The NBA's Pick-and-Pop Poison
This article is a facsimile of a prior publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
The NBA has been a ball screen league for over a decade.
Great guards score with advantages created by hard-set picks. Big men roll to the rim and put pressure on help defenders with their size and finishing prowess. The action is difficult to stop when run at such an elite level.
As the league has evolved, a new wrinkle has emerged as a consistently lethal auxiliary threat: the pick-and-pop.
Every team has bigs that step away from the rim and shoot, as floor spacing is now a pre-requisite for roster construction.
But not all pop threats are created equal. Some are better shooters, some better playmakers, and some exist within the perfect schemes to maximize their strengths. Diving into some of the best pick-and-pop players—and how they positively impact their team's offensive success—illuminates a lot about how important the action has become.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics
The unsung hero for the Celtics, Horford's inside-outside offensive arsenal is what allows the offense to click. Head coach Brad Stevens knows he must utilize Horford as a pick-and-pop threat to open driving lanes for his multiple guards that need the ball in their hands. That's why Stevens runs so many middle ball screens that result in Horford roaming to the top of the key.
The Celtics offense is a combination of set plays and motion principles, where one action automatically triggers the next. With great scorers that need ball screens to maximize their talent, the pick-and-roll is a staple of Boston's attack. Stevens knows he must have a counter prepared for any ball screen defense thrown at them.
Horford is the trump card to them all.
A common way to combat side ball screens is "icing" or "downing" those picks. On-ball defenders jump and square their hips to the sideline, forcing the ball towards the baseline, refusing to allow middle penetration while pushing the ball down to the sideline. When Horford is the screener, his man is forced to help momentarily and shadow the ball until his teammate recovers.
That's the perfect opportunity for Horford to jump to the perimeter and get an open catch-and-shoot trey:
The Celtics have so many scoring threats that defending them is a pick-your-poison situation.
All-Star guard Kyrie Irving deserves the most focus as the top scoring option, and the partnership between he and Horford has been torturous to the rest of the Eastern Conference.
For example when the Toronto Raptors are aggressive guarding Kyrie, the attention he requires helps Horford get open:
The middle of the floor is such a difficult rotation because of how open Horford is after he pops. The rest of the defense shrinks towards the lane against ball screens, so where is the closest defender to switch onto Horford?
When someone is alive and stunts at Horford to prevent the catch-and-shoot, Boston's spacing is so great that a strong passer like Horford just easily finds the open man.
Boston's formation is usually a 5-out setting, where there are no players near the lane once he catches the pass. As an automatic, on the catch, the opposite-side wing dives to the block. That opens many options for a great passer like Horford to read cutters and deliver a dime to the open man:
Closeout too zealously to Horford, a 42 percent catch-and-shoot threat on his pick-and-pops, and he has a believable pump fake and the ball handling chops to get in the lane and make the right play:
While the season has been a mild disappointment for the Celts, they are still poised to do damage once the playoffs begin.
The Raptors are aggressive on their guards, opening Horford on pops. The Milwaukee Bucks are more conservative against ball screens and protect the paint above all. We all know the history of Al Horford torching Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, and that does not figure to change unless the Sixers pay an inordinate amount of attention to Horford, opening up other Celtics in the process.
The pick-and-pop is always effective against slower, larger bigs. They simply are not quick enough to react to dribble penetration from one of the Celtics guards and then close out to Horford. Embiid is the biggest victim of his stretchability:
While the Celtics are mired in the tight race for a top-five spot out East, the unsung hero within all they do remains Al Horford. Kyrie is their best scorer, Jayson Tatum is not far behind. Playing through Horford at the top of the key gives the Celtics an almost undeniable advantage against anyone.
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
A name many did not expect to see on this list, Aldridge certainly qualifies as an effective pick-and-pop big. The league-wide craze on three-pointers provides a limited conception of stretch bigs as ones who only bomb from behind the arc.
That conception needs to be altered.
Aldridge has always been an incredible mid-range shooter, dating back to his early days with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Spurs—now the league's leader in mid-range attempts—don't get caught up in the desire to shoot a ton of treys. Good shots for them are simply ones that their guys make at a high rate. Gregg Popovich and his staff are betting that Aldridge pick-and-pops in the mid-range are effective enough to justify his high volume.
They are winning that bet.
