Assessing the Spurs’ pick-and-roll defense


Jun 06, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket as San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan (21) defends during the first half in game six of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE

The San Antonio Spurs finished with the 10th most efficient defense, allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions, which tied Oklahoma City. You would think that the Spurs’ lack of athleticism would be their downfall, and it still is — to an extent, but they managed to put up surprisingly solid defensive numbers.

They mitigated their lack of turnovers by preventing fouls and grabbing the highest percentage of defensive rebounds in the league. Still their lack of interior defense, though Matt Bonner allowed a pristine 0.67 points per possession in the post, and athleticism hampered their ability to defend a team of Oklahoma City’s caliber.

Perhaps their most glaring weakness was in their pick-and-roll defense, an attack that is extensively used in the NBA. It’s a simple mode of attack. Yet it remains a difficult possession type to defend because of the multiple options that result from the initial point of attack. There are lot of things that can go wrong for the opposing defense. For the Spurs, that happened more often than not.

San Antonio allowed the ball handler in pick-and-rolls to score a league high 0.88 PPP. The ball handler finished with points 42% of the time. What made this particularly damaging, besides the efficiency, is that the Spurs were pressed into defending pick-and-rolls early and often because A) they struggled to defend screens and B) the majority of offenses revolve around pick-and-rolls.

If all else fails, then teams usually resort to their second and third options (generally isolations at the end of the shot clock). San Antonio, though, made it very easy to get away with that kind of attack. Any team with an adept ball handler can take advantage of their defense.

The only Spurs big man who defended the pick-and-roll well was, unsurprisingly, Tim Duncan, who finished as the 39th best defender in the league. With Duncan on the floor the Spurs defended at a better rate than the Celtics. Without Duncan the Spurs defended at a level akin to the Toronto Raptors. Big difference.

So, with the growing reliance on screens, it’s simply not possible to achieve a modicum of defensive success without being able to defend it — at least at an average level. A mobile power forward who can defend screens and bang in on the interior is imperative.

Here are some potential solutions to San Antonio’s defense. (Note: The Spurs still have their full midlevel exception, worth $5 million.)


Ersan Ilyasova (unrestricted) — Unless the Spurs orchestrate a sign-and-trade, they do not have the resources to pry away Ilyasova away from Milwaukee, who offered him a five-year, $40 million contract. In a limited sample size Ilyasova stymied the pick-and-roll effectively.

Ryan Anderson (restricted) — He’s out of the Spurs price range and, even if he wasn’t, Orlando will match any offer. Anderson would be an ideal fit because he can shoot from the perimeter (38.4% career 3-point shooter) and he finished as the 58th best pick-and-roll defender in the league.

Kris Humphries (unrestricted) — Also out of San Antonio’s price range. Humphries grabbed 18.3% of Brooklyn’s rebounds when he was on the floor in addition to creating a turnover 11.5% of the time in pick-and-rolls.

Andrei Kirilenko (unrestricted) — Kirilenko has until July 15 to decide whether he wants to return to the NBA. Kirilenko is a long, athletic wing that can shift over to the 4 and still guard 3’s on the perimeter. Excels at blocking shots.

Greg Stiemsma (restricted) — Stiemsma is actually in San Antonio’s price range and he’s taller than 6’8″. Boston’s elite defense was slightly better with him on the floor.

Ian Mahinmi (unrestricted) — Former Spur who will come relatively cheap, as the mini midlevel exception represents a ceiling for his value. He’s athletic enough to defend the pick-and-roll and long enough to guard centers. The only caveat: Mahimni has a tendency to foul often. He averaged 6.7 fouls per 36 minutes. That’s something that needs to be tamed for him to succeed in one of the most stingy defenses in the league.

Ryan Hollins (unrestricted) — Hollins doesn’t have any actual basketball skills but he’s tall and athletic and, potentially, an above-average pick-and-roll defender. He won’t command much money either, eliminating any risk.

So what do you think Spurs fans? Who should the Spurs acquire in free agency and is their pick-and-roll defense a legitimate worry?