By Andrew Cutler
Switching is not a new defensive concept but it’s seemingly more popular than ever before. Beyond the ability to contain the ball one-on-one (a not unrelated skill), switching has become increasingly prominent for this reason: as offensive efficiency continues to grow and teams play with increasing amounts of ‘space’, switching has arisen as the neatest method for limiting penetration.
Teams value space because it allows for penetration via pass or dribble. Puncture that first line—that perimeter shell of a defense—and you spark a chain of rotations that are almost always outpaced by the movement of the ball. More often than not, as teams increasingly spread the floor with at least four competent shooters, the ball will find an open man.
For the casual observer, switching on-ball screens is the most obvious example of the trend. Simply track the movement of the ball during a game and you’ll see plenty of it. It’s also the simplest switch for players to execute. Players on the ball have no help responsibilities, and defenders guarding the screener have an obvious and easily communicated task to begin guarding the ball handler. There are fewer distractions, fewer responsibilities and less movement to track as the play unfolds away from the ball. Some coaches breakdown the process of on-ball switching to the following core principles: talk, touch and take.
Switching off-ball screens is a more difficult task. Players off the ball have significant help responsibilities and are required to track the movement of their own man, his involvement in screening action and the movement of the ball. Off-ball movement quite literally occupies weak side defenders and opens up driving lanes. Throw in the added complexity of attempting to cleanly switch an off-ball screen and things start to get a little tricky.
The ability of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers to switch almost everything during the 2016 playoffs was critical to their relative success against the Golden State Warriors. Indeed, the Warriors themselves are perhaps the finest exponents of switching league-wide. Rivals have taken steps to mimic the strategy by integrating it more broadly into their own stock defensive schemes.
As they encounter switching more frequently, the Warriors have begun to develop devious counters that ask difficult questions of the defense. Watch the two plays below:
On first glimpse, they are similar (although not identical) ‘floppy’ actions, where Golden State’s shooters are given the choice of pin-down screens on either side of the floor. Cleveland responds to both plays with some level of switching and both plays result in made three-pointers. Although the two plays end in similar results, they are not created equal. Time to dig a little deeper.
On the first play, Kevin Love switches out onto Steph Curry after recognizing that Iman Shumpert is lagging dangerously behind. Love successfully takes away any chance of a Curry catch-and-shoot by acknowledging the emergency and jumping out on the catch. Love does well to earnestly slide his feet, before some iffy Cavs’ rotations and a strange choice by LeBron James leaves Kevin Durant with a naked triple.
On the second play, a botched Shumpert-Kyrie switch leaves Irving (too frequently involved in switching mishaps) in no position to chase Curry around the pending Durant pin-down. However, differently from Georgian hero Zaza Pachulia’s screen in the first play, Durant chooses to barricade his own defender, Tristan Thompson, so that Thompson cannot leap out onto Curry as Love did in the first example and make the ball move to the next action.
The Warriors used similar methodology sparingly during last year’s playoffs. Nevertheless, with a slightly different cast of players, the ability of Golden State to make these types of reads on the fly is an important development in their pursuit of the 2016-17 championship. Their offense sputtered in the final rounds last season, and will be forced to counter more dialed in switches again during this campaign.
Offenses without the historic level of shooting available to the Warriors have found ways to place switching defenses in compromising positions too. Teams are increasingly eschewing the rim-runner in transition in favor of running their secondary break from a five-out starting point:
As teams continue to understand that plain, vanilla post-ups are relatively inefficient and search for more and more spacing, five-out is becoming the new four-out. Less and less will a post behemoth sprint from rim-to-rim and look for early, deep post position. This leaves the lane open for the primary fast break, and saves the need to wait for a post player to rumble into the block after snaring a defensive rebound that puts him behind the outlet. Better still, if you have a 5-man who can grab-and-go, you’re off to the races. Alternatively, a simple flip to the trailing 5-man can trigger a flare screen that is extremely difficult to switch effectively:
For instance, as Allen Crabbe screens for Damian Lillard and Elfrid Payton moves to switch onto Crabbe, Payton is caught with Crabbe between him and the basket:
Portland, Denver (featuring the perfect 5-out hub, Nikola Jokic), Houston and Boston are all common exponents of this form of transition structure and incorporate very similar actions. Choosing to switch the flare screen often puts one of the two engaged off-ball defenders in a compromising position. NBA defense rules compound the problem by making it very difficult to clog the lane from the weak side. Fairly basic pin-downs using the same trigger can be similarly effective:
There’s little doubt that switching is en vogue and has become a skill as much as a strategy. Players who are ‘switchy’ are increasingly valuable. The more of those types of players a team retains, the more flexible a coach can be schematically.
That being said, lazy pundits are too often heard exclaiming the phrase ‘just switch that’ upon viewing an ostensibly switchable action. The implication of such a phrase is that switching is a simple task that can be turned on and off like a tap. Whilst it can be a stifling technique when executed correctly, seamless switching requires elite level communication and cohesion developed over a significant period of time.
As teams become more familiar with the technique, and the league begins to filter through its glut of more lumbering big men, defenses will likely become more adept at successfully executing switches. Until that point, look for offenses to maintain the upper hand in the continual strategic tug-of-war between the two sides of the ball.