Evaluating Defensive Breakdowns

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

From time to time, Blazer's Edge promotes interesting material from our community. Today, wilson7117 explains how to read the Blazers' new defensive scheme. -- Tim

Last year, after one of the many opponent’s lay-ups, I would wonder "Who’s fault was that?". Since I couldn’t answer that question, I also couldn’t answer questions like "Is Batum an overrated defender?", "What habits make Wesley a better defender than others?" or "Are the Blazers’ defensive issues mostly mental (missing rotations) or physical (lacks the quickness to make rotations)?".

All of these questions hampered my ability to evaluate individual players, their potential for growth, and the quality of the coaching staff, along with the tenability of the overall roster construction.

As everyone knows, the Blazers are introducing a new defensive scheme. While we don’t know many of the details, it’s supposed to be similar to the Bulls’ system. This provides an opportunity because many people have written about the Bulls' defense in detail. If I understand the Bulls’ system, then I should have a decent grasp of the Blazers’ scheme which will allow me to better answer some of the questions mentioned above.

To that end, I did some research. I thought others might be asking similar questions so below I’ll explain the basic responsibilities within the scheme and how various outcomes indicate who was responsible for the defensive breakdown. Hopefully, this will help people evaluate both individual players and the Blazers as a whole during the upcoming season.

Warning: This turned into a bit of a treatise as I was writing it (there's just so many important details, it's nuts). If you want the quick and dirty version this Bleacher Report article is good (shocking, I know). It also explains "Icing" much more thoroughly so if you find my explanation lacking look there.

High Pick and Roll

Basic Set-up:


The numbers are offensive players and the number that is circled is the player with the ball. X’s are defensive players and their subscripts indicate who they are guarding. Here, 4 is setting a screen for 1 at the top of the key with all the other offensive players on the baseline.

As the Ball-Handler Dribbles Over the Screen:


The man defending the screener (X4) drops corralling the ball handler. The guard (X1) goes over the screen trailing tight to the ball-handler ready to contest a jump shot. As the ball goes over the screen, both weakside defenders (X3 and X5) sag into the paint ready to help on the rolling big man.

The weakside wing (X3) actually sags far enough so he can bump the screener (4) if he rolls. This surprised me since the wing (3) is wide open for a simple skip pass. The beauty of it is that when bumping the roller, the defender is in the passing lane (dotted blue line). So while the wing is open (3), the point guard (1) can’t get him the ball. This is the brilliance of this defensive scheme. They load up the strong side taking away the rim and stay in the passing lanes taking away the weakside three. This is really only possible if you keep the ball out of the middle of the floor, which is why that is so important.

If the Screener Rolls:


Here, the screener (4) has cut to the hoop and received the ball. During his cut, the weakside wing (X3) should have bumped him breaking up the timing of the play. This is especially critical when defending athletic forwards because it prevents them from getting a running start for their jump (think Blake Griffin poster dunks).

If the rolling big man (4) does receive the ball, the weakside big (X5) rotates to prevent the lay-up. Notice that the rolling big man (4) is coming down the right side of the lane (from the defense’s perspective). That is the same side that the other big is on (5). Because there is so little space between the two offensive players, a good defensive center (X5) should be able to prevent both the lay-up and the dump pass, essentially guarding both player 4 and player 5.

*Note: If 3 is a bad shooter the Bulls may have the weakside wing (X3) rotate and guard the rolling big man (4) rather than just bumping and recovering. This leaves the corner three open but stops the big man from even getting into the paint.

If the Screener Pops:


Here, the screener has popped towards the perimeter and received the pass. When this happens, it’s the weakside wing’s (X3) job to "stunt". Stunting is a fake rotation. The goal is to delay the offensive player for a moment before retreating to your original man. In this instance, the weakside wing (X3) should cover the popping big man (4) at the moment of the catch to prevent an in-rhythm jumper. Once that is accomplished he retreats to his original man while staying in the passing lane between 4 and 3. This gives the screener’s original defender (X4) time to recover and doesn’t allow the big (4) to pass to the wing (3) for a corner three.

Example of Great Execution:

Here the Nets run a high pick and roll with Watson and Humphries.


Boozer and Robinson have corralled the ball, actually forcing Watson to turn away from the basket. Bellinelli has sagged ready to stunt or bump Humphries while staying in the passing lane between Watson and Bogans. Gibson is in the middle of the paint ready to help with Humphries as well.

Example of a Breakdown:

Here the Nets run a similar play with D-Will and Lopez.


Both Boozer and Nate have forgotten to sag into the paint. Neither can rotate in time to prevent a Lopez lay-up

Side Pick and Roll



Again, the offense is running a pick and roll between players 1 and 4 but this time they start from the wing. Notice that the guard (X1) has positioned himself above the screen and is forcing the ball-handler toward baseline where the big (X4) is ready to double the ball. The Bulls call this "Icing" (I think the Blazers are calling this "Blueing"). The goal is to prevent the ball-handler from using the screen and forcing him towards other defenders (X4).

As the Ball-Handler Dribbles Toward the Baseline:


As the guard (X1) forces the ball baseline, he must maintain pressure on the ball to make the pocket pass to the screener (4) difficult. Big (X4) takes away penetration trapping the ball-handler in the corner.

All three weakside defenders sag into the paint prepared to help if the screener rolls. This is where the Bulls really load up the strong side and kill you. Notice how there are still no passing lanes to weakside shooters.

