DeMar DeRozan, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas are playing at an extremely high level to start the season. DeRozan is leading the league in scoring at 34.1 points per game, while Harden is close behind him in scoring while also leading the NBA in assists with 13 per game. Thomas continues his stellar individual play in Boston, picking up where he left off last season.
When you take a deeper look into the statistics, it is evident that pick-and-roll action comprises a substantial portion of their overall offensive play types. Making the right decision whether to pass, shoot or re-angle a ball screen in order to attack the defense out of PNR is how many of these players, and others listed below, are able to gain their offensive advantage and make their mark on the game. Their effectiveness in PNRs is also a big reason why these players are doing so well.
Let’s take a look at five of the most efficient pick-and-roll guards (who have had at least 35 PNR possessions this season) and how they create opportunities for their teams off of this action.
Deron Williams, Dallas Mavericks – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.20
Despite the Mavericks’ tough start to the season (2-6 thus far), Williams has been one of the bright spots, averaging 15 points and 5.8 assists through five games before going down with a calf injury. Williams is leading the league in points per possession off of pick-and-roll situations at 1.2. PNRs make up more than half of Williams’ offensive play types at 51 percent, per Synergy Sports. It’s safe to say that the veteran guard leans heavily on this action to facilitate offense for teammates and himself. Out of PNR action, Williams is shooting 56.4 percent and is extremely adept using the ball screen to get to his one or two dribble pull-up, per Synergy. Out of 65 of Williams’ PNR possessions thus far, about a quarter of them have resulted in pull-up jumpers. The Mavs guard has scored 21 points off of PNR pull-ups, per Synergy. On 38 possessions passing out of the PNR, he has assisted on 57 points, which ranks him in the 99th percentile in the league, per Synergy. Most of these passes are to the benefit of Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki, who are natural pop guys, or spot up jump shooters Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews. The Mavericks are hoping Williams can make it back from his lower leg injury soon in order to continue his productive play.
James Harden, Houston Rockets – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.197
No surprise here. Harden has found himself in PNRs a ridiculous 213 times thus far this season. Now that head coach Mike D’Antoni has teamed up with Harden in Houston to employ the similar ball-screen methods that helped make Steve Nash become so successful, Harden’s craftiness seems to be even harder to guard this season. Harden is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 30.6 points, and first in assists with 13 per game through the first eight games of the season. D’Antoni’s offense seems to lend well to Harden’s crafty, herky jerky game, and the Rockets guard knows exactly how to gain an advantage from it. Currently, Harden ranks first in total PNR possessions and points scored off PNR action (255), per Synergy. The next closest man is Russell Westbrook, with 170 points off of PNR play. Harden relies on ball screens to free himself up for shots and is averaging 1.19 points per possession off of this type of play, per Synergy. For Harden to keep up his outstanding production thus far, he will need to continue to excel with his PNR play.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.185
Through their first seven games, the Celtics are struggling (3-4). However, Thomas looks to be picking up where he left off last season, averaging 25.7 points and 7.3 assists per game. Thomas has always relied on ball-screen action to imbalance the defense, and this season he ranks right behind Williams and Harden with 1.19 points per possession off of PNRs, per Synergy. Thomas has All-Star Al Horford and capable big Kelly Olynyk to work with. Often, Thomas will find Horford, Olynyk or Tyler Zeller rolling to the basket for buckets. He has several guys he finds for perimeter shots, like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and pick-and-pop guy Jonas Jerebko. Thomas is also highly effective in PNRs, because he uses his speed and change of pace to create opportunities for himself. When coming off of ball screen action, he is shooting a lights out 53 percent from the field. Look for Thomas to continue his hot start by utilizing Brad Stevens’ high-volume, ball-screen offense.
Zach LaVine, Minnesota T’Wolves – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.12
The Timberwolves wing has started the season averaging 20 points and chipping in 2.3 assists per game. He also ranks fifth in PNR efficiency, averaging 1.11 points per possession, per Synergy. LaVine’s ball-screen action only makes up 29 percent of his total offensive play types, which is considerably less than Williams’ 51 percent, Harden’s 58 percent and Thomas’ 44 percent. However, LaVine is similarly effective in PNRs as these players. Through seven games, LaVine has scored 19 points on 19 PNR possessions when he keeps the ball looking to score himself and has scored 28 points on 23 possessions when finding teammates, per Synergy. LaVine has been especially good when hitting the roll guy (18 points on 13 possessions). In LaVine’s case, this has been Karl-Anthony Towns or Gorgui Dieng. Combined with his athleticism and solid shooting ability, LaVine’s strong PNR play could help him and the T-Wolves make the leap to the next level this season.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.12
Bradley is the second Celtics player, along with Thomas, in the league’s top five in PNR efficiency. Through seven games, Bradley is averaging 1.12 PPP off of PNRs, per Synergy. Pick-and-roll makes up 34 percent of his offensive plays, per Synergy. Off of PNR, Bradley is adept at hitting the roll guy and is especially effective when finding shooters spotting up around the perimeter. Bradley excels at creating spot-up opportunities for teammates, such as fellow guard Marcus Smart and pick-and-pop big Jonas Jerebko. When he keeps it in PNR action, Bradley is looking to get all the way to the rim or pull up inside the arc. It will be interesting to see how Thomas and Bradley coexist this year within the same high volume PNR offense.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors – Average Points Per PNR Possession: 1.11
DeRozan is the league’s leading scorer and is off to a red-hot start seven games in. A career 28.1 percent three-point shooter, DeRozan is currently shooting 16.7 percent from three this season. That being said, somehow the Raptors guard has upped his offensive output by 10 points per game when compared to last season, averaging 34.1 points. A large part of this increased production is due to his highly efficient PNR play. DeRozan is averaging 1.11 points per possessions on PNR and loves to get into the lane, draw contact and finish over smaller defenders, per Synergy. His effectiveness in the mid-range has also allowed him to bolster a high PNR efficiency rating. PNRs make up 45 percent of DeRozan’s offensive play types, per Synergy. For DeRozan to continue this ultra high level of play, he will likely have to maintain his high PNR rating.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”