Before James Harden was the greatest isolation scorer of his generation, he was a far more traditional pick-and-roll ball-handler. His early Houston Rockets teams lived off of the NBA's simplest play-call: Give Harden a big man to screen, surround them with shooters and watch him work. The 2016 hiring of Mike D'Antoni, on paper, seemed to be an endorsement of this model. D'Antoni's Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns teams created the blueprint for a modern spread pick-and-roll offense.
But as D'Antoni's tenure wore on, Houston leaned on its bread-and-butter less and less. Eventually, the play represented mere crumbs in the grand scheme of the Rockets' offense. By this season, their ball-handlers were finishing the fewest plays in the NBA through the pick-and-roll.
|Season||Percentage of plays used by pick-and-roll ball-handler||NBA Rank|
There were a number of good reasons for this. Chris Paul's 2018-19 injuries forced Harden into isolation mode, and he was so good at it that the Rockets never saw a compelling reason to reorient their scheme. Replacing Paul with Russell Westbrook this season largely took it off the table. The spread pick-and-roll is a numbers game. The fewer shooters on the floor, the more manpower defenses can devote to packing the paint, taking away not only the roll, but the ball-handlers' chance at finishing. Clint Capela was a non-shooter in the roll spot. Westbrook was a non-shooter in support. Any pick-and-roll Harden ran with Westbrook off the ball involved Westbrook's man sagging off him to help at the basket. Even for Harden, 3-on-2 is bad math.
But his singular greatness created an opportunity to balance the numbers. Teams grew so fearful of Harden that, for a stretch in November and December, they began doubling him the moment he crossed halfcourt. Knowing that Westbrook was not a shooting threat, the man guarding him was usually assigned as the doubler on Harden. Suddenly, two of the opponent's five defenders were out of the play. Even with a center on the floor, Westbrook could attack the basket expecting to meet a reasonable amount of resistance. He didn't run pick-and-roll in this setting because he didn't need to. There was nobody to screen. Harden delivered him the ball and he raced to the basket immediately.
During this stretch, the previously slumping Westbrook played some of his best games of the early season. His scoring rose from 21.6 points in his first 12 games as a Rocket to 26.1 in his next 20, starting with the matchup against the Denver Nuggets that started the doubling trend. His shooting percentages slowly rose, and while teams eventually reverted to more traditional methods of containing Harden, the seeds were planted. Houston caught a glimpse of what space could do for Westbrook, and when the trade deadline came, the team took the extreme step of removing its center from the equation entirely to help create more of it. Doing so, on paper, should have taken the pick-and-roll out of the playbook. The Rockets no longer had anyone to roll.
Centers occupy the roll slot for a variety of reasons. Size is the most important. Bigger players tend to set harder screens. Length and bulk help in finishing in traffic. Smaller players struggle to elevate enough to finish with lob passes in traffic, cutting off the two easiest points an effective pick-and-roll can produce.
Houston couldn't simply ignore the play without a big man. In replacing Capela with Robert Covington, the Rockets suddenly had not only two elite ball-handlers who could benefit from the space ball screens provide, but the shooting to punish teams for loading up against them. So the Rockets set about solving a problem they themselves invented. As the first team in modern NBA history to eschew centers entirely, they had to figure out how to run pick-and-roll without the guy who usually sets the picks and performs the roll.
Their answer has been a diverse portfolio of pick-and-roll play calls that range from simple to groundbreaking. On the conventional end of the spectrum, they've simply ignored their size disadvantage and allowed their forwards to act as centers. The most frequent recipient of the fake center designation has been Jeff Green.
The skip passes Green has received makes these plays more like a John Stockton-Karl Malone pick-and-roll than the sort Harden has run with Capela for the past several years. Lobs are largely out of the question when an opponent has a center on the floor, so with Green as the screener, Harden makes the pass earlier and trusts his more skilled forward to navigate the rest of the way to the basket.
