With a simple chronological series of 'either/or' (A or B) choices versatile players can cause the defence to always be wrong when defending the on ball screen. The ingredients needed to make this recipe work are malleable bigs (capable of scoring inside and also shooting the three) and players with vision (who are aware of what their team mates and opponents are doing on court around them). Al Horford of the Boston Celtics is a terrific model of a malleable big - not necessarily an "A+" in any one particular area, but a "B" or better in many different areas. ESPN's Zach Lowe (then of Grantland) wrote an excellent piece on Horford's malleability a number of years ago, which can be found here.
Ball handler and screener - "Arrive Alone" simultaneously
Both the screener and the ball handler want to 'arrive' at the ball screen with separation from their defender ('alone').
The Ball screener
The ball screener can use four manoeuvres to "Arrive Alone":
1. Change of Pace
2. Change of Direction
3. Set a screen
4. Get a screen
Often "Arriving Alone" will involve a combination of these four manoeuvres. Should the screener be approaching the screen with their defender still attached they should be patient, stop (Change of Pace), and cut back door towards the hoop (Change of Direction). If this back door cut causes them to be open they should continue on to the hoop, either for the catch or to force help and open up one of their team mates stretching the defence on the perimeter. If their defender denies the back cut the screener should now be able to stop, change direction and sprint into the screen again, this time with separation from their defender.
As the screener sprints into the screen (sprinting is necessary to maintain their separation from their defender) they must read their defender and the space between them and the rim by looking out from their inside eye (the eye closest to the hoop).
If their defender is tight to them the screener can anticipate aggressive coverage and therefore he wants to set the screen closer to the three-point line, giving the ball handler space between the screen and half way so that they may avoid the hard hedge or the trap.
If their defender is well off of them the screener can anticipate conservative (also known as passive) coverage and therefore he wants to set the screen higher, closer to half way, to give the ball handler maximum space following the screen to gain separation from their defender before they reach the three-point line.
If the screener's defender is inside them as they approach setting the screen then they should set a 'straight screen' as this will direct the ball handler to the open space.
If the screener's defender is directly between them and the hoop as they approach setting the screen then they should flip the screen as this will also direct the ball handler to the open space. This is particularly effective versus aggressive coverages.
The screener should set the screen on the bottom side of the ball handler's defender ("Sternum to the back of the Shoulder") so that the defender can not go under the screen. We want them to have to go over the screen.
The Ball Handler
The ball handler wants to have separation from their defender when the screen arrives. Usually they achieve this by threatening to beat their defender away from the approaching screen (as with the screener they're using a Change of Pace, a Change of Direction, or a combination of the two). The ball handler will either beat their defender and have dribble penetration prior to the screen even being set, or they will use their defender to drop back and therefore they'll have separation (be "Alone"). If the ball handler is heavier and/or stronger than their defender physical contact may rock the defender's weight back on to their heels. Whether by fake or by contact, getting the defender's weight on to their heels is enough for the ball handler to win the race to the screener's shoulder and hip. Once again, as with the screener, tactically the coach may design a set where the ball handler receives a screen or sets a screen prior to the ball screen to get pre-screen separation.
Throughout this process it is imperative that the ball handler keeps his vision up - seeing all the other nine players on the court.
If both the ball handler and the screener are successful in "Arriving Alone" - especially if they achieve this simultaneously - then the defence is markedly compromised. The number of coverages available to the defence is reduced...
From most aggressive to most conservative -
Aggressive coverages (focus is primarily on the ball handler and the screener gets loose) -
Trap - the ball pressure applied by the ball handler's defender is reduced and the screener's defender is too far away from the screen to effectively trap (they'll be late at best). They'll be susceptible to both being split and being driven over their high shoulder.
Hard Show - see Trap.
Switch - the screener's defender is too far away from the screener. Therefore he is unable to nudge the screener's inside hip forcing him higher than he desires and delaying his roll or dive, which makes it easier for the ball handler's defender to switch to an underneath position and impede the roll or dive. As the screener's defender is late he is unable to switch aggressively so the ball handler has the ability to build a head of steam and attack the screener's defender switching on to him downhill. The space to pull up prior to the switch being close enough to contest is a possibility. At best the switch will be a passive (undesirable) switch.
