Two on the Ball (HV Weekly: 9/14/2020)

Thinking about who, what, when, where, and why a defense should send help.

Welcome back to the Hoop Vision Weekly!

It was a long week of people arguing about how good or bad Carleton is relative to NCAA teams in our YouTube comment section. The video — now our second most-viewed on the channel — is quickly approaching the Baylor no-middle breakdown for the top spot.

But today’s newsletter is again NBA playoffs themed. Last week, we focused on the Raptors and Celtics. Now we switch over to the Western Conference.

In today’s edition:

  • A new video on the Lakers’ defensive gameplan against the Rockets

  • Who/Where/When to put two defenders on the ball

  • More comparisons between NBA and college basketball


James Harden Adjustments

It’s not exactly breaking news, but the Houston Rockets are very unique. First and foremost, their primary creator is almost impossible to guard one-on-one. Lu Dort actually had some success guarding Harden, but the overall body of work — and the different gameplans experimented with by opponents — speaks for itself.

In the past, we’ve seen the Bucks and Jazz guard Harden by nearly playing behind him and the Warriors double him.

After losing game one, the Lakers went to the double-team strategy — putting two players on the ball and then scrambling around in recovery. The nine-minute voiceover video below walks through those adjustments made by Frank Vogel.

Video Topics Include:

  • Notable defensive schemes used against Harden by past opponents

  • Rockets ball movement to convert advantages

  • Lakers defense in game #1… traditional help with the low man

  • Lakers defense after game #1… run-and-jump double teams

  • Defensive executions… Multiple efforts and close-outs

  • Harden driving away from the double

  • Late clock doubles


Who/Where/When to put two on the ball

The James Harden Experience provides some interesting context to then think more generally about defensive philosophy as a whole. Because of Harden’s skill set, the Lakers-Rockets series became a giant experiment in putting two players on the ball — aka double-teaming.

The NBA is historically the league with the biggest skew towards the on-ball end of the on-ball/off-ball spectrum. In other words, NBA players with the ball look to score rather than set up a teammate — at least relative to lower levels of basketball.

Part of that is likely due to NBA defensive coverages. In ball screens, the average NBA defense is significantly more passive than the average NCAA defense. Drop coverage, for example, leads to more shots by the ball handler.

But this year’s playoffs have reversed that narrative. Not only have we seen aggressive traps, but we’ve even seen junk and zone defenses as well.

It’s another example of defenses not necessarily prioritizing taking away the three. And it’s an interesting thought experiment into who/where/when a team should put two defenders on the ball.

Who?

The conventional wisdom behind trapping or doubling is to pick either the best or worst offensive player. For the best player, the goal of the trap is to get the ball out of their hands. For the worst player, the goal is to generate a turnover by creating a potential panic.

A defense also must choose the offensive player which they are going to temporarily leave. Sometimes a specific player is chosen to double off of, or sometimes it’s more location-based.

Ideally, the defense would prefer to double off a poor offensive player — like a non-shooter — but it’s not always as important as you might think. The three players not directly involved in the double team are going to “zone-up” anyways. So even when the Lakers (for example) didn’t directly double off of Russell Westbrook, they were still able to indirectly use his lack of shooting gravity to their advantage.

An important part of executing a trap is having off-ball defensive reactions that are proportional to the shooting abilities of the offensive players.

Where?

Even though the Lakers weren’t aggressively trapping in game one, they were still putting two players on the ball after Harden drives — just in the form of traditional help defense.

One thing that stood out to me in game one was the added level of difficulty for NBA help defenses. With an NCAA team like Texas Tech, the help comes earlier — meeting the handler outside the paint.

First of all, early help is more difficult to get away with in the NBA simply because of increased shooting ability. But the defensive three seconds rule adds a whole extra element. College defenders can camp in the paint and wait to pounce on the drive, but NBA defenders have to dance in and out of the paint. Watch JaVale McGee here.

So instead, the Lakers decided to just expedite the inevitable and trap Harden on the perimeter.

That decision changes the location, but the overall responsibilities are still very similar. The off-ball defenders zone-up, the on-ball defenders pressure, and then there’s an urgent scramble to get back to even.

When?

On one hand, trapping the ball too early in a possession can sometimes be counterproductive. There were a few times in the Rockets series where the Lakers trapped Harden early, only to have him get the ball right back later in the play.

On the other hand, the logic behind trapping late isn’t foolproof either. Offensive efficiency is already at its lowest in late clock situations — a defense wants players to take contested isolation shots. So trapping can be an unnecessary risk in a situation that is already rigged in the defense’s favor.

The Lakers had success by varying the timing of their traps.

As much as it’s important for a defense to have base principles and structure, randomness is also a very valuable defensive element. For the Lakers, Rajon Rondo was the driving force behind their ability to effectively randomize.

Rondo played the role as the primary communicator on the floor. The play below isn’t a double-team, but it’s a great example of Rondo’s impact.

Rondo is initially guarding the weakside corner. So by rule, he would be the rim protector on Harden’s drive. Instead of strictly adhering to the scheme, Rondo communicates through his problems — telling Anthony Davis to take his spot as the rim protector instead.

Now watch Rondo in game number two with the Lakers doubling on the perimeter.

Instead of aggressively running at Harden, Rondo is cerebral with his trap — communicating and pointing with his weakside teammates the whole time.

To be fair, Rondo’s “randomness” can sometimes hurt the team. But his communication — combined with the athleticism and instincts of the teammates (LeBron/AD) backing him up — makes it work for the Lakers.


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