The Value of Ice


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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — If you watched any Chicago Bulls game over the last five years with the TV volume on, you heard Tom Thibodeau screaming his favorite word over and over again.

“Ice! Ice! Ice!” was the call whenever the Bulls’ opponent ran a pick-and-roll on the side of the floor, instructing the ball-handler’s defender to keep his man from dribbling toward the middle by almost defending him sideways.

Here’s Derrick Rose “icing” a Dallas side pick-and-roll, trying to direct Devin Harris toward the baseline. Other teams call this “downing” a pick-and-roll.

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Thibodeau believed that, if his defense could keep the ball on the side of the floor, it was more likely to get a stop. And the numbers back him up.

SportVU tracks every pick-and-roll, no matter when it happens in a possession. It knows where the pick-and-roll happened, what direction the ball-handler went, and what happened afterward.

Data from last season tells us that pick-and-rolls that start on the side of the floor and go toward the middle yield more points per possession than those that stay on the side or those that start in the middle.

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So the value of “Ice” is more than 2 1/2 points per 100 possessions, the difference between being an elite defense and being an average one.

A pick-and-roll is generally not designed to get the ball-handler a shot. No matter where a pick-and-roll occurs or in what direction it goes, the ball-handler passes the ball about 2/3 of the time and scores about 1/4 of his team’s points on those possessions.

But he’s a little more likely to hold on to the ball when he stays on the side of the floor than when he goes to the middle. If he gets to the middle of the floor, all four teammates are one pass away. If he stays on the side, some passes are more difficult (or impossible) to make.

And when the ball-handler does shoot the ball off a side pick-and-roll, he shoots worse and shoots fewer 3-pointers when he goes toward the middle of the floor.

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Those shooting numbers are pretty bad – Dion Waiters territory – either way. Good shooting on pick-and-roll possessions comes after a pass. And there are more passes available from the middle of the floor than from the side.

Fairly simple stuff, but it’s the basis for the way a lot of teams defend the floor.

Not surprisingly, the Bulls were the best team in the league at keeping side pick-and-rolls on the side last season. Those “Ice! Ice! Ice!” calls are hard to ignore, apparently.

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The five teams above were all above-average defensive teams. There is a correlation between defensive efficiency and keeping pick-and-rolls on the side of the floor in last season’s numbers.

Thibodeau was fired by the Bulls in May, of course. New coach Fred Hoiberg is expected to bring more offensive creativity to the Bulls, but changes on defense could be just as important. Those “Ice! Ice! Ice!” calls might not be missed by those of us watching Bulls games, but the lack of them could make Chicago a worse defensive team.

The anti-Bulls were the Toronto Raptors, who allowed side pick-and-rolls to get to the middle more than twice as often as Chicago did last season.

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All of the five teams above were below-average defensive teams. Four of the five (all except the Heat) ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency.

Here’s DeMar DeRozan squaring up on Monta Ellis as Dirk Nowitzki comes over to set the screen…

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Patrick Patterson is hedging the screen to keep Ellis from getting into the paint on a straight line, but isn’t necessarily directing Ellis toward the side like downing a screen does.

The Raptors didn’t down screen two seasons ago, when they ranked ninth in defensive efficiency. But their defense fell apart last season, they went from top 10 to bottom 10, and they couldn’t stop John Wall and the Wizards in the playoffs.

Here’s Wall getting into the middle of the floor on a side pick-and-roll and finding Marcin Gortat for a layup. He also had the option of hitting Bradley Beal in the opposite corner.

The additions of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph will certainly help the Raptors’ defense this season, no matter how coach Dwane Casey wants them to defend side pick-and-rolls. But a change in scheme could also be in order.

Of course, keeping the ball on the side of the floor is a lot easier said than done. First, the big defender has to let his teammate know that the screen is coming.

The real work starts with the guy guarding the ball, who has to put himself between his man and the screener. If he’s just a little late in doing that, his man will get to the middle of the floor, he’ll get caught up in the screen, and the screener’s defender won’t be in position to cut off the paint.

If the ball-handler’s defender is successful in downing the screen, there’s still pressure on the big defender to cut off the paint. According to SportVU, side pick-and-rolls that stay on the side result in a drive by the ball-handler more often (19 percent of the time) than those that go toward the middle (15 percent).

And once he does, he has some work to do to get back and challenge a pick-and-pop jumper if the screener was Dirk Nowitzki or Chris Bosh.

Here’s Dennis Schroder downing a screen and Mike Muscala cutting off the paint, leaving Nikola Mirotic (who never set much of a screen) wide open.

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That’s why offenses that can put four shooters on the floor are generally better than those that can’t. But the only pass that E’Twaun Moore could have made on that play was to Mirotic, and the Hawks could have been quicker with help from the weak side, preventing such a wide open shot.

Defending the whole floor for 24 seconds is hard work, no matter what scheme you employ. But the numbers say that it’s better to push that screen toward the baseline, which is what most good defenses do.

One Comment

  1. kobelebron says:

    Is those SportVU stats of pick-and-rolls will be available soon on NBA.com/stats?