This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Sometimes the most effective weapon is the one your enemy expects least.
In a league over-saturated with the pick-and-roll, how do NBA offenses still find wrinkles that make the action effective? It's often via legitimate unguardability, like James Harden and the scorching hot streak he's on for the Houston Rockets. Or, effectiveness can come from action prior to or after the ball screen that disrupts a normal defensive rotation.
The even more unheralded answer? Scarcity of a commodity.
That is, how infrequently does a pick-and-roll combination occur? High volume creators find ways to the top of opponent scouting reports, draw reps during walk-throughs, and even the focus of everyone on the court. Most are deserving of that volume: They are great creators in ball screens, the team's best option for offense, or both. Think back to the John Stockton and Karl Malone days of the 90s, where ball screens were reserved for the team's best creator and best finisher.
Offenses have evolved beyond that; now the skill sets of all professional players include the pick-and-roll game. Emerging from that evolution is a series of highly-efficient, low-volume ball screen options that are as unorthodox as they are infrequent. Big-to-big combinations, inverted actions with posts as the ball handlers and traditionally one-dimensional shooters utilizing their gravity in new ways.
Let's celebrate the uniqueness of three pick-and-roll combinations that are checking all those boxes and creating offense at a highly efficient rate:
Pascal Siakam and (Any) Toronto Raptors Point Guard
I'm not sure people appreciate how well Pascal Siakam is playing this season. No disrespect to Kawhi Leonard's 1A, but Siakam has been the (1B) biggest positive to this Toronto Raptors team: 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game, 57 percent from the field; the team's most effective and versatile frontcourt defender. There's a legitimate case to be made for him as Most Improved Player.
Siakam ranks as the second-most efficient pick-and-roll creator, shooting north of 65 percent! That's right, the Raptors are better with Siakam as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, not as the screener.
His 1.25 points per possession are an insane rate for a third-year pro. As a long, lanky 6'9" post, Siakam plays multiple positions, allowing first-year head coach Nick Nurse to dial up strange pick-and-roll combinations based on the matchups.
The overall ability to create off the bounce, handle in tight spaces and manipulate defenses due to his length separates Siakam from other guards or wings. He punishes in big-to-big ball screens by gliding through the lane with Gargoyle-like ease.
How many big men can keep the ball on a yo-yo in tight spaces like Siakam does? Not many:
While those ball screens between Siakam and another post tend to work just fine, the Raptors have perfected some transition ball screens involving their point guards to create ultimate mismatches. Siakam will casually prance up the floor to initiate offense, when suddenly Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry will ram into his defender. Siakam is skilled and long enough that he can force a switch with one bounce. Half-court defenses never even get set to cover the mismatch.
Bigs are typically guarded by other bigs, meaning rim protectors get sucked away from the hoop to guard Pascal. Siakam knows that after the switch he is one-on-one near the rim, as the perimeter-bound big man is too scared to leave a knock-down shooter and playmaker like Lowry or VanVleet alone.
Siakam stays patient, executes his one-on-one moves and goes to his bread-and-butter: a spin move to a right-hand finish. No small guards can stop him from getting to his spots, and when he attacks hard without the spin, he can keep his head up and find the open man:
Some teams (that scout the Raptors well) are determined not to switch, and instead dare Siakam to beat them from the perimeter. Staying underneath the screen does little to dissuade him from getting to the rim, however. Similar to the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, all going under does is give Siakam a head of steam. He still gets to his patented spin move, or can make one simple dribble move to blow by a retreating big:
Basketball-reference estimates that only 9 percent of his minutes this season have come at the 5. In games against teams that play only one traditional big and four guards or wings, an action like this can be more than effective when Pascal plays the 5. (Title threats like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics all play this style.)
We'll see if Nurse picks up the usage of those small-ball lineups and surrounds Siakam with greater amounts of shooting as the year goes on. That would be a unique weapon for the Raps.
Danilo Gallinari and Marcin Gortat
The two old, slow guys in the Los Angeles Clippers starting lineup lull defenders to sleep when working together. Neither are explosive at the rim or with their first step. Gortat no longer strikes fear as a roller and has no pick-and-pop threat. Yet these retreads are dominating with their slow-motion game.
Gortat has long been an effective screener thanks to his physicality and a few illegal moves only the craftiest veterans possess. Slower ball handlers, such as Gallinari, get a step on their opponent they otherwise would not, thanks to his "rule-bending" tactics.
