What’s Behind NBA’s Switching Revolution

If ten years ago I told you that a team would win three out of four NBA Championships by employing a switching man-to-man defense, you’d have likely said that was garbage.

Switching is for rec league, for the lazy guy that doesn’t want to get around a screen. It isn’t an aggressive strategy, just a cop out, a dirty word for defensive-minded coaches. If you’re tough, you fight through the action and find a way to stop your man.

Switching is for cowards.

Yet, here we are in 2018 and the Golden State Warriors have accomplished such a feat. Three titles in four years via a group of talented players that actually want to switch ball screens and open themselves up for mismatches. Such a concept might seem foreign to many fans and even former players who were brought up to believe switching was a dirty word.

So how did we get to the point where switching is not just a strategy utilized in the league, but perhaps the optimal one?

Offense Begat Defense

In my debut piece for The Basketball Writers, I wrote on the topic of positionless basketball and the offensive necessities that indicated its rise. As the game evolved away from truly defined roles based on size and skill, offenses opened in terms of creativity. That, paired with the advancement of analytics and the three-point shot, brought forth an evolved offensive approach.

Now, scoring is predicated around the ball screen, great floor spacing with shooters and bringing rim protectors away from the basket.

The logical counter, sought-after by teams like Golden State, the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and more, has been to prevent penetration in the first place by switching the ball screen.

Theoretical Basics

Believe it or not, switching is as much about the other three defenders on the court as it is the two involved in the ball screen action.

Other strategies, like the hard-hedge or even a drop coverage, are only effective if the other defenders not involved in the screen are correctly positioned.

Almost every NBA team (and other high levels of basketball) will rotate the same fashion against dribble penetration. The lowest opposite defender jumps to the ball, where the next-lowest opposite defender momentarily guards his man and the helper’s man.

Once the ball is settled and steered away from a scoring location, the defense will re-match.

Offenses are a step ahead, often looking to kick to the weak side just as the defense rotates over towards the rim. Traditional ball screen coverage, with more aggressive hedges, gives up the initial penetration and is highly reliant on the other three defenders to rotate perfectly in order to prevent a bucket. With great spacing around the three-point line and shooters aplenty, the ball can zip around the court and find a high-quality shot before the defense can settle it:

Offenses love to make the extra pass from the corner to the wing; They equally adore spreading the floor with shooters to increase distance traveled on a closeout. I refer to these as scramble situations, where the desired individual matchups of the defense are no longer valid, and at which point each defender must scramble around to find someone to guard.

Teams that excel at scrambling anticipate the extra pass, but it doesn’t matter: they’re still reactionary to the offense. Great spacing, shooting, and ball movement thwart such a rotation.

Switching eliminates that need (in theory) by not allowing penetration to occur off a ball screen. The split-second advantage that is gained on the pick-and-roll comes from defenses trying to preserve their matchups and then recover. If there’s no advantage to be gained because the defense doesn’t care about those matchups, that weapon becomes further neutralized.

The results aren’t always perfect; NBA players are good and can score even against strong defenses. We have to examine how we define success for the defense when guarding a specific type of action.

On the whole, a goal on each possession doesn’t change: force either a turnover or the most difficult attempt possible.

Can a defender really dictate when and where the shot comes from? The most aggressive defensive strategies that rely on forcing a turnover are usually porous when it comes to the degree of difficulty on the shots they allow. Likewise, a conservative scheme can contest every shot but gives up more attempts and loses valuable transition offense opportunities.

Defining success for an overall defense revolves around whatever the coaching staff determines is the optimal balance between the two for that particular group.

With a strong rim protector roving near the basket, the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder were first and second in NBA turnover rate during the half-court last season, according to Synergy Sports Tech. The security blanket in the back line (especially Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams, respectively) gives those teams more freedom to press for turnovers since they don’t fear giving up uncontested layups or dunks if they gamble.

Rudy Gobert's length allows for a lot of switches.

Nov 5, 2018; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) looks to get past Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and guard Ricky Rubio (3) in the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, the target for optimal success rotates each day, each game and dependent on each team’s personnel.

So how do we define success against an individual action like a ball screen? Is the optimal way to guard a screen by trying to force a turnover? Most times the answer is no. Aggression against the most skilled and talented ball handlers in the world is a losing strategy. While the offense may not score each opportunity, they’re guaranteed to get quality looks.

