The Portland Trail Blazers were blessed with two of the NBA’s top scorers this season: Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge was 9th in the NBA with 21.1 points per game (the highest-scoring power forward) and Lillard was 12th with 19.0 points (the third highest point guard).
With such an offensively talented ball-handler and big man, the pick-and-roll was naturally a go-to option for the Blazers. According to Synergy, 22.08% of the Blazers’ offense came through the pick-and-roll. They went to the pick-and-roll more than any other type of play. Lillard and Aldridge were featured in the pick-and-roll more than any other players, with Lillard being involved in 37.43% of all pick-and-roll plays and Aldridge in 15.95%.
Even in their first year together, Lillard and Aldridge proved to be a reliable pick-and-roll combination. Specifically, it was the pick-and-pop variation, which sees the screener spot up instead of roll towards the hoop, that worked for them as it allowed Lillard space to drive into the lane while freeing up Aldridge for an open jumpshot. Between Aldridge’s touch from the midrange and Lillard’s scoring ability, defenders were faced with a very difficult task in stopping them.
Watch the basic pick-and-pop between Lillard and Aldridge. Lillard gets the screen from Aldridge, and Aldridge is left open as the two defenders stick to Lillard.
In that example, Aldridge was the one left open. However, if Aldridge’s defensive check is hesitant to leave him and Lillard’s check can’t get past the screen fast enough, then Lillard gets an open pull-up jumper or a free path to the rim.
That’s why guarding Lillard and Aldridge in the pick-and-pop properly is an extremely difficult task. Attempts to trap or hedge Lillard would only leave Aldridge open, and because of Aldridge’s deep range and his lack of hesitation in catch-and-shoot situations, this was dangerous for most defenses.
The Blazers took advantage of this and often ran yet another variation of the pick-and-roll: the pick-and-slip play, which features Aldridge faking a screen only to slip away on an unsuspecting defense for an open jumpshot. Defenses that committed to the screen too early were exploited through this play. In the example play below, Pau Gasol attempts to make an early play on Lillard, only to see Aldridge slip for the shot.
Complimenting Lillard and Aldridge were two of the NBA’s best three-point shooters this season: Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Matthews tied for 5th in the NBA with 2.4 threes and Batum was a smidge beneath him with 2.3 per game, tying for seventh.
In the Blazers’ offense, Matthews and Batum almost strictly played the role of three-point specialists. They spaced the floor, and when Lillard and Aldridge ran their pick-and-pop plays, they kept defenses honest. Whenever Lillard and Aldridge were freed up through a pick-and-pop, defenses were forced to make the decision of whether to give up the easy two to them or rotate over and leave Matthews or Batum open for the three. Neither choice was ideal.
Lillard’s own shortcomings as a pick-and-roll point guard, where he sometimes makes an ill-advised decision or isn’t fast or accurate enough with the pass, were a very noticeable flaw. Stopping the pick-and-pop completely, however, proved to be much more difficult. Very good defensive players, able to keep up with Lillard and Aldridge, were a must, and perfect defensive rotations were very important as well.
If the original defenders couldn’t manage the tall task of sticking with Lillard and Aldridge, Aldridge’s deep range forced the help defense to step far away from their original check to come up to Aldridge early to be able to contest the shot. It’s very difficult to time that without giving it away and allowing Aldridge to recognize the open man on the floor. Any one mistake made in the process of guarding the Lillard and Aldridge pick-and-pop was hard to recover from.
As Lillard continues to develop as a playmaker and gains experience alongside Aldridge, the pick-and-pop will continue to improve. With the Trail Blazers seemingly unlikely to trade Aldridge and Lillard locked in as part of the team’s future, the pick-and-pop combination between the two will continue to be an integral part of the team’s offense moving forward.