If the Screener Rolls:


Again, the weakside wing (X2) bumps the screener (4) and the big (X5) picks him up. However, since the big’s original man is on the opposite side of the key he can’t cover both Player 4 and Player 5 at the same time. As a result, the weakside wing (X3) has to rotate onto Player 5. This is called "helping the helper" and it is most critical in situations like these where the first help is coming from across the lane. Notice that there is still no passing lane for the corner three.

If the Screener Pops:


The weakside wing (X2) stunts and the original defender (X4) recovers. Then the defense is reset.

Example of Great Execution:

Here D-Will and Lopez attempted to run a side pick and roll but Butler forced D-Will away from the screen and towards the baseline. Notice how Butler is almost facing the wrong direction in order to accomplish this.


Butler is pressuring the ball (he actually gets a deflection here) while Muhammed doubles D-Will. Hinrich is on his way to bump Lopez. Boozer has sagged off of Evans ready to rotate onto Lopez. Deng is ready to cover Evans if Lopez receives the ball while staying in the passing lane to the corner.

Example of a Breakdown:


This play is almost exactly the same and you can actually see Bellinelli bumping Lopez. However, Boozer hasn’t sagged into the middle. That forces Butler to foul Lopez in order to stop the lay-up.

Down Screen and Roll

Basic Set-up:


Player 4 sets a down screen for Player 1, who then receives the pass from Player 2. Notice that the guard defender (X1) has to start between his man and the basket to prevent a back door cut. As a result, he has to trail Player 1 around the screen and can’t get in position to Ice.

As the Guard Catches the Ball Off the Down Screen:


Since the guard (X1) can’t prevent the ball-handler from driving middle the big (X4) has to. He drops to corral the ball handler similar to defending a high pick and roll. This leaves the roll man open (4) so, again, both weakside defenders (X3 and X5) have to sag into the paint.

If the Screener Gets the Ball:


Here, the ball-handler (1) has made a pocket pass to the screener (4). The big (X5) then has to rotate onto the screener taking away the lay-up or contesting the jump shot. This means the weakside wing (X3) has to help the helper and step in front of Player 5. However, since his man (3) is on the wing instead of in the corner the passing lane is open. The other weakside guard (X2) then drops into the paint to take away the passing lane and covers Player 3 if he cuts to the hoop ("helping the helper’s helper", if you will).

Notice that this leaves a potential passing lane to the guard at the top of the key (Player 2).

Skip Pass to the Perimeter:


Here, the screener (4) has made a difficult pass to the guard at the top of the key (2). Now everyone has to recover to their original man. This means each wing player is responsible for preventing his own guy from shooting a three, not somebody else's.

Example of a Breakdown:

Here D-Will has curled around a Blatche down screen along the baseline and received the ball from Johnson.


Hinrich is trailing close ready to contest a jumper. Boozer has stepped out to prevent D-Will from driving middle (notice the angle of his feet). Noah has sagged ready to rotate onto Blatche but Robinson is out of position and isn’t prepared to help the helper. D-Will passes to Blatche who then dumps to Lopez for a lay-up.

This coverage is necessary because the guard defender (X1) is trailing the play and can’t Ice. Not surprisingly, this is also the coverage scheme if a guard attempts to Ice but fails. Below, Deng failed to "Ice" and Johnson has gone over the side screen towards the middle. He is about to pass to Humphries on the roll.


Deng is trailing closely preventing the jumper while Boozer has dropped to corral Johnson. Noah has sagged ready to help on Humphries and Robinson is in position this time to help the helper by stepping inside of Lopez. All Humphries can do is take a midrange jumper.

Evaluating Defensive Breakdowns:

If the Ball-Handler in the Pick and Roll (Player 1) Gets a Lay-up

The big man (X4) forgot to drop or failed to corral the ball-handler. Likely lacks necessary quickness.

If the Screener in the Pick and Roll (Player 4) Gets a Lay-up

The weakside big (X5) failed to help. Either they forgot to sag or were in position but lack the athleticism/timing necessary to prevent the lay-up. It’s also possible that the weakside wing (X2 or X3) hung them out to dry by not bumping an athletic, rolling big man.

If the Ball-Handler in the Pick and Roll (Player 1) Gets an Uncontested Jumper

The guard (X1) failed to stay tight to the ball-handler over the screen. Probably lack of effort.

If the Screener in the Pick and Roll (Player 4) Gets an Uncontested Jumper

The stunt by the weakside wing (X2 or X3) and recovery by the big (X4) weren’t aggressive enough. This is the least bad breakdown and isn’t really worrisome (unless it’s a Matt Bonner type hitting threes at a high rate but then you’re basically screwed anyway).

If the Screener (4) Rolls and Passes to the Other Big (5) for a Lay-up

The weakside wing (X3) forgot to help the helper. Mental error.

If the Screener (4) Rolls and Passes to a Cutter (3) for a Lay-up

The weakside wing (X2) forgot to sag into the paint and cover for the wing who was helping the helper. Mental error.

If Someone Gets an Uncontested, Weakside Three

Usually the fault of whoever was guarding the shooter. They failed to take away the passing lane or recovered late. Probably mental but could be a lack of athleticism.

*Note: These only cover common team defensive breakdowns. There are plenty of others, such as back door cuts or blow-by’s, that are more isolated to an individual.

Bravo to any of you that actually read all of that. Hope it was helpful. I’d be happy to clarify anything as I’m sure much of it is needlessly confusing.

For those who would like to do their own research, these are the resources I found most useful.

[Note: I removed a link from this list, thanks for understanding, Wilson! -- Tim]

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