Michael Jordan isolated in the middle of court, teammates knowing they should probably just get out of the way. Kobe in an extended post-up, pivoting into a fadeaway jump shot. LeBron going one-on-one, much like Jordan. These moments, the “tell the tale to your grandchildren” moments, have a narrative with a constant theme: the story is of a singular hero. With Steph Curry, that narrative changes. A second character is introduced: Draymond Green. Yes, Steph Curry runs isolations like Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron but when Steve Kerr needs a late-game bucket, the play is often a Curry-Green pick and roll. When teams prepare for the Warriors, they plan for the pick and roll. It’s their signature. It’s the most deadly play in basketball. It’s their version of the Jordan isolation.
The Warriors have five key differentiators: Curry, three point shooting, switch everything defense, the “death” small-ball lineup and the Curry-Draymond pick and roll. The pick and roll is the checkmate within the checkmate. It is so powerful that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin might get traded this off-season in part because the two are incompatible with defending this play. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, data provided by SportVU reveals that the Warriors score 1.26 points per possession when that possession involves a Curry-Draymond pick and roll. For context, the Warriors average 1.12 points per normal possession. The play is the equivalent of an NBA cheat code. So, I became curious, how could you stop it?
Over a decade ago, Dean Oliver wrote a book titled Basketball on Paper. The book became the bible of basketball analytics. In preparing for writing this piece, I struggled putting together an intuitive way to convey my ideas for how teams could stop the Curry-Draymond pick and roll. So, I’m going to experiment with a literal interpretation of Oliver’s book title and something we all used in youth basketball and/or when we got bored in class: paper drawings, complete with Xs and Os, of possible ways teams can defend this play. If you are not an NBA nerd, stay with me, this play cuts to the core of what make the Warriors special. The devil is always in the details. Please excuse me if my drawings have you like Wizards coach Randy Whitman in the Vine below, I’ll try to keep things as neat as possible.
I have divided the ways to play the Curry-Draymond pick and roll into three categories.
- Theories Proven Wrong
- For This, You Need The Guys
- My Crazy Ideas
Before getting into the rotations of each play, below is an illustration of the base situation we will be starting with for each of these plays. Steph and Draymond near the three point line, with Klay, Harrison Barnes, and Iguodala spaced out around the three point line. Curry has the ball.
Tier 1: Theories Proven Wrong
Go Under the Screen
In this set, Curry’s defender goes under Draymond’s screen. This technique has a clear flaw, the defense gives up a three to the point guard.
While this may work against can’t shoot point guards like Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio, it is death against the greatest shooter of all-time. Next!
Bear with me, this one is a bit more complicated. Popularized by Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls, ICE denies the offense from using the screen and instead forces the ball handler the other direction. ICE gives up a long two point shot from the ball handler.
Typically, ICE is a highly efficient defense, because it forces the offense into the inefficient long two point jumper. Except, with Curry any jumper is still a high efficiency shot, and if he can get Draymond the ball on the play, the defense is essentially wrecked. On to the next one!
You will recognize this one. The Cavs used this throughout last year’s NBA Finals, and the Clippers have used this against the Warriors for years. The “blitz” is Curry’s defender and Draymond’s defender double-teaming Steph out of the pick and roll.
Problem: once Steph gets the ball back to Draymond, the Warriors have that famous half-court four on three you have likely heard about. Opponents used to defend this four on three by leaving Iguodala wide open for a three, and having his defender run at Draymond. Basically, throwing their hands up and saying “we concede the Iggy three”. Except, Andre is shooting 36% from this year which makes that strategy unsustainable. You can’t leave Klay because he is quietly a top ten shooter in the history of the sport, and HB is a 36% free throw shooter. We need to get more creative. Next.
Tier 2: For This, You Need the Guys
This scheme switches Draymond’s defender onto Curry, and Curry’s defender then defends Draymond. You might recognize this from your local gym, where everyone “switches” because they are too lazy to get through the screen. The idea behind the switch is that the guard does not get open space, because he is simply being passed off from one defender to another. The Warriors defense is especially good at this.
Only the highest caliber of mobile big men can execute this successfully. The list: Anthony Davis, Clint Capella, Tristan Thompson, and Serge Ibaka. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan can kind of do this too, as long as there is a teammate somewhat close. In the future, young guys including Aaron Gordon, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl Anthony Towns should be able to do this as well. One thing the big man switching onto Curry can’t do is begin backpedaling. That enables Curry’s signature step-back three. Yet, even with these mobile guys, this scheme is not playable for a whole game. Eventually, Curry will figure out the big guarding him.
What might work for a whole game, is if the Cavs play LeBron at power forward, have him defend Draymond, and then have him switch on Steph in pick and rolls. That interplay could be an entire piece in itself, but it is limited by three things: the Cavs have four big men who deserve minutes (Mozgov, Thompson, Love, and Frye), LeBron hates playing power forward (because it is more physically taxing), and the Warriors could counter this by screening LeBron beforehand so someone else switches onto Draymond before the Curry-Draymond pick and roll. With all that said, Cleveland should try this.
[Editor’s note: This is why I think the Spurs will eventually put Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard on Curry/Green in crunch time. -DL]
Guard Goes Over & Big Shows Hard
The Spurs used this quite effectively in their win over the Warriors this season. The idea: Curry’s defender follows Curry as if they’re lining up “single file” and Draymond’s defender jumps out in front of Curry. Once Curry’s defender recovers, Draymond’s defender goes back to guarding Draymond.
This scheme, much like the previous one, requires an exceptionally athletic big man. Yet, since this requires less time guarding Curry, the big does need an Anthony Davis level of mobility. This scheme fits DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge quite well. An additional complication is in the big man’s decision of when to leave Curry and return to guarding Draymond. Leave too early and Curry has room to shoot before his defender recovers. Leave too late and Draymond’s open. This requires Draymond’s defender playing a fast-paced game of mental geometry.
Tier 3: My Crazy Ideas
Send Three Defenders
In terms of classic pick and roll defense, this scheme is pretty radical, but we are dealing with the best play in basketball here! Desperate times call for desperate measures! Here is the idea. Curry’s defender goes over the screen and Draymond’s defender switches on to Curry, creating a double-team on Curry. Theoretically, this stops Steph. Simultaneously, the weak-side defender (Klay’s defender in this case), switches onto Draymond to stop the Warriors signature half court four on three before it begins. After that, everyone on defense scrambles!
There are a couple of downsides here. This defense requires real practice time to implement and thus can only really be done in the playoffs when teams have that sort of preparation time. Additionally, the defender switching onto Draymond MUST not allow Draymond to get any momentum towards the basket. Remember, the defender who began the play guarding HB is now defending Klay AND HB. With all that said, I think it is worth a shot!
ICE returns! This is my other radical idea. Curry’s defender performs classic ICE defense, and the closest wing defender (Klay’s defender in this illustration) rotates over to double team Curry. Much like the last scheme, this leaves one defender guarding Klay and HB but it does stop Curry and Draymond.
This is a bit less practical than my previous scheme, but it could work if Curry was super hot and the defense was willing told devote all resources to stopping him.
Pick and roll partnerships can be a fickle thing. They are as much an art as they are a science. Remember when we all thought the LeBron-Love pick and roll was going to conquer the world in Cleveland? The Steph-Draymond pick and roll is a genuinely special play.
No matter which scheme(s) teams use against the Warriors, they must fully commit. Go halfway against the Warriors, and you die. This is basketball on paper, and the paper opponents commit to will likely decide the NBA Playoffs.