Fixing The Pick And Roll In Milwaukee

Drew Gooden finished more of Milwaukee's pick and roll plays than any other screener, but he wasn't exactly deadly in that roll (pun maybe intended).

The Bucks spent much of the 2011-2012 NBA season dancing in and out of the top-10 offensive rankings, eventually finishing at 13th with a respectable 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Barring a few late-season clunkers when half the roster was inactive, the Bucks might have finished even a few spots higher. Then again, the truly elite offensive teams--the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder--both blow that number away, with offensive ratings 6 and 5 points higher, respectively. So while the Bucks made huge strides (no more evident than in sheer watchability), there's still plenty of work to be done if Milwaukee wants to become a true offensive dynamo.

The degree to which Scott Skiles managed to reinvent the Bucks as a high-octane outfit is undoubtedly impressive, but it was also pretty specific. And with specificity comes limitations. The Bucks got maximum results out of a roster that isn't exactly brimming with efficient scorers primarily by playing a full-court brand of basketball. Fun to watch, and occasionally lethal when things were running smoothly, but not necessarily reliable. Half-court play still dominates the game of basketball, and the Bucks often couldn't match their run-and-gun production when the wheels came to a grinding halt. For a team that just missed the playoffs this season, better execution on a few plays here and there could have produced drastically different results. This isn't just about last season, though. Since trading Andrew Bogut, the Bucks seem closer to "elite" status on the offensive end than on defense ("close" being an exceedingly relative term, in this case). What the Bucks really need to push them over the top on offense is a rediscovery of the most basic play in basketball: the pick and roll.

Fixing the pick and roll in Milwaukee is no easy task. According to MySynergySports.com, the Bucks ran pick and roll on 19.3% of their plays (1369 total plays). 60.9% of those plays were finished by the ball handler, 39.1% by the roll man. The Bucks ranked in the bottom third of the NBA on both play variants: 23rd on P&R ball handler plays, 21st on roll man plays. All in all the Bucks scored on just over 40% of their pick and roll plays, averaging 0.82 points per possession. For reference, the San Antonio Spurs were the best team in the NBA at finishing P&R plays with the roll man, averaging 1.2 ppp and shooting over 60%. The Los Angeles Clippers were 2nd at ball handler plays at 0.86 ppp. Those teams are surely aided as much by their deep understanding of basketball's fundamental play as by the pure talent of their personnel. Brandon Jennings will never be Chris Paul, and Ersan Ilyasova will never be Tim Duncan, but both guys could improve their play in the half court by turning their focus to improving in the pick and roll. The same goes for everybody on the roster, really.

It's simplifying things to focus purely on Jennings, but his inefficiency in the half-court offense remains his biggest weakness. With Brandon finishing almost 28% of his plays as the P&R ball handler (and 44.8% of the Bucks' total plays of that type), improving in this area should be a top priority. Jennings averaged 0.85 points per possession as the ball handler, largely on the back of nearly 40% (29-73) shooting from deep. Unfortunately, he shot only 38.5% on two-point shots as a P&R ball handler, mixing in off-the-dribble jumpers with running layups. Quick as he is, Jennings' size and somewhat limited athleticism (at least vertically) still make it tough for him to finish around long paint defenders (though his shooting at the rim has drastically improved each year).

Jennings isn't getting any taller, and he's probably not getting a whole lot stronger, so getting more creative in the pick and roll presents one of his best options for creating easy shots. Splitting the two P&R defenders more often could help: getting around the two primary defenders gives him a clearer shot at the basket with potentially only a single rotating defender to deal with. That might be easier said than done, but Jennings is quick enough to take advantage of the space when it's there.

Realistically though, what Jennings--or any pick and roll instigator in Milwaukee's offense--needs most to be effective is options. Milwaukee's P&R ball handler PPP dropped from 0.80 in the 2011 season to 0.76 in 2012, but the offense became more efficient by finishing fewer plays with such a low-value shot. Aside from the oft-mentioned jump in transition shooting, the Bucks went to the roll man on 7.6% of plays, up from 5.4% in 2011 and 5.3% in 2010.