Green is a reserve, though. Two starters have stood out as screeners in the starting lineup. The first, Covington, has done so primarily for his shooting and decision-making in the kinds of screens he sets. When he senses a double coming for Harden, he pops out behind the 3-point line to set up the pass for an easy shot, should Harden choose not to take it himself.
Occasionally, Covington will mix things up with a slip, a textbook switch-buster that confuses unprepared defenses. Even a split second of hesitation is more than enough for Harden to get up a good look.
While the personnel is unusual, these are all fairly common pick-and-roll tactics. Where things start to get more interesting is when Danuel House serves as the screener. A spot-up shooter by trade, the Rockets have turned House into their version of Draymond Green.
Short-roll playmaking is a common defense against doubling the ball-handler, but House is anything but common in that role. Centers usually excel within it because they need to be able to scan the floor quickly enough to pass to the open man before the defense rotates and renders their numbers advantage worthless. Seeing over defenders is key, so aside from Green, few players of House's size have played the role for an extended period. House has nowhere near Green's passing acumen, but Houston's shooting simplifies reads so much he only has to look into the corners or the opposite wing. If someone has rotated to defend the basket, one of those spots will always have an open shooter.
Finding those shooters is the goal when a defense blitzes, but the Rockets have also gotten creative about using the pick-and-roll to get looks at the basket. In defiance of typical spread pick-and-roll principles, Houston has tinkered with a look that has House screening for Westbrook inside of the 3-point line.
The principle is obvious. Westbrook isn't a threat to shoot from behind the arc anyway, so why pretend that he might? He goes from zero to 60 so quickly that pushing the play further back just gives defenses more time to react. This is a high-risk variant. The plays above demonstrate why. Starting the play inside of the arc condenses traffic and makes it easier for defenses to get a hand on the pass. But if it's made cleanly? It yields a layup that's usually too quick for defenses to effectively react.
That sort of subversion has become an essential element of Houston's revamped pick-and-roll game. Another twist? Separating the "pick" from the "roll." While the center usually does both, Harden has taken to using the screener as a decoy, allowing defenses to drop back into a traditional coverage and then nailing a cutter out of the corner for an alley-oop.
Pick-and-roll coverage often turns defenders into ball-watchers. The ball-handler and the screener are usually the primary threats, and when the spacers are involved, it is typically to shoot. Harden plays that expectation against those defenders, drawing them into rim-protection and forgetting about their original assignment in the corner. The threat of a lob pass has done wonders for Harden as a scorer in the past, and its loss is at least partially responsible for his recent struggles. This is Houston's way of reintroducing that into their scheme given the current constraints of its roster.
Westbrook's growth as a cutter has been a big part of what makes plays like that possible, but he isn't the only one to have compromised. Harden, a former MVP as a guard, has grown more and more comfortable setting screens for Westbrook.
Harden isn't doing anything especially interesting after setting the screen because he doesn't need to. The entire purpose is to sow the seeds of chaos.
"A lot of teams do not like to take whoever they've got on James off of his body," D'Antoni said in New York last week. "And if that happens, Russell gets right to the rim."
That has especially been true in transition. Asking defenses to react in a slowed down half-court setting is hard enough. Doing so in real-time, when Westbrook is already in a dead sprint, is just unfair.
There is no conventional method of defending two superstar guards in the same pick-and-roll because no team has ever tried it consistently. Necessity is the mother of invention. The Rockets tried it because they could no longer run pick-and-roll the traditional way, and have so far found success with it and just about every other alteration of the pick-and-roll they've toyed with over the past month.
That doesn't make it the backbone of their offense. Harden remains the NBA's best isolation scorer, and the Rockets are leaning on one-on-one play as much as ever even without a center. But as the last several playoffs have proven, isolation can grow stale when not supplemented with a more diverse menu of play calls. Slowly but surely, the Rockets are developing that diversity without betraying their core identity as a guard-driven team. This isn't the five-man motion that took Golden State to three championships. It's a natural extension of everything the Rockets already did, and will ultimately be central to what they do in the postseason.