Nearly 44 percent of Aldridge's attempts come from outside ten feet and inside the three-point range, according to basketball-reference. Only teammate DeMar DeRozan, takes more mid-range jumpers each game. Since coming to the Spurs, Aldridge has shot 42.5 percent on long twos, one of the higher rates in the league on such volume. The height of his release and rhythm he provides on face-up jumpers make it a tough shot to alter:
Aldridge is struggling from deep this season, going 5-for-23 prior to the All-Star Break. So why would we push for him to take more of those shots simply because it provides extra value? Points are better than no points.
If Aldridge is an elite mid-range shooter, encourage him to take those shots! (And that's just what the Spurs do.) But if those three-point numbers ever rise, then the Aldridge middle pick-and-pop can have the same effect that Al Horford's does for the Celtics.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Turner is shooting north of 40 percent from three and is the league-leader in blocks per game. He is the epitome of a stretch-5 and has been the unsung hero for the Indiana Pacers' hot start.
Even after Victor Oladipo went down with a season-ending injury, the Pacers have stayed in the mix for a top seed in the Eastern Conference. Turner has a lot to do with their staying power.
Stretch bigs like Turner can do damage in the playoffs with the right matchup. One potential second-round pairing would be against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that Turner has torched continuously throughout the year.
The Bucks employ a "drop" pick-and-roll coverage based around their own personnel. Brook Lopez does not have the footspeed to be aggressive on the perimeter. Coach Budenholzer protects him by having Lopez drop below the level of the pick and corral the ball handler closer to the rim. The Bucks are betting on mid-range jumpers beating them.
The counter to such coverage is the pick-and-pop to the wing or top of the key. Lopez cannot simultaneously drop and contest the shot. Turner is wide open as a result:
The Pacers aren't afraid to play through Turner in those matchups. He took a season-high 22 attempts back in December when the Pacers thrashed the Bucks by 16. That included a 4-for-6 barrage from deep. Expect to see a lot more of him down the stretch, especially if he's knocking down treys above 40 percent. Drop pick-and-roll defense cannot find an answer for his shooting.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Markkanen more than fits the mold of a sweet-shooting big.
He's been on an absolute tear over the last month, averaging 21.4 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three, launching nearly seven a night. Several of those come from pick-and-pop catch-and-shoots.
The Bulls run a good deal of ball screen action as decoys to get Markkanen his looks from deep. A common NBA ball screen action called "45" sees two screens occur in the middle of the floor for the ball handler. The multiple twists and counters keep defenses on their toes, but the threat of Markkanen as a shooter is unique.
When the Bulls run their action, the other big is instructed to act like an offensive lineman. He finds the closest defender to Markkanen and gets in his way, allowing the second-year shooter to snipe:
Those ball screens are a two-way street.
The attention that Markkanen draws on pops opens the lane for Zach LaVine to attack. Conversely, LaVine's aggressive drives and monster athleticism helps Markkanen get open. Nearly 40 percent of LaVine's scoring comes from the pick-and-roll, and these two are a nightmare duo because of their complementary skill sets.
Whether defenses stay attached to Markkanen on his pops, or switch to prevent the catch-and-shoot, LaVine feasts on open north-south rim attacks and mismatches:
LaVine is so freaking fast that, when he gets a head of steam going towards the hoop, defenses almost have to collapse.
Faking the screen and having him take off while Markkanen floats to the three-point line creates an even more open attempt than actually setting the screen:
Perhaps the most useful facet of a stretch-shooter like Markkanen is the avenues his pick-and-pop threats open for coaches.
Jim Boylen has been a controversial figure since taking over as Bulls interim head coach, in particular for his offensive principles and emphases. Simultaneous to his ascent has been a growing trend, started by the Miami Heat, to zone more frequently, especially out of timeouts.
The coaching philosophy is simple: a zone after a timeout neutralizes the coach's impact on drawing up exactly what he wants. Teams struggle to know what actions to run. The Brooklyn Nets, the leader in zone possessions on the season, run this tactic out of timeouts nearly every game.
But Boylen and the Bulls were prepared and ran a simple pick-and-pop while using a baseline runner to occupy the back-line of the zone. Markkanen was wide open:
Say what you will about the Bulls, but there is evidence this version of their rebuild could be the most fruitful. Markkanen and LaVine are intriguing offensive pieces, both together and on their own.
If Lauri keeps shooting the way he has lately, his pick-and-pop value cannot be understated.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).