Speaking of options, check out this screenshot of a pick and roll in progress with Jennings and Drew Gooden:
Jennings_pick_and_roll_options_medium

After Gooden screens Jennings' defender, who winds up blocked from a quick recovery by his own teammate, Jennings quickly finds himself in open space above the free throw line with his defender tailing. Carlos Delfino is spotting up behind the three-point line while Gooden rolls down the other side of the lane, effectively trailed by his own defender. The first reaction from Delfino's man, Paul George, is to throw an obstacle in Jennings' way, but he literally runs back to challenge Delfino after a smooth fake from Jennings. Clear space again. Next, Jennings collects his dribble with a quick fake to Gooden, which stops Roy Hibbert from stepping up too quick (the presence of Larry Sanders on the block likely helps keep Hibbert planted as well). Two more steps and Jennings is a stride away from the restricted area, and Hibbert's uncertainty allows him to drop in a completely uncontested floater.

This play could have easily finished in four different ways. Instead of keeping it for the floater, Jennings could have kicked out to Delfino for the three, dropped the ball off to Drew Gooden on the roll, or attempted a pass around Hibbert to Lurking Larry. In fact, a drop-off to Gooden would likely have forced Hibbert to commit to stopping him, making an extra pass to Sanders even easier.

It's these options that revitalized Milwaukee's offense last season. The Bucks looked their best when the ball kept moving. However, when facing top defenses dug in against them, the Bucks floundered because they just couldn't break opponents down. Instead, simple ball screens would inevitably yield off-balance jumpers because the options either weren't there or ball handlers couldn't take advantage of them. Couldn't or wouldn't. The latter might be beyond outside help, but the former could be alleviated by better play from the Bucks' roll men.

Now here's the problem: data for play categorization and results is still in its infancy, and we simply don't have a reliable way to quantify how often teams use the pick and roll, particularly if that base set ends in one of the aforementioned kick-outs or what-not. Beyond that, there are also countless times that effective defense cuts off drives and forces the offense to run a new play, meaning the pick and roll never even gets registered (and making the corresponding defensive stats even less useful). This renders basically all the data we're relying on here somewhat incomplete. Still, we make do with what we have, and at least these figures keep track of the kind of pure pick and roll execution we're looking for.

Drew Gooden (216 plays) and Ersan Ilyasova (162) combined to finish 70.7% of the Bucks' roll men plays while finishing 54th and 90th in PPP on those plays, respectively. Gooden was mildly ok, shooting almost 50% and drawing fouls on 12% of his opportunities, but Ersan Ilyasova simply wasn't very good in the P&R, shooting under 40% from the floor (although he hit 37.5% of his pick and pop threes).

A thought might occur, "Well, part of the problem is that Milwaukee's pick and roll game creates a lot of jump shots and not enough hard drives." Considering 64.5% of Milwaukee's long twos were assisted (7th-highest percentage in the NBA), that seems plausible. Many of those surely came off other plays, though. Unfortunately, I don't have access to shot location data on specific play types (not sure if it actually exists), but MySynergySports.com's scouting tools do allow me to break down shot types in the pick and roll.

MySynergySports.com categorized 34 of Ilyasova's pick and roll attempts as layups or dunks, on which he shot 58.8%. That's significantly lower than the average PF at-rim FG% of 64.5% (likely bolstered to a small extent by open looks from other play types). 33 of Gooden's roll man attempts were layups or dunks, of which he made 66.6%. That's actually significantly higher than his overall at-rim shooting which was, frankly, pretty bad. Gooden's redeeming element was his ability to draw fouls. All told, Milwaukee's two primary pick and roll screeners attempted layups or dunks on only 17.7% of their roll man plays. These numbers don't include shooting fouls, of which we'd expect a significant portion to come at the basket, so keep that in mind.

Truthfully, Gooden and Ilyasova both resembled stretch forwards more than traditional types, but only Ilyasova really excelled in that role. Gooden's pick and pop propensity was on full display this season, but his hot-shooting nights weren't exactly consistent.

