All coaches steal from each other but not all coaches emphasize the same details of the game. This is the second part of a pre-season series dedicated to the nuances of Dwane Casey’s coaching philosophy and technique.
Part 1 - how to properly closeout/contest jump shots.
Ah yes, the vaunted pick-and-roll, it’s the preferred action of most NBA teams and illegal screen-setting driveway Dads. We all know what it looks like but how do you stop it? More important to this conversation, how will Dwane Casey choose to defend the ever-so-popular play?
Below, we’ll examine Casey’s “drop” coverage that experienced success last year in Toronto by finishing 10th in defending the ball-handler and second in defending the roll man in PNR scenarios. By no means is this strategy specific to Casey but, like stick arms, it’s a highly emphasized part of his coaching identity.
Without question the most essential component in PNR defense, and all defense for that matter, is the communication between the two involved defenders. Friend of the Program Jeff Van Gundy can be heard during every one of his telecasts citing the “early, loud and continuous” principle which most coaches, including Casey, adhere to.
Early: The involved big (or whoever is checking the screen-setter) is responsible for calling out the PNR coverage as early as possible in an effort to give the on-ball defender as much time as possible to react.
Loud: Pretty self-explanatory as the big must be loud enough for all - not just the on-ball defender - to hear.
Continuous: A one-time defensive shout from the big probably isn’t going to do the trick in a hostile and raucous environment. Instead, repeated chants of the coverage is needed.
As a successful NBA big, you cannot be soft spoken. You good with that, Dre?
OK, just making sure.
While it’s impossible to know the exact PNR coverage without being in the huddle or on the floor, sometimes the context clues give it away. Below, Andre Drummond’s early, loud and continuous PNR call gives Stanley Johnson the heads up on an incoming screen and how to defend it. Johnson’s refusal to let Victor Oladipo go right was dictated by Drummond’s command. On defense, as in life, communication > everything else.
By and large, Detroit’s PNR defense wasn’t too shabby last year.
Casey in Toronto
The best way to limit opponent three-point makes is to not let the shot get off in the first place. In a pick-and-roll setting, Casey uses two defenders to corral both the ball-handler and roller/popper. Doing so puts immense pressure on the two involved defenders but it also allows the remaining three defenders to stay at home on their check.
Last year, the Raptors surrendered only 24 three-point attempts per game (second lowest in the league) and, at 8.9, no team gave up fewer made three-pointers per game. A big reason why was their stay at home method.
Below, both opponents playing the four - Carmelo Anthony, Frank Kaminsky - are viable three-point threats and Serge Ibaka treats them as such. Instead of tagging the rollers (Steven Adams, Dwight Howard), the lengthy Ibaka stays, relatively, at home which discourages the kick out.
Whether it’s retreating back on defense in transition or in the half-court, Casey is a big fan of his players displaying their length. Active limbs camped out in the passing lanes is such an easy, but often overlooked, part of top-tier defenses.
Using only two defenders - with the big in drop coverage as depicted above - is a far less aggressive way to defend the PNR. The drop reduces the need to help or rotate on the slip/roll:
Above, Tobias Harris must help on the slip/roll by Mason Plumlee because of the Drummond/Bradley trap. The result is a wide open look for Wilson Chandler.
The conservative drop coverage and switching technique are the favored prescriptions for many modern day NBA coaches in defending the PNR. The reason is simple: teams are too smart not to figure out where the opening will be.
Big’s role in drop coverage
First, communicate. Duh.
The communication will include which way to force the ball-handler. Terminology is different with each organization but, typically, “weak” = force left and “strong” = force right.
If it’s a middle-of-court PNR, a majority of the calls will be sending the ball-handler left (weak hand). If the pick-and-roll takes place on the sideline, the coverage will usually target the ball to stay on the sideline (ICE) and out of the middle with no thought given to weak or strong hand.
After conveying coverage, the big will move up to a pre-determined spot on the court (depending on offensive personnel) but usually it’s a step or two below where the actual screen is being set. From there, it’s an athletic back peddle while simultaneously staying in front of both the ball-handler and the roller. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game until the on-ball defender recovers. Like an outfielder in baseball, the big’s first steps should be always backwards.
The early, loud and continuous on-court call by the big for the above two plays is “weak, weak, weak!” and “strong, strong, strong!” as emphatically as humanly possible. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say some of you Doom Squaders would make for great defensive bigs judging by your early, loud and continuous assault on our poor Pistons on the message board.
Maybe the most analytical-friendly part of the drop is that it practically concedes the mid-range shot, which, by Casey’s standards, is perfectly fine:
On-ball defender’s role in drop coverage
As with all on-ball duties, the defender’s primary job is to, well, defend the ball. Job two is wait for the coverage call and react accordingly.
Most weak or strong drop coverages require the on-ball defender to go over the screen. This is done by immediately crowding and smothering the ball-handler while sending him to the designated direction. Below, watch how Fred VanVleet gets into the chest of Dennis Schroder:
It doesn’t get better than that. As Schroder snakes, he drives right in the waiting arms of Jonas Valancuinus while VanVleet late-switches onto one of those pesky Plumlee brothers. It’s extremely important VanVleet busts his ass to take away the drop-off pass. It could’ve ended up like this:
Not only is the late-switch in play, but usually, the late-contest by the on-ball defender is rather frequent. Below, Kent Bazemore goes over the screen, recovers and blocks the Reggie Jackson floater:
It’s imperative that the on-ball defender doesn’t die on the screen as the big is counting on him to recover and contest the shot.
One of the biggest problems in Casey’s drop coverage is when the on-ball defender gets beat to the shaded side. Below, VanVleet prepares to force Damian Lillard to the right while Jakob Poeltl prepares his drop help on the right side. Problem is, Lillard goes left and there is no one waiting for him:
The on-ball defender must force the ball to the proper side. No one but Laz is happy with that defense.
Inevitably, there are times in which the drop coverage will require a switch. If it’s a small-small switch, there is hope. If it’s a big-small switch, smart teams pass the ball out and boomerang it back to the perceived mismatch:
The boomerang allows for the ball-handler to gather himself with a new dribble. Usually, a good look for the offense is on the horizon. Even if it’s a small-small switch like below, the boomerang ploy gives the unguided missile Russell Westbrook a fresh set of downs:
When the big commits too high and allows the roller to stroll past him, it’s almost a certain bucket for the offense:
Ibaka has no choice but to try and help, too late. Get your depth, bigs.
What tweaks Casey makes to his Detroit pick-and-roll defense is anyone’s guess but expect a healthy dose of drop coverage. If you’ve made it this far without skimming on the subject of “possible Pistons’ PNR defense”, I question your life’s priorities.
Part 3 soon, probably.