Defensive systems in the NBA are predicated on rules, when and who to help off of, what type of pick and roll to switch on, where on the floor to direct this point guard, where on the floor to direct that wing, ect. Denver’s defense (currently 12th in the league in defensive efficiency and sixth overall in opponents points per possession) is starting to round into a more principled form following the stutters, stops, and fixes that defined the early part of the season. A specific mandate that is becoming more and more clear by the game, is when and how the Nuggets will switch on a pick and roll.
A standard 1-5 (with a point guard and a center) or 1-4 (with a point guard and a power forward) high pick and roll will usually not lead to a switch, especially when Lawson and Robinson are doing the checking on the opposing guard. Switching either diminutive point onto any big in the league will lead to very obvious problems. Instead, Denver elects to either blitz the screen or double the ball handler as seen here:
The problem with this strategy is obvious, if the ball handler is not successfully trapped or if the big does not rotate back to his man in time, the defense will always be one pass away from breaking. Darrell Arthur is a fantastic hedger, and his ability to go only as far as he needs to to cut off dribble penetration before recovering hard to his man is uncanny. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, he also happens to be the only big on the team that can execute a proper hedge and recover and far too many possessions end with a rotating helper forced into a tough decision.
To compensate for this, switching generally comes into play when a wing like Chandler or Hamilton (or even Andre Miller on occasion) gets put into a screen and roll with Arthur, Faried, or even Mozgov. Switching, in theory, prevents an offense from having an open man at any one time, it lets you avoid the impediment of a screen altogether. However, switching has its own myriad of problems, the biggest of which being the potential mismatches it creates and the ease in which a break-down in communication can wreck a defensive possession:
Mismatches spawned off ill-advised switches were the biggest culprit of Denver’s defensive failures earlier in the season, and it was a problem that was compounded on by Shaw’s “no doubling” mandate on defense. There were times against Dallas earlier in the season where Ty Lawson would end up on Dirk, and a double would just not come. Coming into the Thunder game this past Tuesday, with Kevin Durant’s terrifying 7-foot frame looming on the horizon, the game plan did not much change.
“I don’t like to double team,” Coach Brian Shaw said. “What we wanted to try to do was make Kevin Durant just finish over a contest, regardless of whether it was a smaller guy, we wanted to make him work. And he did, he can make those shots and we know that, but what we didn’t want to happen was the times when we missed our assignments when we blitzed or showed on the screen and roll and they got us in the rotation and would find three point shooters. And so a 2-pointer that he has to work on, work for, over a smaller guy to me is better then a naked three where their passes beat our rotations. We want them to beat us over the top, we want them to work for those shots, and I can live with those.”
What did change, however, was the structure to the switches. While Denver did little in the way of stopping Durant in transition, they did a fair job in limiting him in the half court. The vaunted Westbrook-Durant pick and roll was somewhat neutralized by Denver’s propensity to switch on it every time, and Randy Foye’s ability to force tough jumpers out of Durant without needing additional defenders limited the Thunder’s offense.
“Yeah, we had success against it,” Foye said. “That’s how we played them there, I don’t know I think KD had 38 or something, but every time we switched off him he didn’t score. As you can see, tonight, I got some pretty good stops against him. But he’s a good player, he made shots, but I think we had a high percentage of success when we switched off him.”
And to a certain extent, Foye’s right. Durant can and will score from anywhere on anyone, and while the height disparity between KD and an isolated Foye in the post is not ideal, he did not let Durant get off anything but fadeaway jumpers. Shaw’s no doubling mandate is tested in situations like these, but he trusts his players enough to let the play develop naturally, without the defense ceding the dreaded one-pass-away shooter. And Foye’s end-of-game defense on opposing superstars is not only applicable to this past game, it’s happened quite a few times already this season.
“As you can see like, when we played against the Knicks,” Foye went on to say. “We didn’t double against Melo and then we didn’t double against Dirk when we switched off, so that’s just the thing, to hold your ground, hold your own. That’s something that around here we take pride in, to not double anyone so we don’t have mismatches on rebounds on the backside.”
Denver’s defensive superstar now resides in Oakland and the closest thing they have to a stopper on the perimeter is Wilson Chandler, a player who, understandably, has somewhat wilted in the face of his now overloaded responsibility. With Gallinari still nursing an injury suffered last season, Denver’s once stingy perimeter has fallen as its defensive talent has shallowed. That said, Denver is still scrounging together an above-average defense through what is shaping up to be a rather principled scheme. A mentality has been instilled that, on the switch, Denver is not going to compromise the defensive possession with a double, the offense is going to have to beat their defense mano y mano.
The system is imperfect, and the scheme has not yet transcended the imperfections of the players who are executing it, but Denver’s defense is currently much farther above water then it ought to be and that speaks well to a future wherein the team continues to evolve under Brian Shaw.