Conservative coverages (focus is more towards the screener) -
Moosh / Weak / Blue (variants) - the screener's defender can effectively default to a conservative coverage of a conservative fashion (coverages falling on an aggressive-conservative continuum) if he is separated from the screener (this is a workable bail out option or Plan B). However, if the ball handler has done a great job of generating pre-screen separation then their defender will be poorly positioned to fight over the screen. The ball handler should have a lead to the basket as they attack down hill.
Drops - a very conservative version of the above (see Moosh / Weak / Blue) popularised by Roy Hibbert at his peak with the Indiana Pacers.
Squeeze - a slightly stand alone coverage, but irrespective, if the screener does a great job of "Arriving Alone" it will be impossible for their defender to squeeze them. This coverage will be dissected in more detail in a future article.
... and the likelihood that any particular coverage will be executed correctly and effectively is also significantly diminished.
Making the defensive coverage wrong, no matter what it is
The ball screener
The following reads further emphasise how important it is that the screener is able to run with vision and that they know where their defender is. Without this ability all the theoretical knowledge about what to do is for nought, it will not be applied appropriately in game situations.
If their defender is aggressive (this includes the following coverages: trap, hard show, switch) they should diagonal (to extend the distance weak side help defenders have to cover) roll (traditional reverse pivot) or dive (Amare Stoudamire style front pivot) to the interior 2-side (to maximise the separation from their defender and create a passing option in a high efficiency scoring area - the key).
If their defender is passive (this includes the following coverages: moosh and its variants, such as Blue or Drops) they should pop (if the screener's defender is below level). This creates the maximum amount of separation between the screener and their defender and creates a passing option in a high efficiency scoring area (the three-point line).
* As the various defensive coverages fall on a continuum from aggressive to conservative some coverages will fall in the 'grey area' where it is difficult to determine whether they are aggressive or conservative. If the screener's defender is level (North-South plane; North direction being towards the hoop) with the screener then this should be treated more as an aggressive coverage with the screener diagonal rolling or diving to the "2 Side" interior. However, if the ball handler is able to probe the screener's defender who is retreating back from a level position then the screener may need to adjust to a straight roll to maintain East-West separation. The screener should be able to trust their instincts and cut into the open space.
** If your screener is not malleable - i.e. they can't shoot the three with good efficiency (so a DeAndre Jordan type as opposed to an Al Horford type) - then their reads become: if their defender is aggressive they should diagonal role or dive to the 2 side; if their defender is conservative they should straight role or dive.
The Ball Handler
The ball handler should be surgical in his approach, knowing and selecting specific options to dissect the specific coverage which he encounters. For a near comprehensive video exemplar of the various options click here. For a summary document of the options depicted in the video click here. For the purposes of this article we are going to focus on where the ball handler should pass the ball (provided passing is the right option) to increase the advantage versus the two categories of ball screen coverages, aggressive coverages and conservative coverages.
If the coverage is aggressive then the ball handler should pass the ball to the "2 (Side) High." This forces the "1 Side" help defender to catch the roll/dive. If he does so, the "1 Side" perimeter player is open for the skip or lob. If he doesn't the diagonal roll/dive is open.
If the ball screen is set outside the elbow line, directed towards the middle of the floor (e.g. Shakes), then ideally a "2 Side" "Front Side" can be created so that the "1 Side" help defender has to cover the 2-on-1 over as much space as possible.
If the coverage is conservative then the ball handler should pass the ball to the "Back Side," either to the roller/diver/popper or to the back side perimeter player pulling in behind the roll/dive or cutting behind the tagger onto the rim. The help will usually come from the back side, so this is usually where the open 'Snipers' on the perimeter will be. More importantly though, the ball handler wants to pass the ball to a team mate who will have a clean passing lane to pass to the roller/diver. If the ball handler makes a "Front Pass" he will pass the ball to a position where the screener's defender who is in a conservative coverage is now between the ball and the roller/diver and is able to deny the pass. Whereas, if the ball handler passes the ball "Back" he will be passing the ball to a position where the screener's defender who is in a conservative coverage is now on the roller/diver's back with a clean passing lane between him and the ball. Therefore 'high-low' passes to deep seals are available if the ball handler passes the ball "Back."
It is critical that all passes thrown are on time (so the ball arrives when the offensive player arrives at the space, in rhythm, not once they've been waiting in the space which is rapidly being closed down) and on target.
The three players not directly involved in the on ball screen
Players off the ball must maintain "Wide Vision" (also known as "Soft Focus") so that they not only see the ball, but also the other nine players on the court.
