The NBA, like any other entity is a trendy outfitter, where popular and mainstream antics become renowned across the landscape due to their effectiveness within the climate. In the NBA that effectiveness is translated into winning, particularly in the postseason, where measuring logistics suddenly becomes a much more arduous task. A proven record of success in terms of personnel management, on-court strategy, front office culture development will naturally draw more organizations to snippets of the same overall game plan.
The trick, of course, is to beat the rest of the league to the game’s newest revelation and immediately thrust the other 29 teams into catch-up mode a la the Warriors the past two years. Sure, having Steph Curry and Klay Thompson helps, but head coach Steve Kerr accidentally stumbled into the small ball cheat code with Draymond Green, allowing the Warriors to generate 5-man lineups with supreme siwtchability defensively and shooters as well as ball handlers galore offensively, which broke defenses when paired with Kerr’s pristine motion offense.
Eventually, coaches absorbed the initial shockwave of the NBA’s new hegemon and began gathering intel on potential attack plans, similar to the rebel alliance combatting the Death Star. Gregg Popovich was the first to fully unveil the blueprint, which is ironic considering he’s the closest thing to Darth Vader in the NBA. Nevertheless, when Pop implemented a switch-everything defensive outline against the Warriors April 10 and held them to a mere 86 points, the league’s precedent was set. Suddenly an arms race began as organizations began rummaging through their rosters with the idea of discovering a wing-sized asset. The Thunder tried to transform Andre Roberson into a 2 guard despite the absence of a 3-point shot. The Cavs unsealed the time capsule containing Richard Jefferson. And Doc Rivers blankly looked at Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson and a creaky Paul Pierce before letting out a soft whimper.
After the Warriors barely escaped OKC, where Donovan morphed Roberson into a pseudo big man, the Cavs rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to steal the NBA title, and in turn, changed the discussion of the league’s modern paradigm. The Cavs generally played small and exchanged responsibilities defensively, but dethroned the Warriors with isolation play after prodding the exact switches from Golden State that made them into an invincible titan in the first place. However, resources like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are rare commodities in the NBA who transform inefficient play types, such as isolations and post ups, into consistent means of offensive production. Despite the esoteric standing of the Cavs’ talent, Cleveland’s triumph along with OKC’s gallant fight in the conference finals added more ingredients into the NBA’s recipe book, forcing organization’s to halt their construction plans and reconsider the overall architecture.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the structure and groupthink of NBA coaching staffs and organizations will continue to explore new dimensions of the NBA landscape. However, instead of raising original skyscrapers from scratch, coaches may simply add new stories or features to their already existing layouts with the foundation existing in the realm of the league’s most vogue ideology—switching.
The benefits of switching are obvious. It’s a natural sealant to shut off the cracks and crevices NBA offenses seek to create with pick-and-rolls and the copious varieties of off-ball screening actions that exist. The problem comes within the execution of switching as it demands engagement, communication and commonality in the form of positionless defenders. All teams would love to brandish a five-man defensive unit of 6-foot-7 wings with the feet and length to mitigate the attacks of guards, recover to shooters, scrap on the boards and tussle with bigs on post ups. However, the league is bereft of reliable two-way wing players, and teams will only go so far in quelling talent in favor of ideal body types and physical traits.
Switching is a physically and mentally taxing strategy, which is why not many teams adhere to its benefits as a base defensive idealism, instead boxing it up and storing it in the attic for the right occasion. Small dudes don’t want to desperately struggle with bigs who invite them to the block and then try to pummel them. Equally, when switched onto guards, bigs are like freshman at college parties, left trying to navigate in an environment outside their element, hoping to ward off possible embarrassment.
However, defenses may become a bit more daring and switch with greater regularity as staffs begin to focus more on the communicative aspects of it. Switching can cause mismatches, but the isolations and post ups produced aren’t typically efficient plays types, shrinking the consequences for defenses. The true perils of switching are communication breakdowns resulting in unimpeded cuts to the hoop for dunks and layups or sharpshooters popping uncontested triples. Cleveland got waxed in Game 1 of the Finals because collectively, the team wasn’t sure when it was switching and when it wasn’t, proving just how difficult the balancing act is. Coaches generally want to avoid switches if possible; why switch a lackadaisical brush screen and put ourselves behind matchup wise when we don’t have to? It’s these hazy screens, however, that can create confusion. Hesitate for a second deciding whether to switch or not and a dude darts to the rim for an easy backdoor layup as the defense reconciles with essentially giving away a bucket.