Think of a defense as winning a ball screen when they settle the ball and recover before a shot can be attempted. Offenses run the pick-and-roll because it is the classic way to quickly create an advantage for the player with the ball. The shot may not come from one of the two in the action, but the movement starts to scramble the defense before it can fully recover to the speed of the ball whizzing around the court.

What if there was a way to thwart that movement before the defense begins to rotate?

Switching can accomplish this goal so that, instead of forcing the defense to move around the perimeter and react to the split-second advantage gained by the screen, the offense can only score in a two-on-two action:

Notice how little movement there is from the rest of the Rockets, other than P.J. Tucker and James Harden, who are engaged in the ball screen. Eric Gordon is allowed to stay tight to Bradley Beal in the corner, preventing the best shooter from getting a kick-out attempt. Everyone on the perimeter is able to stay a little tighter to their man as a result of the switch.

Switching also thwarts offensive actions designed to run defenders into each other. More than ever, coaches preach for combination ball screens and actions that lead into the ball screen to help create the advantage. Switching the actions on and off-ball can prevent those advantages, as the defense moves less and the offense does not get the open driving lane they anticipate.

One of the most frequent combination actions occurs out of a Horns formation, with the play called Horns Twist. The object is to get middle penetration after zig-zagging two offensive players back and forth as screeners. There’s a lot of movement and action that occurs within a three-second window. Many teams run this attack:

You can see how this is a doozy to guard with all that movement in a tight space. Helping off the corner isn’t a great option since it’s an easy kick-out option for the ball handler. All the movement happens in the middle of the floor, and there are many ways the offense can score.

Switching can negate those advantages. Houston switched across a standard Horns Twist action to prevent Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox from getting middle penetration:

What was once perceived as lazy is now brainy!

Offenses have evolved to the point where they get high-quality, optimal looks against standard defensive coverages and rotations. Switching turns that on its head, disallowing the initial point of penetration off a ball screen and bating the opponent into attacking a mismatch. One-on-one challenges emerge, and those are the low-efficiency games that a defense will gamble on.

If we define success as preventing teams from scoring the way they want to, switching should be seen as a permanent staple within an NBA defensive repertoire.

Personnel & Positionless Value

Many modern players have the same skills, so traits like size and length become important tiebreakers when trying to decide who to play. Think about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons or Kevin Durant: Their skill profiles are so unique for players their height, and their athleticism is outstanding based on their size.

Having Durant only guard opposing power forwards seems like a waste of his athleticism and talent. Playing him exclusively on opposing point guards would remove him from other opportunities to stifle ball handlers and attackers in a league where the term “point guard” doesn’t denote much in terms of offensive creating any more.

If going against a balanced, well-rounded attack, great defenders must be able to rove and stay on the ball instead of simply taking away one strong offensive threat.

It’s not just enough to have length involved in the ball screen switches elsewhere. Whenever a team tries to exploit a mismatch, a defense will sag into help protect the teammate being exploited. Within scramble situations and rotations, length and athleticism recover faster to the ball. High-caliber athletes that can cover more ground are excelling in today’s NBA because of this.

If a team wants to adopt a switching scheme, it’s almost a pre-requisite to have length and speed.

Golden State got the Atlanta Hawks to try and attack one of those switches for what they believed was a mismatch: Miles Plumlee in the post guarded by Alfonzo McKinne. The Warriors immediately trapped the ball, and the length of Durant was able to simultaneously protect the rim and block a kick-out three-point attempt:

Switching isn’t a bail-out solution that any team can employ just to stop dribble penetration. There are clear drawbacks, such as unadvantageous mismatches that develop, the same player constantly expending energy guarding ball screens, and ceding an advantage on the glass.

Personnel the key ingredient to this tactic.

As more teams have that personnel, more are trying to switch strategically. Now we’re seeing more nuanced forms of attack from offenses and triage from defenses to hide blemishes that occur.

Next Level: Attacking & Pre-Switching

Teams are often scouted for how they attack out of their actions once they anticipate a defensive switch.

