Going into the season, we were all mentally prepared for how bad the defense was going to be, especially when factoring in the absence of Denver’s two best wing defenders. But what has occurred over the span of these four games has been an organization-wide breakdown on a fundamental level when it comes to defense, from system to effort to the makeup of the roster. We’ve already covered the big man dilemma as well as the inability to defend the three, now it’s time to dig into the high pick and roll defense.
The basics of Denver’s pick and roll defensive principles is essentially for the traditional centers, McGee and Mozgov, to drop back to around the free throw line when defending a screener and for everyone else (essentially anyone guarding the screener) to hedge high. The theory behind hedging is basically for the defending big is to impede the ball handlers path around the screen enough so to give the ball handlers’ defender enough time to navigate the screen. Considering the kinds of athletes Denver employes at the forward positions, and the diminutive nature of the backcourt, this kind of help and recover system should, in theory, work out well. In theory.
But considering that, per Synergy Sports, the Nuggets currently rank 29th in the league defending the ball handler in the pick and role, things have not exactly gone great in practice. J.J. Hickson’s two attempts to hedge on Teague in the high pick and roll here probably highlights the biggest problem Denver has had guarding the ball handler.
The first hedge goes well, Hickson gets in Teague’s way long enough for Lawson to get back in front of him, and the play results in Mozgov switching onto Millsap and Hickson onto Antic. Teague then calls for another screen, this time by Antic, and this is where things start to fall apart. Hickson gets to the play late and essentially just screens Lawson as Teague easily turns the corner along with a free rolling Antic. At that point there are three open Hawks in the middle of the floor and only Mozgov there to defend the rim.
This is but a microcosm of a problem that extends far past Hickson and appears time and time again every time a screen and roll is initiated at the top of the key.
Here Faried is in terrible position to make Bledsoe work around him at all and, like Hickson, is basically serving as a second screener for Lawson. Neither Nugget gets to Bledsoe in time and before anyone else even thinks about rotating, he pulls up for a wide open jumper. There are varying reasons for why the bigs always end up in poor position to hedge, sometimes they aren’t aware a screen is being called, sometimes they aren’t prepared for a second screen attempt after a first fails, and sometimes they’re just not very good basketball players and haven’t been for the entirety of the six years they’ve been in the league and yet are still inexplicably getting playing time despite clearly having no clue what he’s doing. Actually, my bad, that’s just this guy.
As an aside, a recurring theme in these pictures is Lawson getting swallowed on screens, a huge reason why the hedge is being implemented in the first place. If Lawson, or Andre Miller or Nate Robinson, can’t fight through these screens then the ball handler will always have the middle of the floor completely open to them, regardless of what the big does. The new norm for point guards in this league are ones with either a deadly jumper or freakish athleticism, and an increasing number have both. If your backcourt can’t at least limit opposing points in some way, there will always be a ceiling on your team’s defense.
Back to the problem at hand, another reason Denver’s hedging bigs are constantly out of position is that they attempt to chase the ball and try to trap the ball handler all for the sake of forcing a turnover. That’s all well and good but when you’re hedging 30-plus feet from the basket, the chances of things that can go wrong with just one pass skyrockets.
Hickson spent so much time paying attention to the guy least likely to do damage on offense that his man was below the free throw line before Hickson re-engaged himself into the play. All it took was one pass from the ball handler to wreck this entire defensive possession.
The final problem has to do with a lack of communication when it comes to switching. Often a hedge will force the big man to carry on his responsibility of the ball handler past a step into his path, and in those scenarios the screened player has to know that the screener is now his responsibility.
Here things fell apart so egregiously that Lawson and Hickson are doubling someone without the ball. The screener now becomes Miller’s responsibility and there is no one to help on either of the Hawks on the strong side wing and corner.
A commonality that unites all the players featured so far are that they’re not very good defenders, although some (Randolph and Hickson) are much worse than others (Faried). Darrell Arthur, although receiving the least amount of playing time from the group, also happens to be the most adept defender and, surprise, has done the best job defending the pick and roll.
Arthur somewhat breaks the hedging principle here, electing to get ahead of Bledsoe after seeing how badly Lawson was going to get beat. Arthur stayed with Bledsoe as he drove to the rim and contested the layup, forcing a miss. Arthur isn’t the deus ex machina that will fix the defense, he too has his own faults on defense and his offense has been far from ideal thus far, but giving him the majority of Randolph’s minutes couldn’t hurt.
In the end, the crux of the disastrous pick and roll defense comes back to the same problem ailing every facet of the team thus far, there’re just not a lot of good basketball players getting minutes on the roster right now. But the system in place is clearly failing and the reasons extend past just having a disproportionate amount of bad defenders. Awareness of where and when a pick and roll is about to start and the rules that need to be implemented for what happens when things go wrong is something that can be taught, and seeing as this is looking more and more like a “transitional” year, now is a good a time as any to start.