When I decided to conduct this study on the Boston Celtics' pick and roll defense, I knew there would be some surprises. Either a player would end up falling short of expectations or maybe one would surpass them. It turns out that both happened, at least according to the statistics.
After 11 games in February, the stats imply that Brandon Bass and Jerryd Bayless is the best pick and roll defending duo on the Celtics. This is unexpected because Bayless has never been thought of as a defensive player, yet the team performs extremely well whenever he is the man screened on a pick and roll.
Bass, as it turns out, has been far and away the best big man at defending at the pick and roll. The statistics make that clear, but film study analysis does too. His foot speed and ability to bother shots is like no other player on the roster -- it's no wonder that Danny Ainge was unwilling to trade him for pennies on the dollar at the trade deadline.
This part of the series will analyze Boston's performance defending the pick and roll when specific duos are involved in the play.
The Thin Ice: Celtics Pick And Roll Series Part 2
In the second part of the Boston Celtics pick and roll defense series, their prominent technique of "ice" is analyzed using a combination of film study and advanced statistics.
This study will be similar to the past three parts of the series, but it will place a greater emphasis on statistics. With that said, it is important to have a basic understanding of what "P4" and "PPP" are. If you have read the "Method" from first article, you can skip this section.
PPP is short for "points per possession." In this case, it's being used to detail how many points the entire Boston defense allows per possession (when a specific player or pairing of players is involved in the pick and roll) if a shot or free throw is attempted.
The last part is important, since PPP only accounts for attempted shots and free throws. This leaves out one important detail: What if the defense stopped a shot attempt from ever occurring and forces a pass or turnover?
This is what is labeled as "reset," which gives credit to the defense for preventing a shot attempt. That is how P4 was born, or "Points Per Pick and Roll Possession." This statistic credits a defender with positive plays (resets, turnovers), just as much as it does for negatives (shots allowed).
The average PPP is close to 1.03, but the average P4 is unknown. I haven't seen a statistic like that anywhere else, so it's hard to compare what the Celtics P4 in February was to anything else.
Even though only two players are being featured when discussing defensive pairings, it actually takes five players on the same page to properly defend a play, which is why it's so hard to put a number on defensive efficiency. But the first two players involved in a pick and roll do have the greatest impact on the play's result, which is the focus here.
If you'd like some more background information on this series and how the pick and roll is defended, I strongly recommend reading, or at least skimming, each of the first three parts of the series.
Embrace "B & B"
In February, the Boston Celtics performed at their best when Brandon Bass and Jerryd Bayless were the two players directly involved in the pick and roll. The team allowed only 0.72 PPP and 0.48 P4 in 27 total possessions. These are incredible numbers, especially because opponents also shot only 33.3 percent from the field.
No other pairing was even close in either PPP or P4. For that matter, both Bass and Bayless were individually involved in each of the top 4 pairs when ranked by P4.
Here's a compilation of plays in which Bass and Bayless were both defending the pick and roll:
After reviewing the tape, it becomes obvious that this combination has been so tremendous because of two important attributes, communication and hustle. Brandon Bass is the best player on the Celtics at calling out "ice" on the pick and roll, and this has allowed screened guards ample time to adjust their bodies and properly defend.
Bass is also one of the hardest working players on the team. If he gets beat, which is rare, he does a great job of motoring over to his correct positioning. Bass isn't nearly as talented as Kevin Garnett, but he is doing what he can to fill that void.
Bayless has a reputation for lazy and clueless defense, but he consistently fought through screens in February, showing heart and determination. This hustle allows the bigs to rotate back onto their man (the screener), but more importantly, it lessens the pressure on the defense as a whole. He also displays awareness in the sense that he was able to feel the screen and pick the right angle to fight over it.
The C's forced a respectable 6 resets in 27 total possessions. And in 18 attempted shots, only 5 were layups or dunks. In addition to the 33.3 field goal percentage, it's clear that opponents weren't getting the types of shots they wanted against this unit. With Avery Bradley out injured, it will be key that this production continues for the Celtics' remaining part of the schedule.
Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey are best friends off the court, but the team hasn't performed very well when the rookie duo is put into the pick and roll, allowing 1.06 P4 and 1.12 PPP in 18 total possessions this past month. Their P4 is 0.12 points more than the next worst combination.
Olynyk and Pressey both hustle hard, but they just aren't very good yet. Olynyk's voice is rarely audible, which is a sign that he's not projecting his voice loudly enough for his teammates to hear him. This is unlike players like Bass and Sullinger, who shout, and can be heard yelling "ice."
Olynyk is a 7-footer, but his feet move like they're in quicksand when he's caught back-pedaling. This was a weakness in college, and though he has improved in the NBA, it's still a major problem.
Pressey on the other hand is really at a disadvantage with his height. At "5-foot-11," with a short wingspan, the rookie guard will never be an elite defender. He does play with energy, but that isn't enough in a league with so many physically talented athletes. It's a shame because does everything he can to fight through screens thrown by the Goliaths of the NBA.
Rondo the Leader
Everyone has said it for years: As Rajon Rondo goes, so go the Celtics. But does that hold true when it comes to Boston's pick and roll defense? Rondo was involved in 115 such plays and performed at his best when paired with Brandon Bass for 40 possessions. The combo had a 0.63 P4 and 1.04 PPP, while allowing opponents to shoot only 43.4 percent.
Rondo has elite awareness and he keeps his head on a swivel, which helps him get into better positioning to side step a screen. He also communicates by calling things out for his teammates.
It's also easy to take his physical gifts for granted. One year after tearing his ACL, Rondo understandably doesn't have all of his explosiveness back yet, but he's still one of the most athletic players on the team. His gigantic wingspan combined with his strong upper body makes him a difficult player for big men to successfully screen out of a play.
Yet, statistically, the team struggled when Rondo was paired with any other big man. In fact, one of the team's worst combos is with Jared Sullinger and Rondo. On 32 possessions, the team allowed 0.94 P4 and 1.15 PPP. Both of these numbers are poor, and after close inspection, it could be due to the amount of high percentage shots opponents are getting versus them.
Out of 26 shot attempts, 9 were layups or dunks, which is not a healthy amount. This is quite a disappointment, since this is the combination I expected more out of before beginning this study.
After reviewing the film, it's hard to put any "blame" on Rondo. He beats screens, properly angles his body, gets back to his man, vocalizes the screen, and does a great job of using his long wingspan -- you could make the argument that he's the most skilled pick and roll defender on the team.
But the stats don't look good, especially with the amount of layups or dunks being attempted when he's involved in the play. Perhaps, it's by chance, or maybe the type of talent running plays against him. But in any case, Sullinger's immobility is currently a problem, which speaks to the need for a true rim-protecting center like Larry Sanders or Omer Asik.
In the video above, Sullinger often "drops" from his zone a bit too early, which gives the ball-handler more room to get a full head of steam for a drive. This is why penetration is occurring, which leads to layups, dunks, fouls, or open perimeter shooters. One play in particular sticks out, which is embedded to the right.
Sullinger does a great job of containing the drive, but he falls for a simple pump fake by Goron Dragic. Since Rondo was in position to contest a pull-up attempt, Sullinger should've continued retreating back to the rim, which could've prevented the dunk. Dragic is one of the best point guards in the NBA, but there was nothing spectacular about this play, and it speaks to Sullinger's inexperience defending the pick and roll.
The next few parts of the series will take a look a closer look at how individual players perform at defending the pick and roll.