After a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, the Raptors reinvented their defensive principles to great success.
The Toronto Raptors overhauled their roster this past offseason in an attempt to balance their productivity on both ends of the court. More specifically, after a sweep in the playoffs at the hands of John Wall, Marcin Gortat and the shooters of the Wizards that surrounded them. It was a surgical dissection that displayed the ineffectiveness of the Raptors’ pick and roll defense.
Prior to the 2015-16, the Raptors believed in almost “hedging” pick and rolls as their primary defensive scheme. For the uninitiated, it’s a schematic choice to defend pick and rolls which forces the screen-setter's defender to come out and meet the ball-handler using the screen, impede the ball-handler’s progress and then recover back to his original assignment, all the while the three other defenders are indirectly covering for him.
All that being said, those are examples of Patrick Patterson hedging pick and rolls. Patterson has elite lateral quickness for a big man, is incredibly smart and always is one step ahead as a defender. He is one of the most consistent hedging big men in the league and is not representative of the rest of the roster, more specifically, is not representative of the Raptors’ franchise centre, Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas has far more difficulty hedging because he is a true seven-footer who has bulked up immensely since being drafted. Hedging is not ideal for a man of his size.
The result was Valanciunas being forced out of his comfort zone and thrust onto the perimeter where he is blown by, penetration is sacrificed and open looks to 50% corner-three point shooters are given.
The lack of effective pick and roll defense by the Raptors landed them 25th in defensive efficiency. Looking deeper, the Raptors ineffective pick and roll coverages allowed the opposing team to get into the middle of the floor after a side pick and roll on 67.6% of qualifying pick and rolls.1 This ranked as the highest percentage amongst the league by a wide margin (8% more than 2nd place) while the five teams that registered the lowest percentage in this category were all above average defensive teams.
The strategy those five teams (Chicago, Portland, Boston, Utah & Golden State) used in the 2014-15 season to disallow teams from entering the middle of the floor after a side pick and roll was to ICE. The Raptors followed suit this season after hiring Tom Thibodeau coaching disciple, Andy Greer. This schematic decision has vaulted Toronto into a fringe top-ten defense
The main principle of ICE defense is to not allow the middle of the floor and to keep all pick and rolls on the side in which they started. The theory is that once a pick and roll is allowed to get into the middle of the floor, and inherently the paint, more efficient opportunities will be presented. This is backed up statistically as well. Pick and rolls that started on the side of the floor and finished in the middle scored 3 more points per 100 possessions than the alternative.1
To disallow pick and roll ball-handlers from entering the middle of the floor during a side pick and roll, the Raptors’ guards will force the ball-handler away from the direction of the screen and towards the sideline, as well as down towards the baseline and the secondary defender who protects the paint.
Most teams are accustomed to this defensive treatment on side pick and rolls and to combat this, they will generally “flip” their screener so the ball-handler will gain some separation, even if it isn’t as great of separation when compared to getting into the middle of the floor.
Even when the screen is “flipped” on the Raptors’ guards, keeping the ball-handler out of the paint and forcing them to help defenders remains a priority, one which is generally upheld.
The Raptors have reaped the rewards of their hard work and fundamental change as they now rank in the top five in fewest points per possession allowed to pick and roll ball handlers. 2
The change took flexibility from a head coach who is often labeled as “stubborn” and while there might be small-scale instances of this being admittedly true, the large scale implications this change had on the franchise was altered by the willingness to adapt by Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors are better off because of it.
1 According to John Schumann’s “The Value of ICE”
2 Stats per NBA.com: accurate as of March 15th 2016