And the rest of the bigs? For them, we turn to a more graphic presentation. First, Ekpe Udoh:

Ekpe_udoh_p_r_medium

Udoh attempted a jumpshot on almost 50% of his pick and roll plays, but shot only 27.8% on those attempts. While he was much better than Larry Sanders at avoiding turnovers, he didn't attack the basket with the same ferocity either. Of course, those two are clearly related. Speaking of Larry:

Larry_sanders_p_r_medium

The truth is, Sanders played pretty well as the screening big outside of one major issue: turnovers. Sanders turned the ball over on 5 of his 29 roll possessions. From the video, I'd categorize two of those as "lost ball" turnovers, one as a bad pass (not really Larry's fault), and two as a "failure to catch a pass that hit him squarely in the hands." There were surely many more possessions where a bobbled pass resulted in a poor shot attempt. Still, over half of Sanders' roll possessions ended with a layup attempt, which is definitely a good sign (although more dunks would be nice). The problem results from his poor finishing: Sanders shot only 58.9% at the rim overall, well below league-average for a PF/C.

Both of these guys are still very young and, well, lanky, so there's hope the both of them will improve as they bulk up and hone their skills. But it's also pretty clear the Bucks' pick and roll game suffers not only from the atypical ball handlers pulling the trigger, but from the limited abilities of the guys setting their screens.

A quick aside to drive you absolutely bonkers: in the 2009-2010 season, Andrew Bogut ranked as the #5 pick and roll screener in all of basketball, with a sensational 1.36 PPP. Yet only 10.2% of his plays that season came in the P&R. He was used far more often in the post, where his PPP dropped to 0.8. The following season, after the accident? Bogut's roll man PPP dropped to 1.08.

Which brings us back to options. A fairly common tactic is to initiate the offense using a simple pick and roll set, but finish the play with a sort of "release valve". The Bucks did this a fair amount--Jon Leuer filled this roll exceptionally well early in the season, when Grantland.com's Sebastian Pruiti tagged him as one of his top rookies before Leuermysteriously disappeared for the majority of the season. As the third member of the P&R set, Leuer served as a knock-down spot-up shooter. But it's also worth pointing out Leuer's 73.3% shooting at the rim. Granted, he attempted only 60 shots under the basket, and many came against below-average competition. But he's a smart player who moves well without the ball, setting himself up for easy passes and shots. Not to mention his underrated athleticism and pump-faking to set up drives! In fact, with a similar (small) sample size, Leuer rated as a better scorer in the P&R than Udoh or Sanders. I'm biased as a marginally obsessed Jon Leuer supporter, but there no denying the guy is already a more polished and effective offensive weapon than many expected he ever could be. But yeah, Delfino, Dunleavy, Ersan, and the rest of the crew were all similarly effective as "release valves".

Complicating this whole discussion is the uncertainty surrounding Milwaukee's roster. Will Drew Gooden be around next season? The Bucks have the ability to ditch his contract via amnesty, though the franchise's frugal nature makes that seem unlikely--in fact, John Hammond flat out rejected the notion at his end of season press conference. They could potentially dump his salary in a draft-day trade reminiscent of last year, but doing so would almost certainly require parting with a young player or way down in the draft.

Might the Bucks go after a legitimate center such as Chris Kaman in the offseason? Kaman might give them the size and rebounding they lacked at the pivot, but he's hardly an offensive force. And with one move comes ripples in playing time of guys like Udoh, Sanders, and Leuer. There's no guarantee the current backcourt will stick together, either. A more experienced, pass-first pick and roll guard might be able to revamp the play all on his own.

Like nearly every other issue facing the Milwaukee Bucks, rediscovering the pick and roll will require individual improvement from each of the team's key pieces. They've established their ability to score with relative ease in a full-court contest, but a team stocked with inefficient-yet-tantalizing young stars will have to make a concerted effort in the half-court game. Without a doubt. though, such effort could transform the Bucks from a solidly above-average offensive squad into one of the NBA's elite scoring units.

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