From the beautiful game of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs to the Golden State Warriors’ first NBA championship, a freewheeling style appeared to be the future of basketball everyone had to adhere to. In just a few short years, the league has adapted, giving way to a new style these playoffs.
In the Finals, as LeBron James crossed midcourt near the right baseline in the NBA Finals, his eyes scanned to the left, searching for a familiar target: George Hill.
Hill brought his defender, the relatively diminutive Steph Curry, and set a screen on James’ man. He then rolled down into the right corner, leaving James and Curry alone at angle right on the perimeter. LeBron tested his 6-foot-3 defender with a couple of prodding dribbles and then drove hard to the right. The help was late and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ megastar scored at the rim.
Moments later, on the other end, a similar scene unfolded. Draymond Green set a solid pick for Curry, now handling the ball on offense. Green’s roll sealed Hill away from the play and left Cavs forward Kevin Love to look after the dangerous Curry.
Time and again, the Finals boiled down to moments like those. These Finals – in fact, these NBA Playoffs – have largely become an exploration of the next big tactical shift in basketball’s best league: the switch.
In earlier rounds, it was the Philadelphia 76ers getting caught in awkward mismatches against the Boston Celtics, and the Utah Jazz struggling to execute against a switch-happy Houston Rocketse’ defense. It’s been the prevailing strategic consideration of this postseason, with increasing chatter around how teams deploy, combat and prepare for the switch.
The NBA community has spent practically the entire spring talking in micro terms about how switching defenses have impact each of the 13 playoff series. So it’s time to talk about it more broadly. Specifically: is this the next major tactical shift in the NBA arms race?
Survival of the fittest
The modern NBA is built around the pick-and-roll, with practically every possession featuring at least one ball screen. For the past 15 or 20 years, the primary strategic question in setting a team’s defensive identity revolved around how to guard screening actions and limit the myriad options each pick creates.
Trap the ball. Hedge high. Ice it. Fight through. Bring help from the weak corner. Don’t bring help at all but show hard and recover.
Each choice can shorten the list of options available on the play, but smart teams are also armed with the counter to every defensive choice against basketball’s most lethal building block. That’s just the nature of this eternal tug-of-war between offense and defense. You can try guarding the pick-and-roll in a new way and eventually teams figure out an adjustment. Sometimes the adjustments are minor things; sometimes they fundamentally change the way we talk about talent and team-building. It’s the basketball version of Darwinism, with prey and predator pushing each other to evolve.
Switching might just be the next evolution
When Tom Thibodeau was put in charge of the Celtics’ defense as a Boston assistant a decade ago, he popularized the practice of dropping the big (the screener’s man) to contain the ball while the guard fought over the screen and got back into the play. This “contain” approach limited the guard’s access to the paint and took away the three in most cases, essentially coaxing offenses into settling for the game’s least efficient shot: the pull-up midrange jumper.
But alas, offenses answered. Coaches devised a number of tools to respond to this new wave of preventive pick-and-roll defense. They’d rescreen, they’d double screen, and add in decoys. But more than anything, the strategic response was to spread out the floor. This is particularly dangerous when the screener also has the ability to make a play off the catch. Few defenders can contain both the original ball handler and the roll man at the same time, which requires help to come from somewhere; but with larger distances between players, helping once often throws teams into scramble mode.
Consequently, the spread pick and roll era has changed the skill sets NBA teams value in players. The philosophical tug-of-war has resulted in certain abilities being commoditized while others border on obsolescence.
For example, post play has been consigned to relic status for much of the last decade. Bigs who can’t a) make plays with the ball, or b) protect the rim are disappearing from rotations and rosters. Kenneth Faried earned himself a massive extension by essentially being a ball of frenetic energy. Now, he’s a non-rotation player set to make nearly 14 percent of his team’s salary cap. Roy Hibbert disappeared from the league when his ability to challenge shots at the rim began to wane, just three years after his second All-Star appearance.