For both "Front Side" and "Back Side" players the screener's defender will give them a clue as to what movement they'll likely be required to make. If as the screener sprints to screen the screener's defender is tight with his man we can anticipate an aggressive coverage is more likely and in this case we can anticipate that we will be required to be "Up." In this instance it can be advisable to "get a head start" "on stealing second base" (to steal a baseball analogy). It is hard to get "Up" and disadvantageous to be late, whereas it is easy to have to adjust and get back "Down." Therefore we teach our player's to hedge their bets towards being "Up." Of course our knowledge of what ball screen coverages we're likely to see informs this also.
If they are on the "Front Side" of the ball screen (i.e. the ball handler's front is facing them) then they are responsible for creating space for the ball handler and responding appropriately to his movements. If the ball handler is "Up" (because they are encountering an aggressive coverage like a trap or hard show which is designed to prevent them from dribbling towards the basket) then they're "Up." They should move to create a clear passing lane (no defender between the ball and them) so that the ball handler can throw them a low risk, high velocity pass, which gets the ball away from the two aggressive defenders, leaving them in 'no man's land' and creating a 4 versus 3 advantage.
If the ball handler is "Down" (usually because they are encountering a conservative coverage which allows them to dribble towards the basket [although sometimes this will occur because they've dribbled past the aggressive defender]) then the "Front Side" is also "Down," creating as much space as possible for the ball handler to penetrate into and forcing their defender to cover the maximum possible amount of court to defend the 2-on-1 advantage.
If they are on the "Back Side" of the ball screen (i.e. the ball handler's back is to them) then they are responsible for creating space for the screener and responding appropriately to his movements. Between the screener and the closest "Back Side" player (in almost all instances) one of the two needs to be on the rim and one needs to be one pass way on the back side from the ball handler. The screener will make their read first and the "Back Side" will respond to their read. If the screener rolls or dives towards the rim (usually because the coverage is aggressive or because they're a non-shooter who straight rolls or dives versus conservative coverage) then the first player on the "Back Side" pulls to a one pass way position (this is where they may incorporate a "LBJ Front Cut" [also knows as a "Roadrunner"]). If the screener pops (because the coverage is conservative) then, if they're one gap away, the first player on the "Back Side" must back door to create space for the popper to separate into. If the "Back Side" defender tags the popper, then the back door cut should result in being open for a catch on the rim or it should provoke help, leaving other perimeter players open. If the first "Back Side" player is two gaps away then they can make a read. If their defender moves up to tag the popper then they can cut back door, but if their defender stays with them they can stay still, usually spaced in the corner, and wait for the 2-on-1 (wing and corner versus the corner's defender) to develop.
The three players not directly involved in the ball screen act as "Snipers" (it is imperative they are accurate shooters). They stay mostly still, one step back from the three-point line (unless they're below the break in the corners), ready to shoot, and watching for their opportunity ("Wide Vision"). By staying behind the three-point line they stretch the defence by forcing it to cover - because they occupy high efficiency scoring areas - as much space as possible. If their defender does lose sight of them they can cut, but they must sprint from one high efficiency scoring area (behind the three-point line) to another high efficiency scoring area (the basket), spending as little time as possible in the non threatening low efficiency scoring area which is the mid-range. If they don't get open on their back cut then they must sprint to re-space back behind the three-point line.
... and "String Cuts"
The "Snipers" stay behind the three-point line (unless they can sprint past their defender, who has lost sight of them, to the basket) so that their defenders have to cover as much space as possible (generally between the ball handler and them if they're "Front Side" and between the screener diving or rolling and them if they're "Back Side.")
However, if the ball breaches the three-point line by way of dribble penetration or pass penetration, and their defender leaves them to help, then the "Snipers" have the choice to make a "String Cut." A "String Cut" is when the "Sniper" imagines there is a string between their defender and themselves. If their defender leaves to help on penetration, the string pulls them to the basket for a potential pass and finish on the rim. It is important the "Snipers" are patient and don't cut too soon, otherwise they'll reduce the space between them and their defender's help responsibility.
Serving an unpleasant poison
If you're able to teach your players these reads effectively so that they apply them appropriately in game situations you will have five man units that play symphoniously, causing the defence to have made the wrong choice in terms of their ball screen coverage every time.
This leaves them having no choice but to switch (which we treat as an aggressive coverage). If you are equally adept at burning switches, whether it be with your skill, your tactics, or a combination of the two, then the defence is forced to imbibe your unpleasant poison.