playoff sense. Defend that

  • Ckwizard

    Coaching matters, guess my question would be does the other Memphis bigs set good screens? Details, heck I wonder if Arthur knows how to “box out”? Shaw has the ability to improve this team by just focusing on Fundementals and asking them to “run” because isn’t what Karl did focus on ignoring Fundementals and “run”? Free Throw shooting, Box out, and set proper screens… Given the type of “running” team the nuggets are it might be a recipie for success.

  • Charliemyboy

    Seems like there is always a trade off on setting screens. Maybe not as many boards. May that’s why Karl didn’t concentrate on it and still won. I like the focus on the timing of moving off. I think one has to weigh the strengths of each screening pair in order to get that timing. t also depends on who is being screened. I look back at Malone and Stockton and remember that they were unstoppable, time and again, no matter who was guarding them. Can that be taught?

  • Clive Lee

    great post. hope that our bigs can develop this year.

  • ryanvdonk

    one of the things that ty needs to work on is patience with the pick and roll. sometimes he would begin his drive before the screener had full arrived and established position. this lead to less effective screens, made it hard for young guys like faried and mcgee to get the timing of their roll down, and sometimes offensive fouls as they were moving to get in position.

  • Charliemyboy

    From a couple of Denver Stiffs…

    Will a 36-46 record make this the most bizarre?

    Cause that’s what I honestly predict for the Nuggets this season… I’ll still show up for a few games… But not buying a 10 game plan like i have for the past 3 seasons.

    by 1stRoundExit on Aug 11, 2013 | 7:44 PM reply

     Why do you feel that?

    That’s a astronomical drop from last season. Even if you credit Karl with +5 games over Shaw (and that’s impossible to tell at this point, since Shaw has yet to coach a game), Iguodala at +3-4 games, and K2/Brewer +1-2 games – in addition that the players brought in won’t contribute any positive for wins – that adds up to about 49 wins. Even if you think I’m underestimating any of these totals, you’re talking about a drop of 21 games.

    Just don’t hold on to the damn basketball!!!
    Manimal Planet Member #3.1415
    Denver Stiffs

  • slugdugg

    Our lack of focus on setting actual picks has bugged me for years. I remember loving Michael Doleac in 03 just because he would set actual picks. The ultimate problem was that slipping screens better facilitated GKs offense, but then in the playoffs where you have to grind it out, nobody knew how to set them.

  • Trevor

    Well researched post David.