Building the Bucks offense, pt. 4: Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour and pick-and-roll plays

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

In part four of our preview of the Milwaukee Bucks offense, we look at who should handle pick-and-roll opportunities. Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour provide two bright spots on the roster, but will it be enough?

As the NBA preseason comes to a close, it's easy to see that the Milwaukee Bucks offense is still a work in progress. This series is dedicated to exploring how the unit should be structured when the games matter. In case you missed the earlier installments, here's a summary of what's been covered so far: (1) O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova stand out as the top offensive options on the team, but the heirarchy gets very murky after that, (2) head coach Larry Drew is wise to emphasize transition offense, because it is one of the most efficient options available to NBA teams, and (3) isolation plays may not be a strength for Milwaukee, but Gary Neal and O.J. Mayo (not Luke Ridnour or Brandon Knight) figure to be the best options when the shot clock winds down and a play needs to be made.

Got it? Good.

This post is dedicated to breaking the down pick-and-roll stats for ball handlers and roll men on the roster. Larry Drew says his offense will focus on reversing the ball and keeping things moving and shifting the defense, but you can expect plenty of pick-and-roll (PnR) from the Bucks as well. In the NBA, there's still no better way to break and bend a defense, because quality PnR forces big men to move away from the rim and creates excellent angles to attack the rim and distribute the ball to the corners and wings of the court for deadly three-point shots.

Nearly 20 percent of all offensive plays in the NBA ended with a shot, turnover or foul drawn by a PnR ball handler (13.12%) or roll man (6.48%) in 2012-13. Roll men produced better efficiency (0.99 ppp) than ball handlers (0.79 ppp), but it's important to remember that the ball handler is almost always saddled with more responsibilities and a longer path to the rim. It's even more important to remember that PnR plays are usually initiated to reshape the defense and open up better opportunities on the floor for cutters and spot-up shooters. As a result, the PnR is directly or indirectly responsible for much more than the 20% of plays categorized as PnR.

To tie the last two posts in this series together with this one, transition is the best chance early in the shot clock for an offense to score efficiently, isolation is the last resort to make something out of a late clock situation, and PnR is often the best way to break down a defense during the meat of the shot clock. If I were to propose an order of operations for a ball handler probing the defense in PnR, it would be that they should: first look for cutters (1.17 ppp) in off-ball motion, then for spot-up shooters along the arc (0.98 ppp), then for the roll man (0.99 ppp), and finally for their own shot (0.79 ppp) -- mostly to get the ball up on the rim for offensive rebounders (1.08 ppp). Here are some charts to help you make sense of those numbers:

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This Milwaukee Bucks team doesn't project to be great in PnR, at least in terms of finishing plays directly with the ball handler or roll man, but they will need to use it to set up chances for a very good group of spot-up shooters. Which combinations could pose a threat to the defense credible enough to draw help defenders away from the three-point marksmen? The answer once again involves Gary Neal, which makes me feel kind of weird.

Let's hit the bad news first. Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino all figure to handle the ball quite a bit for Milwaukee this season, but they also all posted two years worth of bottom-five-team PnR efficiency as ball handlers. The variance between good and bad PnR teams appears to be smaller than some of the other play types, but every little bit matters. Bucks roll men -- Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Larry Sanders, Zaza Pachulia -- have all posted below-average numbers over the last two years combined, but at least Ilyasova, Sanders and Pachulia have flashed quality production in one of those campaigns.

The good news is that veteran guards Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour have both produced at above-average levels as PnR ball handlers for the previous two seasons, so if they're used to initiate offense it will free up Knight, Mayo, Delfino and Butler to nail spot-up shots.

Before I get to my impressions, here are the stats I broke down from the database at mysynergysports.com:

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Scouting the PnR Ball Handlers

