JJ Hickson being JJ Hickson

This is How Bad JJ Hickson is at Defending the Pick-and-Roll

JJ Hickson being JJ Hickson
Just in case you didn’t want to do something as cavalier as use your eyeballs, the profundity of Portland’s terribleness against the pick-and-roll shone through defensive statistics last season. To start, despite what Kevin Harlan or Blazersedge commenters may tell you, both Wes Matthews and Nic Batum they aren’t particularly good against the PNR, at least not as good as their reputation grants them. This year, Matthews and Batum ranked 46 and 47 in the NBA in steals, respectively. Their skill sets allow them to get steals — and for Batum, blocks — while providing starter-level defense against isolation plays and cuts, where they both flourish.

And somehow, wing players were getting to the rim against the Blazers (so too did post players but that’s another column). Only the Milwaukee Bucks allowed a higher amount of close shots (30%) according to 82games.com than the Blazers, edging Portland by a mere 1%. Considering all shots allowed in the paint, the Blazers and the Bucks were tied for a league-worst 36% of opponent shots coming from in close, dunks, or tips.

Take a look at this sequence from Portland hosting the Dallas Mavericks on April 7, 2012. Right out of the tip, the Mavericks setup a pick-and-roll with OJ Mayo and Chris Kaman against Wes Matthews and JJ Hickson.

OJ Mayo comes across two screens to get the ball at the wing.

OJ Mayo comes across two screens to get the ball at the wing.

Chris Kaman moves up to set a screen on Wes Matthews.

Chris Kaman moves up to set a screen on Wes Matthews.

Matthews tries to fight over the screen and Hickson moves up, leaving the passing lane open.

Matthews tries to fight over the screen and Hickson moves up, leaving the passing lane open.

Mayo passes to Kaman who makes the easy jumper.

Mayo passes to Kaman who makes the easy jumper.

The Mavericks drew up this play to open the game because they knew they could score with it. And when the Mavericks came down three minutes later, they ran the exact same play and Hickson did the exact same thing, allowing Kaman to score.

In this example, Kaman hits a long two-pointer. But as Blazer fans last year could tell you, teams would often make a second and third pass from that position as Matthews, Batum, or another wing defender valiantly rushed to the shooter. The paint scoring against the Blazers in 2012-2013 came from these extra passes and resulted in dunks, lay-ins, and headaches.

Portland had a high PPP for opponents against the roll man in PNR because Hickson was so bad at making the correct choice. Not only did Hickson constantly misread the two opposing players, but he would misplay his own teammate’s defensive choice. In this example, he:

  • Completely ignored Wes Matthews fighting over the screen.
  • Hedged for OJ Mayo’s drive despite Aldridge and Claver both being in the lane behind him.
  • Had his hips turned toward Kaman as if to highlight the passing lane for OJ Mayo.
  • Didn’t actually play Mayo high enough to trap the pass or stop a three attempt.

For Portland wings, and in this case, for Wes Matthews, this type of play was detrimental to their trust. Blazer guards last season had to hedge both players during PNR plays because their help defender — Hickson — wasn’t reliable. In turn, this led to Portland guards making poor first decisions against opponent PNRs in an effort to counteract Hickson’s inabilities.

Now, a word about Synergy’s defensive statistics. While useful, there’s obvious issues with how the numbers are rigid after a player’s decision. Most importantly, Synergy can’t distinguish the subtlety between an issue like Hickson’s poor choice after the screen. Indeed, Hickson was ranked 43rd last year against the roll man in the PNR play. Anyone who watched the Blazers could tell you that’s because he was often no where near the roll man, and instead he chose to switch. Even further, Blazer defenders were so busy helping on Hickson’s left assignment that a second or third pass would result in a cutter scoring because of a bad shift.

Multiply all that by another missed rotation in the form of Victor Claver or Meyers Leonard and it’s easy to see how the Blazers were scored on so many times in the paint last year.

But Blazer fans have hope yet. Robin Lopez was ranked 7th by Synergy for defending the roll man for the PNR. And while Synergy’s defensive stats aren’t perfect, Hornets fans can also use their eyeballs and would tell you Lopez has better decision-making skills. His proficiency is going to be a monumental leap forward for the Blazer defense in 2013-2014. If Lopez is caught out of position less than Hickson, he should also be able to provide better rim protection as cutters go for the hoop on second and third passes. For now, that’s going to have to be the plan for Terry Stotts.

Dane Carbaugh

Editor of aYoungSabonis.com. Playbook Breakdowns on BlazersEdge. Newsdesk writer for SB Nation NBA. Follow me at @DaneCarbaugh
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