Parsons Down the Lane
Chandler Parsons drives through traffic and finishes with authority.
Chandler Parsons can shoot, dribble, pass, and finish at the rim. There’s not a more appropriate term to use for him than “jack of all trades.” While that might seem like a negative description for many prospects across all sports — it typically means a player is alright at everything but not great at anything — that couldn’t be further from the truth as it relates to Parsons. The small forward emerged as a potential go-to player last season, scoring a career-high 17.1 points per 36 minutes and shooting 38.0 percent from three-point territory.
The most unique and perhaps dangerous element of his offensive game, however, is his ability to run the pick-and-roll. Earlier this month we took a look at Parsons’ P&R savvy, but to review, he’s excellent at getting downhill and going toward the rim, he has the ability to shoot off the dribble, and he can find open shooters with little risk of a turnover. He’s very, very efficient in those sets — fifth-best in the NBA last season in terms of points per possession among players with at least 100 pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports.
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Any time you find yourself on a list next to names like Chris Paul, reigning MVP Stephen Curry, and his runner-up James Harden (not to mention Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams), you know you’re doing something very well. But unlike those four players, Parsons is a very tall player. At 6-foot-10, he possesses the size of a power forward with the frame of a small forward and the ball-handling ability of a guard. Much like his teammate Dirk Nowitzki, Parsons presents all sorts of matchup problems for his opponents, as most small forwards aren’t used to defending a player who can put the ball on the floor effectively like the Mavs wing can.
Parsons’ pick-and-roll ability combined with Nowitzki’s floor-spacing effect gives Dallas an advantage not many other teams in the league can replicate: The Mavs can invert their offense on a whim to give Parsons extremely easy looks at the basket. An inverted offense occurs when the five offensive players space the floor opposite of conventional wisdom: Let’s say, for example, power forward Nowitzki is atop the arc while shooting guard Wes Matthews is in the post. All of a sudden you have two opponents having to defend in relatively foreign areas of the floor. And with Parsons running the point instead of the actual point guard, Dallas only adds to the confusion.
Before we get too far into that, let’s take a quick look at Nowitzki’s influence on spacing as it relates to a Parsons drive. Here’s a 3/4 pick-and-roll (meaning the small forward, or “3,” has the ball and the power forward, or “4,” sets the screen) featuring Parsons and Dirk.
Boris Diaw isn’t about to leave Nowitzki open to help against Parsons’ drive, but because of Parsons’ individual ability and the Mavs’ collective floor spacing, the forward is easily able to get downhill and into the lane before finishing smoothly over the defender at the rim. From an offensive perspective, if you can get your ball-handler one-on-one against any defender at the bucket, you’ve got to like your chances, as most likely the play will result in either a basket or a shooting foul.
Now that we’ve seen defensive respect, let’s see Parsons put the moves on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers defense early in the shot clock. This is where the advantages of having a small forward run “point guard” come into play.
As Parsons rises for the shot, Nowitzki’s defender is still reluctant to leave him at the top of the arc. But here’s the sneakiest, most important detail of that play: Parsons didn’t face any help defense — the only man he had to beat was Jordan Hill in a favorable one-on-one matchup. Any help defense would have come from Nick Young, who was guarding Monta Ellis on the opposite side of the floor. But shooting guards aren’t necessarily used to sliding over for help defense at the rim like that, especially against a bigger player. Parsons has a three-inch height advantage over Young, putting the Lakers guard in a tough spot.
That’s the best part about having Parsons or any wing player run a pick-and-roll. If you have a size advantage over help defenders, their help isn’t really help. There aren’t many 6-foot-7 players in the league who could significantly alter Parsons’ drives to the rim, so those players are almost better off sticking to their guys instead of potentially leaving them open to help out at the basket. It’s an exercise in “pick your poison.”
Here’s another play, with pictures to follow. This time around, however, the Mavericks are playing a small-ball lineup with Richard Jefferson and Parsons playing forward.
This is a brilliant play by Parsons for several reasons, but most importantly, he drove the ball away from Darrell Arthur, the biggest help defender, and instead past Jameer Nelson and right at Arron Afflalo, both much smaller players.
Next, here’s the height breakdown showing Parsons’ vertical advantage over the defenders closest to help position. (He’s taller than Arthur, anyway.) Also notice how Afflalo chooses not to leave Ellis alone in the corner for a kick-out pass. He’s likely not going to be able to contest Parsons’ shot, and he knows that, so he sticks to his man.
Finally, Parsons gets to the basket in a one-on-one situation against 6-foot-9 center J.J. Hickson, who offers a strong contest. Parsons, however, is able to create separation mid-air and get a clean shot off.
Hickson is a nimble player at his position, although at just 6-foot-9 he doesn’t have the height or length necessary to stop the athletic, 6-foot-10 Parsons. By removing Wilson Chandler, Parsons’ defender, from the play with the initial screen, Parsons had to beat just four defenders to get a layup, and he was taller than all of them.
That’s the advantage of having a small forward who can initiate action. Once Parsons’ defender is taken out of the play, at least half of the help defense is always going to be shorter than the Mavs forward, and many times it could be as many as three or even all four. He’s a gifted player in many respects, but his combination of height and driving ability creates incredibly difficult situations for defenses to deal with. Parsons is becoming one of the more difficult gameplan subjects in the league.