That’s how it goes. The league shifts. The league answers its own shifts. And along the way, players who were once extremely valued pieces can’t find their way onto the floor.
The new battlefield
If this postseason is any indication, we’re all going to spend a lot of time talking over the next few years about how to execute and combat a switching defense.
One way to attack against a switching defense is to get the ball in the hands of someone who can put pressure on the defense off the bounce. But that requires certain personnel.
In the Western semis, Ricky Rubio’s absence left Utah light on guys who could break down the defense with the ball in their hands. The Jazz offense isn’t exactly built around isolation dribbling anyway, and when suddenly it was Raul Neto and Royce O’Neale trying to manufacture an advantage 1-on-1 instead of the seasoned Rubio, there was just too much stalling.
Another way is to find the size mismatch and pound it low with a big man. The Washington Wizards try to do that in the Eastern Conference playoffs but it produced too many awkward flips and offensive fouls. The leaguewide push away from post has allowed a lot of players to develop rust in that part of their games.
Some teams will have the screener slip while the defense is mid-switch, capitalizing on that fraction of a second when the defensive ownership isn’t clear. Or there’s always the tactic of steering into the skid – embracing the switch and hunting a matchup a team views as favorable, like the Steph-on-LeBron or Love-on-Steph matchups we discussed above. Some teams are combatting that with a pre-switch, like when Golden State does some anticipatory choreography to get a player they trust involved in the play right before the on-ball action occurs.
But here’s the point: that’s what we’re talking about now. Throughout the 2018 postseason, the X-and-O discussion has revolved around those options and counters that offenses use to punish each choice. And as teams further explore ways to exploit or defuse the strategy, it WILL impact the personnel landscape.
Talent decisions in the era of switching
Already, we’re seeing how the proliferation of switching is determining who can play.
Kyle Korver was one of Cleveland’s most important players all season long. Only James and Love added more wins above replacement level than Korver over the course of the season and the sharpshooting wing had more double-digit scoring nights in the first three rounds of the playoffs than JR Smith or George Hill.
But Korver’s value is predicated on punishing teams for leaving him the little bit of daylight it takes for him to fire off his long-range jumper and it’s much harder to find that daylight against a defense that switches most pick-and-rolls. Korver averaged 21 minutes per game in the regular season and more than 24 through the first three rounds of the postseason. He was on the floor for just 16.2 minutes per game in the Finals and was an overall negative.
Korver’s a smart player whose longevity stems from an ability to improve and adapt. He’ll be fine. But his case is illustrative of what could happen to players whose strengths are minimized against certain schemes: develop, or extinction looms.
Conversely, players with certain skill sets will capitalize, starting with those who can guard all over the court. Just as positionless offensive talent was all the rage four or five seasons ago when the spread pick and roll took over the NBA, we’re entering an era where players who can guard regardless of position will reap the big contracts and roles. There’s a reason Clint Capela is a hot name right now, just in time for restricted free agency. Al Horford and Anthony Davis were DPOY candidates because they can pick up guards when needed.
The shift will also place a premium on those who can attack the switch, either through creation off the dribble or by overpowering the size matchups that occur when a rolling big takes his smaller switching defender into an elbow or low-block post-up.
So in a weird way, this trend could lead the NBA back to relying on post and isolation play, two areas that coaches have tried to move away from in favor of other, more efficient play types. More broadly, decision-making from all five positions will be a key to anybody hoping to combat the switch-happy likes of Golden State and Houston in a playoff series.
The game won’t stop pushing forward. Soon, innovators and transcendental talents will devise ways to answer this trend, and the next one, and the next one.
But for now, switching is central to the conversation, and central to the outcomes. The Warriors are preparing to celebrate their third title in four years, and they’re doing it in large part because of their ability to put five interchangeable, smart defenders on the court and defang, to some degree, basketball’s most ubiquitous tool, the pick-and-roll.