The Spurs came into the season looking like a potentially great defensive team. Two months in, they have fallen out of the top 15 in defensive efficiency. Part of their struggles can be attributed to the many absences San Antonio has endured, but there’s more to the huge skid than that. Something is not working as intended.
There are many factors to consider, but arguably the biggest problem right now in the half court is pick-and-roll defense. Despite having two great perimeter defenders in Derrick White and Dejounte Murray and an elite defensive center in Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs have struggled to contain the two-man game.
Opponents know that the Spurs are vulnerable when defending in the pick-and-roll and attack them relentlessly. They have been forced to defend situations in which the ball handler or the roll man finish the play more than any other team in the league except for the Jazz, according to Synergy Sports. While they are good at keeping ball handlers in check, they are in the bottom third in the league in points per possession allowed to the roll man, which is not a new problem. The curious thing is that the Spurs do seem to have the individual defenders to actually be very good at defending the pick-and-roll, but issues with execution and a scheme that gives the team a small margin of error are severely limiting them.
There are a lot of ways to defend the pick-and-roll. Some are more aggressive than others, and some teams mix them up a lot. The Spurs, for the most part, play drop coverage when their center is involved. Essentially, the big man will stay back instead of going to the level of the screen in order to contain penetration while the perimeter defender fights over the screen. It’s easy to recognize and when executed well, it encourages mid-range jumpers and deters corner threes and shots at the rim.
The problem with drop coverage is it’s hard to get it right and it puts a lot of pressure on the big man, especially when a team tries to defend it straight up, without sending weakside help, like the Spurs normally do. Under those circumstances, the center absolutely needs the perimeter defender to recover quickly or he’ll face a two-on-one situation in which he needs to decide between stepping up to contest a short floater or allow a pass to the rolling big man. If the two defenders are not in sync, everything falls apart, so everyone involved has to be choreographed, but at the same time have room for improvisation depending on how the play unfolds. The Spurs’ point-of-attack defenders are struggling with that, and as a result, San Antonio is allowing too many points close to the basket.
Now, part of the strategy is working. While points in the paint (Spurs allow the third most in the league) and offensive rebounds (Spurs allow the fourth most second-chance points) are a problem, the Silver and Black concede the fourth fewest corner threes in the league in part because they have their defenders stay on shooters. Unfortunately, opponents have been hitting one of the highest percentages from there in the league against them. Similarly, opponents are connecting on a league best 45.2 percent from mid-range on the looks the Spurs do want them to take, so even when they force the other team into a shot they can live with, they are getting punished. With a little more luck, opponents will eventually miss more of those open looks and the scheme will at least prove effective outside of the main action.
Yet the question would still remain: can the Spurs fix their pick-and-roll coverage without involving a third man? It’s possible. The problem right now in a lot of plays is one of execution and, occasionally, effort. Both Murray and White — and any other player involved in pick-and-rolls, really — have to do a better job of getting back in the play after the screen instead of being content to just funnel the ball handler into the center. Doing so allows the big man to stay as close to the rim as possible, preventing lobs and offensive boards. It’s a strategy the Spurs used successfully against James Harden in the 2017 playoffs, with Pau Gasol essentially daring him to take shots from the in-between area. Recently, they deployed it a few times against the Jazz.
Another way to at least control one aspect of the play is for the perimeter defenders to stay attached to the screener to take away the pass, which would allow the big man to focus more heavily on contesting the shot from the ball handler. It doesn’t have to result in a full switch, but against dangerous pull-up threats, it will. Against the Suns, the Spurs did exactly that, with the centers meeting Chris Paul and Devin Booker further out than they normally would in order to avoid easy looks off the screen. But the issue there is that opponents could thrive on the offensive glass, like they have so far, since a smaller player would have to box out a big man. Gang rebounding would be key.
There are some variations the Spurs can use and should mix and match depending on the opponent, but there really aren’t any magical solutions. Drop coverage has been around for a while, and most offenses have either figured out how to attack it or have a player who can punish it. Because the Spurs have a relatively small backcourt and no truly mobile bigs, they really have no choice but to run it. We are seeing in Portland how playing aggressive in the pick-and-roll without the right personnel goes, and it’s not pretty. So there will have to be more of a concerted effort to execute the best version of drop coverage possible in San Antonio. The primary defenders will have to fight through screens harder, the centers will have to guess if a pass or a shot is coming and react accordingly, and the rest of the team will have to help on the glass.
pick-and-roll defense won’t likely be a strength of this young Spurs team this season, but it doesn’t have to be a weakness either. With more reps, a little more focus and effort, and targeted adjustments against certain opponents, San Antonio could tighten up its coverage and develop a better defensive identity.