Deron Williams has been the best pick-and-roll point guard in the NBA this season.
That’s a bold claim to make, of course, especially if you’ve watched any of what James Harden has done this season in Houston, or what Steph Curry does every night, and the list goes on. There are a lot of terrific point guards in the league right now, and offenses rely more than ever on the spread pick-and-roll to generate points, and they are doing it efficiently — so efficiently, in fact, that the league has taken notice.
But yep, Deron Williams is the most efficient of them all to this point.
The Mavs point guard is creating 1.177 points per possession this season in possessions deriving from the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. (In other words, when a possession begins with a pick-and-roll involving him as the point guard, and ends when either he or someone else shoots as a direct outcome of the play.) Of the 122 players in the NBA with at least 100 such possessions, Williams’ 1.177 PPP mark ranks at the very top of the list, and the gap between Williams and second-place Tony Parker, 0.079 PPP, is larger than the gap between second and 17th place.
Williams has long had a reputation for being one of the best pick-and-roll point guards in the NBA. But what about this season is so different? How has his efficiency taken such a huge leap, up to 1.177 points per possession this season after just 0.932 last season?
Part of it has to do with his increased comfort level in general. This is the first season he’s played for the same head coach in two straight seasons since 2010, during his days with the Utah Jazz. Health could very well have something to do with it, as well. But any time you’re taking a point guard’s numbers into consideration, you must also consider the personnel around him. Are there shooters? Quality big men? Good spacing? All of those factors can make a significant impact on that player’s effectiveness. In the Mavs’ case, particularly since the returns of Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut, Williams’ club has been able to check off every box for him. All he’s had to do is make the right decision.
Dirk Nowitzki’s nearly full-time switch to the center position has further opened up the offense. For nearly 20 years, he’s been a floor-spacing menace to opposing defenses, able to dictate the coverage simply by standing still on the wing or atop the arc. Until this season, though, he was doing it as a power forward almost 100 percent of the time. This season, however, nearly half his minutes have come at the 5, per Basketball-Reference.
What does that do for the offense?
Pulling a center 25 feet from the rim is like sticking a point guard down on the block: It makes him uncomfortable. No disrespect to the defense, of course, but it puts the offense at an overwhelming advantage to space the floor with good 3-point shooting at every position and then isolate the center in space. This is Tyson Chandler, still one of the top interior defenders in the league. But on the perimeter, he’s helpless against the Williams/Nowitzki 1-5 pick-and-roll.
That’s Mav-on-former-Mav crime right there. Chandler knows better than just about anyone how dangerous Nowitzki can be on the outside if left unguarded. Devin Booker slid over to contest the shot as best he could, but at 7 feet tall, the German wasn’t bothered.
Naturally, after seeing something like this on film, a center will think it’d be best to simply hug Nowitzki — as another former Dirk ally, Zaza Pachulia, does below — and hope someone else can stop Williams’ drive. The only problem, though, is typically when a guard penetrates, it’s the center’s job to contest. By pulling him from the lane, there’s no one to stop dribble penetration from reaching the rim.
This is playing in huge amounts of space, but Dallas can condense the floor to present even more difficult decisions for a center. In the play below, Nowitzki is the power forward but is guarded again by Chandler. Watch what happens as he sets a ball-screen for Williams and then back-pedals to the free throw line.
Chandler’s instincts, as well as basic defensive philosophy, tell him to abandon Nowitzki to stay in front of Williams. To hug Nowitzki here is to surrender a layup, guaranteed. There is simply not enough time for any other player to help against Williams’ drive. But Nowitzki escapes unguarded and disregarded to the mid-range, where he’s hit thousands and thousands of jumpers in his career. There’s no solution for the defense, either. If P.J. Tucker rotates too quickly to Dirk, Harrison Barnes will be all alone on the wing for an open 3.
The Mavericks have shown they can open the floor up even more than this, however. The higher the screen, the more space there is underneath for Williams to roam, and the greater the strain on the defense to scramble.
In the play above, Nowitzki sets his screen near midcourt. Williams then sprints toward Dragan Bender, Nowitzki’s defender, and puts him on his heels. Brandon Knight thinks he’s out of the play for a split-second, then briefly plays the passing lane, then finally catches up to Williams. By then, Nowitzki is comfortably standing 18 feet from the rim waiting for the pass.
That play above is the future of the NBA, in my opinion. James Harden already utilizes extremely high screens to get up to full speed by the time he’s reached the 3-point arc. As more and more athletic players reach the NBA, they’ll be able to cover more ground in fewer strides, so why not pull the pick-and-roll out to 40 feet instead of 30? (I don’t envy defenses.)
Andrew Bogut has shown, though, that you don’t need to set a screen 40 feet from the basket just to create an easy jump shot. Rather, all you need to do is set a monster screen and remove one defender from the play.
It doesn’t get much easier than that in the NBA.
Nowitzki and Bogut aren’t the only options in the pick-and-roll. Dwight Powell has scored 1.152 points per possession as a roll man this season, with that number trending upward. Harrison Barnes, meanwhile, has scored a ridiculous 1.246 PPP in 61 possessions as a roll man. He’s 33 of 55 from the field — yes, 60 percent — in those situations, with nearly all of them coming on jump shots, not dunks. The fade to the corner has become a favorite of his. He’s 20 of 34 on no-dribble jumpers in the pick-and-pop, per Synergy.
And things become unfair when the Mavs use both Barnes and Nowitzki in combination to set a double-screen, otherwise known as a drag screen, at the top of the arc.
Williams dribbles horizontally, parallel to the baseline, leaving it up to the Suns defenders to commit to one thing or another before making his move. Marquese Chriss initially switches off Barnes to slow Williams’ attack, but he’s under the impression that Eric Bledsoe will eventually get back over to help him. Bledsoe can’t leave Barnes open, though, and we already know there’s no way Chandler is leaving Dirk, which means once Chriss leaves Williams alone, he’s got a wide-open 3-pointer.
Williams was 4 of 5 from deep last night and is shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in his last 12 games. During that time he’s scored at least 20 points six times and has dished out at least eight assists five times, including 12 last night.
There’s never been a question about Williams’ ability to read the defense and distribute the ball. Similarly, there’s never been a question about Nowitzki’s ability to shoot open jumpers. Bogut has been one of the biggest screeners in the league for a decade. Barnes has answered every question about his game and then some this season. So, naturally, when those players pair up, good things will tend to happen.
In Williams’ case, he’s been better at what he’s doing than anyone else in the NBA this season.