Do the Wizards Run Too Many Pick-and-Rolls?
In today’s perimeter-oriented NBA, the pick-and-roll is playing a larger role than ever before. Using the pick-and-roll (P&R) not only allows for teams to utilize the ever-increasing mobility and shooting ability of the league’s big men, but to also capitalize on the improved ball-handling capabilities of its guards. Upon the play’s initiation, it immediately opens up passing lanes and cutting lanes and produces outside shot opportunities that modern statistics have proven to be a valuable component of efficient offenses. When offensive players are as skilled as they are in today’s NBA, the P&R is practically impossible to defend with any sort of consistency.
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) December 7, 2013
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) December 7, 2013
The play surfaces a lot. Teams will use the P&R on the majority of possessions at some point—it’s often used to begin sets, and if teams can’t get a clean look, they’ll probe the defense with multiple pick-and-rolls until something opens up. It acts as many teams’ final go-to play at the end of quarters. We can get a good idea of its prevalence by looking to Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” run, which featured a game against the Wizards on Feb. 8, 2012. Lin spoke of how the Knicks put the Wizards through “at least a hundred pick-and-rolls.” Mike D’Antoni, coach of New York at the time, essentially had his offense completely focused around the P&R. Given the problems that the P&R causes and the success that P&R-heavy offenses like D’Antoni’s have seen, it’s easy to see how someone could fall so in love with it.
But in watching the Washington Wizards plan of attack game after game, I can’t help but think to myself: is it possible to be over-reliant on the pick-and-roll?
Wizards fans are likely aware that the 2013-14 squad has neither a ton of collective ball-handling ability, nor an affinity for slashing—both of which are essential to running the P&R efficiently. John Wall and Bradley Beal, the main ball-handlers for the Wizards, are capable with the ball in their hands. But it basically stops with those two, and even Wall and Beal have key flaws that will poke their head out in these situations: Wall is a below-average shooter for a guard, and Beal is still developing his handle, passing, and decision-making. Both are below average from midrange (P&R territory), and neither draws fouls at a high rate. Everyone else on the Wizards—aside from Nene, who is great with the ball but doesn’t get too many P&R chances—struggles even more in the above categories. The Wizards just simply don’t have enough tools for excelling in the P&R.
Considering this while being exposed to Randy Wittman’s offense throughout the year, I wanted to see what the statistics said about how the Wizards’ P&R efficiency correlates with their reliance on it and how that compares to other teams. If you’re familiar with mySynergySports.com, its offensive categories, and the concept of PPP (points per play), skip this paragraph. For those who are unfamiliar with mySynergySports.com, a large part of what the site offers comes from its ability to break down teams’ statistical production (points per play or PPP) in different categories. One of these categories is the pick-and-roll. Synergy breaks this category down into the “ball handler” and “roll man” types—the first consisting of plays where the ball handler shoots, earns a trip to the free throw line, or turns the ball over (typically a guard); the second being that the roll man does the same (typically a big man who is rolling to the hoop or popping out for the jumper). Given that the “ball handler” play happens to comprise a much larger percentage of each team’s offense—both stylistically and in terms of how often plays are finished with the ball in the initial ball handler’s hand—we can focus on that.
Below, we can look to explore NBA teams’ dependence on the P&R (ball handler plays) versus their output with it. Teams are ordered from left-to-right, highest-to-lowest by their average P&R PPP.Upon first glance, what do we see? Two clear outliers: at the top is the Houston Rockets and, at the bottom, the Washington Wizards. Houston is exceptionally great at the pick-and-roll while depending on it hardly at all. Washington is exceptionally poor at running the pick-and-roll, but relies on it quite a bit (more so than 20 other NBA teams).
But maybe these were both random events. Perhaps teams in general don’t care whether they are good or bad at the P&R, and stick to whatever offensive philosophy they believe in. Let’s explore below by identifying any level of correlation:We can see that there’s a correlation, albeit not strong: the r-squared value doesn’t describe a strong fit (0.06), and some of the data points are a ways away from the line. But what if we take away the clear outliers? Some teams are just plain poorly run, and if we exclude them, we might get a more accurate representation of the league’s tendencies.
Below:Here, while disregarding the previous outliers, we can notice a statistically significant correlation; the r-squared value is much closer to one (0.26). Some of the remaining teams appear to neglect to tap into their P&R potential (or simply value it less despite their talent), and some appear to over-rely on the P&R to get their points. But a correlation between P&R efficiency and P&R dependence is clearly evident nonetheless.
We can infer from this data that, provided that the Wizards are so inept at the P&R, their level of reliance on it is at a strangely high level. We do have to remember that this is all relative; the data at hand won’t necessarily tell us at what point any one team should stop using the P&R.
But the naked eye certainly suggests that there is too much of a focus on the P&R in Washington, and this perpetuates another issue of the Wizards offense: an over-reliance on inefficient midrange jumpers. To date, the Wizards have taken the ninth-most midrange shots, despite being 26th in midrange percentage (26.1%). By electing to focus on ball-handler driven P&Rs with these midrange shots, the Wizards aren’t tapping into their great cutting potential, and they aren’t getting Nene and Gortat the “pick-and-pop” looks they need (Nene, for one, shoots from midrange at an above average clip of 43 percent, and is an outstanding passer). Furthermore, Washington is not creating opportunities for themselves to get closer to the rim—the Wizards currently have the second fewest field goal attempts in the paint.
Yes, the naked eye suggests that Randy Wittman’s offense, and the way it is executed by John Wall and Bradley Beal, could certainly use some refining.
[stats through Jan. 5, 2014 NBA games]
Cameron Purn is a basketball junkie from Seattle, WA, who attended Western Washington University and who now lives in Japan. You can check out some of Cameron’s work on his own website, KeeperOfTheCourt.com, and you can follow him on Twitter here: @KeeperOTCourt.