There is also the quandary of offenses anticipating switches and reveling in its astuteness of counter punches. Slipping screens is the most obvious source of generating high-percentage buckets in these scenarios. As defenders position themselves on the high side of screens to latch onto the player coming off of it, it leaves them susceptible to a slip and cut to the rim for an easy deuce if the man defending the player being screened for isn’t aware and cautious about sinking down to encumber the path to the rim.
When offenses get really tricky, coaches can make defenses switch on the fly with a flurry of various screening mechanisms. As difficult as it is to switch, it’s even harder to execute when offenses rev up the speed on a defender’s treadmill. Factor in the unknown direction of that treadmill, and defenders are stuck haplessly navigating through a thicket of possible assignments. As defenses become more enamored with switching, offensive gurus tilt the angle of screens, both on and off the ball, and jigger snares and booby traps with pre and post screening sequences around the actual on-ball action to further muddle the defenses navigational field.
Straight double high and double high L screens can flummox a defense’s switching prowess as it brings more defenders into the stream of communication without cluttering up driving lanes and passing angles for the ballhandler.
If Paul’s defender tries to fight over the screen he’ll likely be nudged slightly behind the play and won’t be able to catch up with a hard rolling Jordan. Meanwhile, Jordan’s defender can’t immediately commit himself to Paul, knowing Jordan could be rummaging downhill to the hoop unimpeded.
Peak communication and execution in the switch-all strategy would see Jordan’s man jump out on Paul, Griffin’s man peel off to pick up Jordan charging down the lane, and Paul’s man slide over to Griffin to cover up the jumpshot. That’s enough to make any defense bumble an assignment and concede an easy deuce or open jumper; factor in the automatic mismatches of a 5 defending a 1 and a 1 defending a 4 and it becomes even more onerous.
Watch here in a more traditional double high ball screen; Russ has to go over the first screen because this is freaking Steph Curry, who is liable to bomb from anywhere. Russ can’t even stay on Curry’s hip, and when Curry splits, Durant is hesitant to leave Draymond Green wide open, while Steven Adams is unwilling to abandon his man rolling down the lane.
Other fixtures coaches can yank from the toolbox to retaliate to switching is a series of screening the screener sets, both before and after the actual on-ball screen occurs in a pick-and-roll.
Wedge screens, where the on-ball screener churns through a prescreen to attempt to pluck his man out of position is a popular tactic. With the screeners man dallying behind after being slowed up by the first screen, when the screener engages in pick-and-roll with the ball handler, not only is a larger gap formed between the ball handler and the contain defender, but that contain defender is also caught off balance trying to guess which way to lunge his weight in an effort to stifle dribble penetration. The Warriors pounded opposing coaches like a chisel with this gambit, and Terry Stott’s Blazers unraveled it as well to combat the Clippers’ blitzing strategy against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the playoffs.
Teams also attack defenses with secondary screens as the on-ball pick is merely camouflaged to distract from the larger threat. Coaches will have a third player enter into the fray after the initial on-ball pick to set a flare screen for the defender. As teams attempt to switch, the guard picking up the screener is bashed by a flare screen with his new assignment slipping over the top looking to catch and shoot or drive in an open lane against the grain of the defense.
In a similar vein, coaches may insert a back screen for the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. As the ball handler comes off the pick and gets the switch, forcing his initial defender to lock onto to the roller, the weakside big on the block converges and mashes him with a back screen as the roll man darts to the hoop, opening up a void on the court for an alley oop opportunity if the back screener’s defender doesn’t recognize the action quickly enough and allows too much separation between him and the roller busting to the hoop.
As more teams become enamored with the concept of switching in late-game situations and the postseason, the pressure is put on offenses to find resolutions and expose the trade offs that come as a result. Extracting favorable mismatches is a natural advantage, but the entire notion of switching is the idea that defenses are willing to accept that sacrifice as a means to coax offenses into inefficiency. To exercise true caution in opposing defensive schematics, teams have to bombard opponents with high-percentage looks and shot types. In the NBA, innovation is the prized path to the league’s zenith; otherwise you risk being on too low of ground when the next tidal wave deluges the shoreline.