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The Dallas Palace of Analysis: Preseason defense

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X’s and Uh-O’s reborn

Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Decades and decades ago, our dear Professor had a series of posts called “X’s and Uh-O’s,” where he discussed sets and strategies that intrigued him in recent Knicks play. I’ve decided to bring that series back with my own spin. Regarding the name, well, I didn’t have much choice in the matter

So, welcome to The Dallas Palace of Analysis. Please take off your shoes.

In this inaugural article, I’m going to zoom in on the hybrid defensive schemes the Knicks have been tinkering with — with reasonable success — this preseason. Let me encourage you to read that sentence a couple of times to get it deep down in your soul. Let it really nestle down there. It’s been a long time since there’s been opportunity to praise the Knicks’ defense. (Shhhh! don’t remind me that we’ve only see a VANISHINGLY small sample of preseason games against mostly bad teams).

Alright, let’s get it. There are two classic concepts the Knicks have mixed together to create their nifty hybrid schemes. FIRST we have the...

Drop and trail

Drop and trail is a very common type of pick-and-roll coverage in the NBA, and it looks to be one that the Knicks will use with regularity. The idea is simple. When the opposing big sets a ball screen like this:

...the on-ball defender (in this pic, Frank) trails his man over the top of the screen, while the screener’s defender drops towards the basket (in this pic, Bobby Portis). The first responsibility of the on-ball defender is to stay connected to their man — literally touching hip-to-hip if possible — as they go over the screen. The goal is to force the ball-handler off the 3-point line with the pressure you apply to them from behind.

Now let’s watch the video of that play:

While Frank doesn’t stay quite as connected as you’d like, you can see how difficult it’d be for Trae Young to get a three off with Frank behind him like that. Frank (as usual) does his job here.

Next, notice how Frank fights to get back in front of Trae. That’s the on-ball defender’s second responsibility in drop and trail coverage. Since you follow your man around the screen, you end up behind him. But — unless you’re the Utah Jazz and trying to get beat by the Houston Rockets — it’s usually a bad idea to defend your man from behind. Once the on-ball defender is back in front of his man, his responsibilities for this coverage end.

Alright, let’s chat about Big Bobby Portis. As mentioned, he’s the drop defender in this particular example. His main responsibility is to keep both the ball-handler and the screener in front of him until the trail man can recover to his man. He’s in a tough position, because it’s essentially a two-on-one. In order to navigate this tricky situation, the best drop defenders keep one hand on the roll man to track where he is (and mayyyybe impede him a bit) while watching the ball-handler, and keep the other hand in the passing lane to prevent the pocket pass. Big Bobby Portis is not one of the best drop defenders. Nonetheless, he does a fine job in this particular circumstance.

The basic aim of this scheme is to force teams into shooting mid-range jumpers and floaters. You pressure the 3-point line with the trail defender, and defend the rim with the drop defender. But, in the meantime, you leave a bit of a cushion in the middle.

Besides essentially allowing a two-on-one (which can lead to lobs or layups), the primary weakness of this defense is that it’s difficult to stay connected coming around a screen. And when you don’t, shooters are often left with wide-open threes. Here’s a few examples:

Switchy switchy switch switch:

The switch is pretty simple. When an offensive player sets a screen, the two defensive players involved switch defensive assignments. Here’s an example where the Knicks were running a switch everything scheme:

This scheme is designed to make it difficult to create penetration with the pick and roll. PnRs are intended to generate two-on-one opportunities by essentially walling off the ball-handler’s defender. When the defender tries to find his way around the wall, bad things often happen. Teams that switch try to work smarter by avoiding the wall altogether.

Of course, there are downsides to this scheme too. It often results in mismatches, and your rim protectors can get pulled away from the paint and forced to defend in space. For example, in the clip below Portis gets stuck on Beal. He doesn’t make him pay, but that’s mostly because Julius Randle kindly bailed him out by leaving his man wide open.

To avoid mismatches, teams that employ this defense often go small. But, then — unless you have Draymond Green — you’re opting to play without a high-level rim protector.

It’s almost like constructing a successful NBA defense is hard!

The hybrids:

Alright, now we get to talk about what’s cool and original about the Knicks’ defense this year so far. On occasion, they’ve just played one of the above schemes straight up. But more often than not, they’ve combined them in interesting ways.

Essentially, what the Knicks have been doing is separating their bigs and smalls. Anytime a small is involved in a screen with another small they switch it. And the same typically holds for big-big screens. On the other hand, whenever a big and a small is involved in a ball screen they play drop and trail coverage.

Let’s take a look at some film. Here are two examples where there is only one big on the floor. As a result, they never switch on these plays, but the smalls switch every screen.

The benefits of this system are abundant. You limit two-on-ones generated by PnRs and you limit the amount of defensive energy your guys have to expend by switching whenever possible. But you also avoid switching whenever it would allow the defense to create an unfavorable mismatch. Perhaps most importantly, by not having your bigs switch with smalls, you get to keep your big bad shot blockers down low clogging the paint. And we all know the best clogger of all is:

There’s room for more variation in the scheme too. For example, against the Wizards, Fizdale often had smalls switch with smalls EXCEPT for RJ Barrett. RJ exclusively stuck with Bradley Beal. And Fiz did something similar with Frank when he was guarding Trae Young.

What’s not to love?

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Gee, this all sounds really familiar!,” it might be because I argued that the Knicks should employ a hybrid scheme very similar to this during the summer. Specifically, I argued that the Knicks should switch 1-4, and play drop/trail for ball screens with Mitch. Why switch 1-4 instead of small/small and big/big? I see no reason for Julius Randle — a poor drop defender, but solid defender in space — to be schemed into playing drop and schemed out of defending in space. Especially given that many of the “smalls” around him are big enough to handle 4s for short stints (RJ, Elfrid, Knox, Frank). But alas! There’s probably a reason I write about the Knicks and don’t work for the Knicks.

This has been The Dallas Palace of Analysis. You may now put your shoes back on.