Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol And The Importance Of Pick-and-Pass Big Men

Throughout this week, we’ve written a bunch about the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and pick-and-slip. We’ve talked about the initial screen creating separation for ball-handlers, using misdirection and simulated roll or pop action to create extra space for jumpers, how roll men can draw attention away from weak side opportunities, and how bigs rolling into post position can open up different options after the initial action.

One thing we haven’t talked much about is the defense, and how to counter it. Pick-and-roll defense has changed quite a bit over the last decade or so, though mostly in terms of aggression. More and more teams are trapping ball-handlers as they come around the pick, overloading the strong side of the court, and counting on the speed and athleticism of their weak side players to rotate and recover quickly when that sliver of space opens up.

One way to counter this kind of defense is to just have a ridiculously fast guard, like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving or Ty Lawson. Their speed allows them to beat the trap, get into the lane, and create easy shot opportunities for themselves or others. There’s a reason those guys are all at or near the top of the league in at-rim shot attempts for point guards.

But if the ball-handler does get trapped on the initial action, or if he just sees an open passing lane, that’s where the importance of pick-and-pass big men comes in. After receiving the ball on the roll, pop, or slip, the screener has to be able to quickly survey the defense and make a shoot/pass decision. There a bunch of split-second reads to make: Am I open enough to shoot it? If not, where is the help defender coming from? What space does that open up? Which of my teammates is in that space and where does he like the ball?

Last week, I surveyed both my Twitter followers and the TrueHoop Network to get their opinion on who the best pick-and-pass bigs in the league were, and the two names that came up most often were Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol. (Also mentioned at least once: Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Nene, Marcin Gotat, Joel Anthony (though the catch is always an adventure), Chris Bosh, Lamar Odom, David West, Andrew Bogut and Greg Monroe). But being that Duncan and Marc were the most common responses, we’re going to examine the different kind of reads and passes bigs have to make off the catch in pick-and-rolls/pops through them.

The dump-off

This is probably the most common pass you think of when you hear the team pick-and-pass big man. The pick is set, the screener rolls directly into the middle of the lane, catches the ball, and quickly slips a pass around the rotating help defender – who is generally covering the other big man on the floor – for an easy layup or dunk. This is a speciality of Gasol’s, as he has excellent chemistry with Zach Randolph, each always knowing where the other is on the floor.

One of the reasons Gasol is so successful with this type of pass is because he’s such a good scorer on pick-and-roll plays. Last season, Gasol ranked 47th in the league in points per possession (PPP) as a roll man with 1.05, finished 54.9% of his shots and drew shooting fouls on 14.9% of his opportunities, per mySynergySports. This was no anomoly. In 2010-11, he ranked 42nd with 1.09 PPP, finished 53% of his shots and drew shooting fouls 12.4% of the time, and in 2009-10, he ranked 23rd with 1.16 PPP, finished 63.8% of his shots and drew shooting fouls 15.8% of the time. (Note: As his opportunities per game went up, his efficiency went down, as is generally the case. Still, extremely effective pick-and-roll fiisher.)

Hitting cutters on pick-and-pop

This type of pass is right up Tim Duncan’s alley. At nearly 7-feet tall, he can see over all the approaching  help defenders, and he is an especially dangerous passer when he catches the ball in the middle of the court, is able to survey the defense and find a player cutting to the basket. He’s able to generate opportunities for the Spurs’ multiple wing players in this way. Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Gary Neal were often the recipients of pin-point Duncan passes on their way to the hoop last season, and every so often, he’d hit the opposite big man on a cut as well, whether it be Tiago Splitter (like in the play above), Boris Diaw or DeJuan Blair. Depending on where the help defender was coming from, that’s who he’d hit. There are many reasons that Duncan is often referred to as one of the smartest players in the league, but his ability to read the defense and find open teammates ranks right near the top of the list.

As with Gasol, Duncan’s passing is that much more of a threat because he’s such a good finisher out of pick-and-rolls. Last season, Duncan ranked 39th in the league in PPP at 1.08, finishing 54.9% of his shots and drawing shooting fouls 8.9% of the time. (2010-11: 48th, 1.07, 54.7%, 10.8%; 2009-10: 35th, 1.14, 57.6%, 10.7%)


This is the kind of play the Spurs routinely kill teams with. They run one of their favorite actions – a high pick-and-roll between Duncan and Tony Parker. Parker is one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the league. Like Westbrook, Rose, Irving and Lawson, he is extremely fast, can beat trapping defenses with his speed and get directly to the rim. He too is routinely one of the league leaders in at-rim attempts for point guards. He also has excellent chemistry with Duncan on pick-and-rolls, being that they’ve been running them together for over a decade. He knows where and when to deliver the ball on the roll or the pop, and does so with perfect timing and precision.

And when the Spurs station shooters like Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner or even Manu Ginobili in the corners on these pick-and-roll plays, the defense is really just awaiting their own death. Duncan sees those guys at out of the corner of his eye, draws the defense in, and delivers the ball at the exact right moment to get his teammate an open jumper. The Spurs have finished 2nd, 1st and 3rd in the league in corner 3-point attempts in the past 3 seasons (and as Zach Lowe showed last season, attempts are more strongly correlated with points per possession than percentage of makes), per NBA.com, and one of their favorite ways to create those opportunities is out of the pick-and-roll.

Gasol is also adept at making this pass, though because the Grizzlies don’t have the stable of shooters on their roster that the Spurs do, he sometimes has to draw the defense in first, doing a bit of the drive-and-kick after catching the ball on pick-and-pops. Any little bit of space he can create for guys like Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley or the departed O.J. Mayo gives them an advantage when taking the shot.

These aren’t the only types of passes you’ll see bigs make out of the pick-and-roll (Duncan hit teams with a bunch of backdoor plays when catching out of pick-and-pop, while Gasol had some tricky interior passes while catching on the roll lane that couldn’t really be considered dump-offs), but they’re probably the most common. It’s easy to see why. When the defense uses the screener’s man to trap the ball-handler, there are only so many places the help defender can come from. If it’s the other big’s defender, you’ll see a dump-off pass. If it’s a wing’s defender, you’ll see a pass to a cutter or a kickout for a 3-pointer. Gasol and Duncan’s ability to finish, patience and court vision make them two of the best in the league at reading, reacting, and making the right passs, no matter where that help comes from.


  1. Jackson Marten says:

    I am mainly surprised that more people did not reference Diaw when it comes to smooth passing big-men, as his game has been a fit with the Spurs largely for this reason.


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