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More NBA Teams Are Using A Pick And Roll Hack: Sticking Two Guys In The Corners

On Nov. 4, the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks played what’s known in video game terminology as a “mirror match.” Less than a minute into the game, Trae Young dribbled into a pick and roll while John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanović stood in the corners. He made a layup. The very next possession on the other end, Mike Conley led a pick and roll with Bojan Bogdanović and Royce O’Neale in the corners. He missed a triple. 

Over and over for the next 47 minutes, the two teams traded pick and rolls, shooters filling both corners. When the dust settled, the two teams had combined to run 120 pick and rolls with shooters standing in both corners, the most in a single game this year, according to Second Spectrum.

That game saw only 72 pick and rolls without both corners occupied. In those six dozen plays, the teams combined to score less efficiently than in the 120 plays with players in each corner. It was an extreme example of a trend, but pick and rolls across the league now feature increasingly similar setups. 

By placing shooters in both corners, offenses around the league are reaping benefits: While the distance from the baseline to the hash marks is 28 feet, the distance from the 3-point arc in one corner to the other is 44 feet. Putting off-ball shooters as far apart as possible maximizes spacing. Filled-corners pick and rolls constitute a sizable segment of the overall pick-and-roll revolution currently homogenizing offensive aesthetics across the NBA. And that segment is growing.

In 2013-14 (the first season for which Second Spectrum has data), the league ran significantly more pick and rolls with an empty corner on the strong side than both corners occupied, thus ensuring the two dance partners didn’t see extra bodies -- opponents or teammates -- cluttering their work space. Now the inverse is true, with the 2021-22 season representing the current high-water mark for filled-corners pick and roll frequency. And the team doing it the most is the Jazz: The five seasons with the highest frequency of filled-corners pick and rolls in the Second Spectrum database all belong to Utah.

The Jazz run more filled-corners picks than anyone

Top 15 NBA teams in number of filled-corners pick and rolls per 100 possessions by season since 2013-14

Rk Offensive Team Season Picks Per 100 Poss. Points Per Chance
1 Utah Jazz 2017-18 61.03 0.933
2 Utah Jazz 2021-22 55.08 1.053
3 Utah Jazz 2018-19 54.40 0.966
4 Utah Jazz 2016-17 52.66 0.953
5 Utah Jazz 2020-21 51.05 1.038
6 Oklahoma City Thunder 2021-22 50.89 0.874
7 Utah Jazz 2019-20 49.25 1.000
8 Phoenix Suns 2021-22 49.10 0.986
9 Chicago Bulls 2021-22 49.09 0.953
10 Chicago Bulls 2020-21 47.64 0.957
11 Atlanta Hawks 2019-20 47.62 0.930
12 Atlanta Hawks 2021-22 46.28 1.032
13 Oklahoma City Thunder 2019-20 45.92 0.935
14 Orlando Magic 2021-22 43.72 0.831
15 Indiana Pacers 2021-22 43.64 0.939

Through games of Dec. 19, 2021.

Source: Second Spectrum

Since 2013-14, during pick and rolls with a spacer in each corner, Utah’s Joe Ingles and O’Neale rank first and second for most times standing in the right corner1 and second and third for most times standing in the left corner.2 Their names may as well be chiseled in the corners of the court at Vivint Arena.

“When you describe it as ‘stand there,’ it doesn't sound very glamorous,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told FiveThirtyEight. “But if you were to stand there and get a shot every time, we wouldn't say you're standing there, we'd say you're getting a shot.”

Snyder admitted that he’s often heard “all I get to do is go stand in the corner” from players, but the Jazz have a stable of wings who are selfless and understand the value of their role. The benefits the structure provides are clear.

Of course, with shooters standing more frequently in corners, corner three attempts have risen over 50 percent across the league, from 6.217 per 100 possessions in 2013-14 to 9.477 this season. And stretching the court gives ball-handlers more space to attack; drives have correspondingly increased over 25 percent, from 36.618 per 100 possessions in 2013-14 to 46.489 this year.