Golden State ran into the same Horns Twist action we reviewed earlier against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Clippers were prepared. They were able to get Tobias Harris, their best scorer, with the ball while guarded by Kevon Looney. Trying to isolate in that mismatch, Golden State gobbled up the opportunity, thanks to great help defense and length of Kevin Durant:

Attacking switches through driving isolations isn’t always effective because it’s so easy to take the ball away from a scorer who puts his head down and drives. And part of what makes Golden State—as opposed to a team like Houston—so difficult to attack is their inclusion of other ball screen coverages in their game. The Warriors do not exclusively switch on ball screens, so it takes some real foresight to know when they are about to.

For that reason, star players tend to lick their chops for the few possessions a game they see what they deem an isolation mismatch.

How else can you attack a switch without going into isolation, and how do defenses react to different styles?

The Hard Slip

After isolations, the next best mode comes from slipping the ball screen: anticipating the switch and dropping below the two defenders involved during the exchange. Such a forceful slip puts pressure on the rim and the help defense. Getting the ball to a slipping screener can turn into the same effect as dribble penetration, attacking the second level of the defense and forcing a kick-out.

Talented passing big men tend to be the best at finishing off slips since they can find the right player on the perimeter if the defense collapses. Golden State is the master at this, teaching all their screeners how to be adept at cutting hard instead of setting the actual screen, catching the ball with their back to the basket, and then quickly turning to face the rim and make the right read.

Defenses cannot recover quick enough:

Of course, the obvious defensive counter comes from loading up in the lane before the action to prevent any comfort on the roller’s catch. Teams that are great at shooting and have spacing to the corners (i.e. the Warriors) really thwart this style of play since they command so much attention as standstill threats.

Defensive Counter: The “Pre-Switch”

As help defenses get smarter, they begin to switch actions to keep their best defenders closer to anticipated actions.

Golden State does this regularly with Draymond Green, where he sniffs out an ongoing play and positions himself to be involved in the screen instead of the player an offense is trying to exploit. He kills offenses with his situational brilliance:

Defensive-minded coaches are great at scheming how to best switch in the game, something called the “pre-switch”. This occurs in actions that lead up to a screen, such as with Draymond, or on the flight of a ball during a post entry pass to prevent a smaller player from getting picked apart down low.

The Boston Celtics executed the pre-switch multiple times last postseason when going against post players such as Joel Embiid and LeBron James. Some call it “scram”. Here’s a great breakdown from Army assistant coach Zak Boisvert:

For a split-second, there is a moment leading up to an action where multiple defenders are anticipating the play and have their attention on it. As the offensive intentions become known, a defense can hone in and take away those cracks by anticipating.

While these situations require a great deal of scouting, IQ and practice at a high level, they’re lethal when executed properly and can completely stymie a play.

Elevate the Defense

The logical next step from an offense is finding ways to either prevent teams from pre-switching or punish them if they try. The latter requires a great deal of precision and timing, which might not consistently be available.

The former is easier to teach and control from a coaching perspective. The main way to prevent teams from pre-switching is to feign a ball screen and then simply duck-in on the post.

When switching actions occur, defenders are taught to get close to the action. At my job, we teach our players to “talk and tag” the switch, meaning the defenders involved communicate their switch and are close enough to touch hands, which prevents a hard split or a pull-up jumper. Switching from farther away leaves a defense susceptible to both.

In anticipation of those screens, defenders draw closer to the ball. Combination screening actions (with three or more offensive players) act as a magnet, sucking defenders into the action since they know a switch is about to occur in a tight amount of space.

When those actions take place far from the basket, a void is left near the rim. Smart teams and players will simply post-up a mismatch during that time and let the offensive player go to work. Golden State ran a Sideline Out of Bounds (SLOB) action in the postseason that got Durant the opportunity to bang down low:

Most of the action’s success comes from the attention paid to Curry and how concerned defenses are with switching the right player onto him. Durant then feasts on another mismatch as the forgotten man for a moment.

There are some competing schools of thought for what the best way to attack a switch is. Some may say it comes from pounding the ball inside against those mismatches. Others prefer spreading the floor, elevating the offense and getting slips or one-on-one opportunities at the rim. Both go hand-in-hand, but neither has brought definitive results as to the most effective strategy.

For that reason alone, switching will remain an important tactical trick coaches carry up their sleeves. It may be the new kid on the block in terms of defensive strategy, but switching has a lot of strategic merits and should be here for generations to come.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 9, 2018.

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