  • Gary Neal caught a lot of flack from Spurs fans accustomed to the PnR excellence of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but in reality he's pretty dangerous when he's hitting threes. And he's definitely one of the best options the Bucks have as a ball handler in PnR this season. Just as he will in isolation plays, Neal will look to shoot first in PnR. If a defender goes under a screen, expect him to set his feet and launch a shot from beyond the arc before anyone can ask questions. When he's hot, good luck to the defense. When he's not, he may test our patience. Spurs blog Pounding the Rock analyzed Neal's PnR game this summer, so be sure to read that piece for first-hand knowledge of this tendencies. Here's the relevant portion for our purposes:
    "Neal is a scorer, and as such, he is thorough in exhausting every scoring option before he passes. He fires up a series of shot fakes, dribbles around, then takes the pick on both occasions. He also hesitates a bit to let the defense fall into place, which creates a passing window to get the ball to the roller/popper."
    He's cheaper than Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but it remains to be seen if he can fill their shoes when asked to create for teammates after exploring his own scoring opportunities. I hate to make it sound like Gary Neal is a key component to the offense, but here we are. I'm saying it.
  • If you're wondering why the Bucks added Luke Ridnour this summer, PnR experience (and efficiency) is probably the reason. The Timberwolves liked to set up speed PnRs with Luke curling from the corner to the wing, catching a pass from Rubio (at the top of the key), and working a screen from a big man around the elbow. He also ran plenty of high PnR, and his deadly mid-range game is what allowed him to thrive in both situations. The 15-18 foot range isn't an ideal spot for most players, but Ridnour is dominant on the right side of the floor and hit an insane 56% of his shots in the right short corner last year -- the best mark in the entire NBA. When defenders sink under the screen, Luke destroys them with jumpers. When they try to chase over the screen, he works is way into a floater or probes along the baseline and works to the opposite short corner to make himself a threat again. It's simple stuff, but very effective. If he can impart any of his knowledge to Nate Wolters this season, that's an added bonus. I hope Wolters spends plenty of time watching Luke and picking his brain. Brandon Knight should probably watch and listen closely as well...
  • Zach Lowe of Grantland dissected Brandon Knight as a PnR guard after the trade this summer, and from what I've seen in the preseason there's no need to amend any of his observations. Long story short, he's not very good at reading angles or reacting properly in a timely fashion as a PnR ball handler. In case my chart doesn't drive the point home, I'll also reveal that he ranked 133rd in PnR efficiency last season, shot 36.4 percent, and turned the ball over one out of every five times he finished a possession in PnR.
  • O.J. Mayo turned the ball over even more often than Knight (!) in PnR last season and he posted a career-best ranking in PnR efficiency...at 115th overall. Four straight years of below-average numbers and high turnover rates should be a clear sign that he's not cut out to be the primary PnR guard, right? His biggest problem as a PnR operator is that when opposing big man show hard or flat-out double teams him in a blitz, he has trouble passing out of those situations and often turns the ball over. It can get quite ugly when he's asked to navigate through tight spaces and shift away from his dominant right hand. I'm trying to make sure everyone learns this lesson about Mayo the easy way, so to drive the point home here's a related post to check out from our blog brothers at Mavs Moneyball.
  • Take a look at the number of PnR opportunities Butler and Delfino soaked up the last two seasons. It's barely enough to dampen a dish rag. They're both last resort options. There's not much to say, because they haven't given us much to talk about.
  • John Henson should not pop, he should only roll. In case you've forgotten, here's what I wrote about him this summer:
    In 2010-11, Henson shot 27% on jump shots and posted a ghastly 46.2% TS mark -- worst among the top-six players for FGA on the Tar Heels, according to hoop-math.com. The following year he shot 38% on jumpers and raised his TS% to 50.7 -- worst among the top-five players for FGA on the team. Note that the NBA average on jump shots from last season was 39.3%, and the TS average was 53.5%...In his rookie season, things didn't get any better. In fact, they got worse. Henson converted on just 18 of his 81 jumpers outside of eight feet (22.2%) and finished with a TS% of 49.7...If we drill down even farther, it gets even messier. Henson only shot 41-140 (29.2%) outside of the charge circle, including a terrible 25-70 mark in the paint but beyond the restricted area.
  • Larry Sanders is a career 29.4% shooter beyond nine feet. The Henson rules apply here as well. Sanders has shown to be aggressive on dives to the rim, and it gets him in position for offensive rebounds, so he's an obvious option as a roll man. If the Bucks can use Ilyasova in a cut exchange with Sanders to free him above the break for threes, it's one of the best basic PnR the team can run.
  • Larry Drew was clearly comfortable with Pachulia handling the ball around the free throw line extended in Atlanta's offensive sets. He would often catch an entry pass in that area, pivot to face up his defender, pass to a guard on the wing, and then follow the pass to set a pick and initiate PnR. At that 15ft range, he was able to either pop to the short corner for a jumper, or dive directly to the rim to finish at the rim. His comfort as a face-up option at the free throw line opened up some interesting passing angles to the wings and created quick offensive opportunities, so watch for Drew to use Zaza in a similar fashion this year.
  • Ersan really came into his own last season as a primary PnR big, and his ability to stretch the defense as a shooter is unparalleled when it comes to Bucks screeners. The high PnRs were set even higher with Ilyasova -- typically three-to-four feet above the arc -- which allowed him to pop to an area still beyond the arc. It's a subtle spacing thing, but the added efficiency was huge. When the Bucks set things a bit tighter and forced the ballhandler's defender to go over the pick around the top of the key, Ersan was able to pop back for an open three on the wing as Monta or Brandon pressed the defense toward the baseline. Finally, his ability to sink to the short corner on middle PnR looks and drain that shot make him a viable offensive weapon regardless of how the defenses decided to handle PnR coverage. It was a pick-your-poison sort of season when opponents dealt with Ers, so expect the Bucks to lean on Ersan again in this regard.

Conclusion

When it comes to the pick-and-roll, the Bucks should funnel opportunities to Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour, and use Ersan Ilyasova to pop beyond the arc, or allow Larry Sanders, John Henson and Zaza Pachulia to operate as roll men. This structure sounds strange at first, as it doesn't include the two starting guards, but it may be the best way to maximize high-efficiency opportunities.

When transition offense fails, the veteran guards need to take the ball and work PnR with the bigs who aren't a big threat to shoot from outside. Pick-and-pop with Ersan will also work well when bigs hedge on ball handlers, but Ilyasova's also an excellent spot-up shooter, whereas Sanders and Henson aren't as effective away from the rim. The Bucks figured out how to run Ersan in a simple exchange will the roll man (usually Sanders) last season, and it worked extremely well, so expect to see more of that this season.

Ideally, PnR will proceed with Ridnour or Neal in one of two ways: (1) Ersan works the high PnR as Neal and Ridnour put pressure on the defense, and they kick to Ilyasova for a three, or (2) Sanders/Henson/Pachulia slice into the lane (the only place any of them should shoot), while Mayo/Knight/Delfino/Butler/Ilyasova are stationed along the three-point line waiting to take a spot-up shot if a help defender shifts away from them. Those are the times when the Bucks will be at their most dangerous. If things break down and the shot clock gets low, that's when Mayo or Butler can emerge as an isolation threat.

When you watch the Bucks offense, keep this structure in mind. I don't have a problem with trying to develop Knight or encouraging Mayo to blossom, but if those two are asked to lead the PnR it may not be an optimal opportunity for the offense. And hey, we all wanted Gary Neal and Ersan Ilyasova to emerge as the efficiency alpha dog anyway, right?

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