It’s no coincidence that the Jazz currently run a historically strong offense, scoring 118.8 points per 100 possessions, a full 9.2 points higher than the league average.3 No team in the Cleaning the Glass database, which extends to the 2003-04 season, has scored so high above that season’s average. But the Jazz are far from the only team enjoying the advantages of the filled-corners pick and roll.

The Hawks are in the midst of a top-15 frequency and efficiency season4 when running filled-corners pick and rolls. The most common pick-and-roll partnership in the league is Young and Clint Capela, and the fourth-most common is Young and Collins. Both combinations are above average in terms of efficiency, though Young and Collins are especially exceptional. And over half of the possessions involving each combination feature spacers in both corners. It’s no surprise, then, that Young leads the NBA this season in number of filled-corners pick and rolls. The reason Atlanta organizes its offense in such a repetitive manner is clear: Though the Hawks attempt the sixth-lowest frequency of shots from the corners or at the rim overall, they attempt the fifth-highest frequency of shots from those same locations during possessions that include one or more pick and roll.5 Filled-corners pick and rolls are Atlanta’s cheat code to high-value shots, and whether defenses choose to prioritize defending Young, the lob or the corners, the Hawks have a counter that can yield efficient points.

“Most offenses in the NBA right now are very similar where they have four out” during pick and rolls, said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan. “Some will have five out.”

Because filled-corners pick and rolls involve four players -- the ballhandler, the screener and both spacers in the corners -- they can fall into a subcategory of spread pick and rolls, which feature five players behind the arc and were popularized by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. But the job of the fifth player in filled-corners pick and rolls is malleable. He can set a second ballscreen, as the Hawks frequently do with Capela and Collins together, or he can lurk along the baseline.

The most efficient ball-handler on filled-corners pick and rolls is LeBron James, scoring 1.192 points per chance.6 Even though his most frequent pick-and-roll partner in such setups is Anthony Davis, the Lakers are more efficient when James runs filled-corners pick and rolls with Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan, which means the Lakers don’t need both stars to find efficient offense. James eviscerates switches -- made threes are the most common outcome in those circumstances.

The list of filled-corners pick-and-roll maestros doesn’t stop there. In the same way that successful teams seem to need at least one potent pull-up shooter, so too do most appear to have efficient filled-corners pick-and-roll initiators. Chris Paul, Luka Dončić, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Damian Lillard and LaMelo Ball: all lead teams competitive in the playoff hunt and run high-volume and high-efficiency filled-corners pick and rolls.7 That shouldn’t be a surprise, given their success in general pick and rolls, but it speaks to the increasing uniformity of types of pick-and-rolls.

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It’s not a coincidence that much of the NBA begins its offensive actions in such similar ways. Shooters today don’t need much space, and even when they’re run off the line, they can create open threes. If screeners aren’t tagged, they require little time to rise up and finish a lob. Defenders in the paint or on the baseline are tasked with an impossible choice, to be in two places at once. And the distance between those two places keeps growing. 

It’s possible that given the current status quo in the league -- the rules, the types of skill sets coaches choose to play together on the offensive end, the dimensions of the court -- NBA teams have discovered an optimal organization of offensive sets. Of course, there may be a penalty for being predictable at some point if a team begins its sets the same way every time down the court. 

And beyond strategy, there’s the human element: Players can get bored standing in the corner over and over, and viewers can get bored watching it. Snyder confessed that he sometimes runs different plays for O’Neale to add variety to his nights. If variety is the spice of life, then a true hegemony of filled-corners pick and rolls might make NBA basketball look suspiciously like boiled vegetables: healthy but ultimately flavorless.

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Footnotes

  1. Clocking in at 4,830 and 3,701 possessions, respectively.

  2. At 3,398 and 3,244 possessions, respectively.

  3. Excluding garbage-time possessions.

  4. Since 2013-14

  5. The highest frequency of shots from those locations after a pick and roll belongs to the Jazz.

  6. Among players with 100 or more possessions used.

  7. All are scoring at least 1.0 points per chance, with 200 or more actions thus far.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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