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Defensive Strategies in the NBA are Switching

Last week, the Chicago Bulls parted ways with coach Tom Thibodeau in a move that was fueled more by a clashing of personalities than a lack of results on the court. Before taking over as the Bulls head coach in 2010, Thibodeau was a long time assistant who developed a reputation for being one of the more creative defensive minds in basketball.

Thibodeau revolutionized the way NBA teams play defense and has been mimicked across the NBA. But while Thibodeau’s dismissal from Chicago certainly marks the end of an era for the Bulls, I believe it symbolizes a coming change in NBA defensive strategy.

Thibodeau’s defensive system is based on simple principles that line up very nicely with the wave of basketball analytics that followed it. The system is designed to stymie the pick and roll, the pet play of just about every NBA team. The rules are simple: the guard defending the ball handler is supposed to jump out over the pick and force the ball handler away from the middle of the court.  The big man defending the screener drops back in an effort to wall off the paint and prevent the ball handler from getting into the lane. The big man also must position himself so that he can bump and slow down the screen setter as he rolls to the rim. The idea is to run the ball handler off the three point line while also refusing to allow serious penetration, essentially begging guys to launch mid range jumpers off the dribble.

March 23, 2015 - Chicago, IL, USA - Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson (22) strips the ball from Charlotte Hornets guard Mo Williams (7) during the first half on Monday, March 23, 2015, at the United Center in Chicago

The Bulls bring a big man up to hedge screens rather than switching.

The system, successful and popular as it is, is not without flaws. It requires teams to play like a complicated machine with many moving parts, each one pivotal to the success of the possession. When one cog in the machine make a mistake, sophisticated offenses are able to find open shooters around the perimeter and cutters moving towards the hoop.

Imagine for a moment a Jeff Teague-Al Horford pick and roll. When Teague comes off the screen, he wastes no time dancing around in no man’s land 17 feet from the hoop. Instead, he puts his head down and attacks the basket in an attempt to beat the opposing big man to a spot in the paint. The principles of Thibodeau’s system state that a third defender stationed along the baseline should stray just a tad bit away from his man in an effort to slow the driving Teague. Teague, a player who has taken incredible strides as a decision maker in the pick and roll, anticipates the help coming from the defender on the baseline and fires a pass to a shooter in the corner.

Make no mistake: this is a very difficult sequence to pull off. It requires having a point guard with the speed to bend a defense and the intelligence to anticipate that bend before it actually happens. It requires having a versatile big man setting the screen, capable of rolling hard to the rim, popping out for a jumper, or in the case of Horford, both. And it requires having players on the perimeter capable of making shots off just a sliver of daylight.

NBA: MAR 23 Nets at Mavericks

Jason Kidd started implementing switching screens with longer defenders rather than traditional bigs.

But the Hawks, and the unstoppable force that is the Golden State offense, have players with the physical skills and the basketball IQ to exploit the minor shortcomings in the system that has been adopted across the association. And in this copycat league, there certainly will be more teams going forward who look to recreate the Hawks and Warriors blueprint of smart ball movement and deadly shooting. Easier said than done of course, but the beginning of an offensive trend nonetheless.

As a change in offensive strategy begins to creep across the league, so too does a defensive strategy that is designed to stop it.

The genesis of this new system began accidentally in Brooklyn last season. When Brook Lopez went down with a foot injury, the Nets morphed into a strange position-less group of players who cobbled together the 12th best defense in the NBA despite having almost no players regarded as very good defenders on the team. What Brooklyn did have was seven rotation players who ranged in size from 6’5″ to 6’9″, including 6’7″ guard Shaun Livingston, a key cog in Brooklyn’s defensive success.

What Brooklyn was able to do last season was mitigate the effect of having no bonafide rim protector by switching on pick and rolls around the perimeter. Remember the Thibodeau system, and how it relied on a big man to coral the ball handler while also keeping tabs on the rolling big man? Brooklyn, lacking anyone capable of performing such a task, loaded the floor with guys who could conceivably guard any position for a short stretch of time. Whereas the Thibodeau system conceded space to the dribbler between the three point line and the paint, Brooklyn’s aggressive switching scheme never allowed the ball handler to get any momentum freely moving towards the basket.

Anthony Gruppuso // USA Today

Long defenders like the Bucks have make switching screens easier. Anthony Gruppuso // USA Today

When Jason Kidd and lead defensive assistant Sean Sweeney left Brooklyn for Milwaukee last summer, they brought with them the same principles that propped Brooklyn up to an above average defense despite having a roster full of AARP members. In Milwaukee, Kidd again found himself with a roster with ample wing depth and again deployed the aggressive switching scheme that he had used in Brooklyn. The Bucks promptly went from having the league’s second worst defensive efficiency to the league’s second best.

The only team to post a lower defensive efficiency this season was the Golden State Warriors. Golden State was blessed with the roster flexibility to truly utilize both defensive systems. In lineups featuring Andrew Bogut, the Warriors had a true center capable of executing the Thibs-style defense. But when Bogut left the floor, the Warriors, current employers of the incredibly versatile Shaun Livingston, were able to put a lineup on the floor capable of switching everything, effectively smothering and strangling the entire NBA.

NBA: FEB 04 Mavericks at Warriors

Look for more and more players like Draymond Green becoming more and more important on defense.

Wing depth will become the new hot commodity in basketball as more and more teams attempt to replicate the defensive success of Milwaukee and Golden State. Guys like Khris Middleton, Draymond Green and other “Three and D” guys are going to fetch much higher prices on the free agent market than their traditional box score numbers would suggest.

But don’t get too comfortable sports fans. Because as soon as one trend sweeps across the league, some smart young coach will devise a new way to stop it. Memphis may seem like the last of it’s kind in terms of roster construction, but the next swing of the trend pendulum will likely move in the direction of punishing post play. The cycle strategic cycle will spin on forever.

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