Gallo is such a smooth and crafty veteran, however, and he never gets sped up by opponents. He can do what he does best while Gortat holds the screen and creates that extra second of leverage:
The Italian veteran is an incredibly high-IQ player, often seeing plays into existence by waiting for openings he knows are about to develop. His outside stroke, along with his size, suckers big men into jumping towards him. From there, all he has to do is wait for the rolling Gortat to be open.
Seriously, it looks like these plays occur in slow motion, but the passes are made at exactly the right time. One little ball fake is all Gallo needs to throw off the help defense:
The Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell combination has been effective in ball screens for different reasons. Harrell is an energy big craving put-backs, second-chance points and ferocious rolls to the rim. His tenacity opens up lanes for everyone.
However, it's the savvy tactics used by Gortat that help spring Gallo open for longer periods make a slow-motion creator's job much easier. While this is a version of a big-to-big pick-and-roll seen on frequent occasions, they destroy opponents with skill instead of speed.
Regardless of who the screener is, Gallinari has been wildly underestimated in ball screens throughout his career. 2019 could mark the third consecutive season where he produces more than one point per possession as the PNR ball handler. The diverse and well-rounded Clippers will break these out a few times a game and let him feast on what he creates.
JJ Redick and Joel Embiid
From the "fun fact" file: JJ Redick is the Philadelphia 76ers' most efficient scorer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll.
On the surface, such a tidbit seems improbable. Redick is a shooting threat that utilizes off-ball screens and provides spacing around superstar trio Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. That's the best way to inculcate Redick into an offense, right?
Technically, yes. Running action for Redick around his shooting threats open up lanes for other scorers. That's why, for the last season and a half, Sixers coach Brett Brown has insisted on running frequent dribble handoffs for Redick near the elbows.
But what happens when teams deny those handoffs and don't let Redick cleanly catch the rock?
Embiid or Simmons, whoever is handling the ball, remain patient. Redick shimmies himself open on the wing and the action turns into an empty side ball screen.
Similar to Gallinari and the Clippers, Redick is most elite as a shooting threat. So, when he has room to pull from deep off ball screens, he should. According to Synergy, he's 28 of 56 (50 percent) on pull-up jumpers off the pick-and-roll. Nobody gets their feet set and shoulders squared faster after sprinting through a cut than he does.
He's so good at going to both his left and his right:
Redick is also underratedly crafty in the mid-range. Constantly under control, his shot fakes send defenders flying. Every time he runs off a screen, he takes the perfect angle to maintain his advantage. While his defender usually trails, a slick and well-timed shot fake can create more space for the shot.
Who wouldn't bite on this pump fake? It's lethal:
Of course, we haven't yet spoken about Joel Embiid, the gargantuan guy in the middle. Embiid is such a tough cover due to his ability to both pop screens and roll to the rim. These actions between Redick and Embiid occur on an empty side, meaning the corner beneath them is unoccupied. That allows Embiid to choose his path of destruction: He can pop to three and have enough time to comfortably gather for his shot, or he can roll to the rim and be unafraid of catching in traffic.
This season, he's been focusing on diving down low instead of launching a ton of treys.
Redick is great at keeping his eyes on the rim, feeling the defense and making the right play. Credit Brett Brown for simplifying the game enough for Redick that reads are as easy as possible. Empty-side screens ensure that all JJ has to do is read Joel's defender. Embiid will take care of the rest:
The Sixers' best action might be their three-man attack involving Redick, Simmons and Embiid. Redick stands in the corner, receives a handoff from Simmons, then continues his sprint into a ball screen from Embiid. The entire sequence takes place in perhaps two seconds, all hovering around the left offensive elbow.
That many elite offensive threats in such a tight space? They are borderline impossible to guard:
Redick remains one of my favorite players of all time. When was the last time he was in a (serious) shooting slump? The guy has always been consistent, gotten better in numerous ways, been an elite teammate and an important cog around several superstar bigs. Redick has never shot below 36 percent from deep in a season and has been north of 40 percent in five of the last seven. He's almost a necessity next to dominant bigs and, on his own, one of the most prolific shooters in history (both NCAA and NBA).
Perhaps we need to talk about his playmaking prowess with a little more verve. He's doing a little bit of everything.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).