Film Room: Magic Built to Defend Pick-and-Roll

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO – The Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and 76ers were, arguably, the five best teams in the NBA last year. You might be wondering, why? What made these teams so good?

A cursory analysis gives us the obvious reason. Some of the best players in the world such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid were/are on these teams.

An easy evaluation, then, right?

Not so fast.

There is a more hidden, less palpable basis for why four of these teams played in the conference finals and the other had one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history.

When diving into the stats – and I mean really diving in and examining every angle, every category, every nook and cranny – there is one particular commonality shared between these five teams.

Here’s a hint: it has a lot to do with how the Magic are building their team.

Golden State, Houston, Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia all ranked in the top eight in the NBA in 2017-18 in defending the pick-and-roll when a switch occurred. In fact, the Rockets and Warriors – the teams with the best regular season records in the West – forced the most missed shots in the league when a guard on the opposing team attempted a shot against one of their bigs out of the pick-and-roll.

Having Clint Capela, arguably the best switch pick-and-roll center in the NBA, was instrumental for the Rockets during their playoff run. Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, meanwhile, had a similar effect on the Warriors. The Celtics and Sixers – Al Horford and Marcus Morris specifically for Boston and Embiid, Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes for Philly – were also successful when their bigs switched onto playmaking shot creators or isolation specialists.

A goal for every team on offense is to find mismatches in one-on-one situations. So often in the NBA, we see a team’s star perimeter player call over a teammate to come and set a screen at the top of the floor in hopes of creating a favorable switch. When that happens, it doesn’t take long for a premier scorer or playmaker to drive past a slow, methodical defender.

However, the fewer mismatch opportunities available, the harder it is for teams to flourish out of the pick-and-roll or in isolation scenarios.

Is it possible – despite their youth and inexperience – for the Magic to jump into the top 10 in this category as early as next season? They certainly have the foundation to be successful at this particular facet of the game. A frontcourt featuring Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon is as good a defensive trio as there is throughout the league.

Here’s a look at a few defensive plays involving these three, accentuating how effective they are at switching and/or defending in space.

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