In recent weeks, the drop coverage has been a focal point of Clippers discourse, so I figured I’d take a crack at explaining it. Should they use it? Why are they using it? Will they stop using it? I’ve stated my stance via Twitter. But after learning more about it, I understand its value and why it’s so often used.
For those who don’t know, the drop coverage is a defensive scheme that is essentially designed to keep the ball-handler’s scoring options limited to either a low-efficiency mid-range jumper or a contested shot at the rim. As the defender who is guarding the screener drops below the point of the screen to play safety in the paint, the other defender, who is guarding the ball, fights over the top of the screen and forces the ball-handler into no man’s land.
A key component of being able to run this defense effectively is knowing that the opponent’s big man isn’t going to space the floor and shoot jumpers. If that screener can shoot from the perimeter, it breaks the coverage as he’ll pop for open jumpers or swing the ball to another open shooter as the defense scrambles. For the better part of the last two weeks, the Clippers’ opponents haven’t featured that pick-and-pop big that’ll expose the coverage. Instead, they’ve dealt with guys like Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Mitchell Robinson, and Bam Adebayo, who specialize in rolling to the rim and finishing over the top of the outstretched arms of shot-blockers.
This is where Serge Ibaka’s and Ivica Zubac’s domination of the team’s 48 center minutes play a role in this scheme. Having one of those two on the court means the Clippers have two 7-foot big men who are incapable of effectively switching, double-teaming, or hard showing at the level of the screen due to their lack of foot-speed. To avoid those issues, the Clippers are opting to play more drop on pick-and-roll coverages, having Zu and Ibaka patrol the paint and be the high-level rim protectors they have established themselves to be.
The Clippers are currently giving up the highest opponent field goal percentage in the mid-range area at 47.1% this season. This passes the eye test as we’ve seen several guards score often against the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense. In the Knicks game at the end of January, Immanuel Quickley went 7-8 in the mid-range area against the Clippers, putting the guard defenders on his hip while operating inside of the free-throw line to put up floaters. Kyrie Irving attacked the pick-and-roll for some easy pull-up jumpers and a few of his signature crafty finishes. But surrendering a high number of in-between shots is a better process than seeing their opponent have that similar volume from the three-point line. While it can be hard to watch, you have to understand its potential.
Yet, it was still incredibly frustrating to watch Collin Sexton and Darius Garland take turns abusing the drop coverage for floaters and free-throw line jumpers. But as the game wore on and the Clippers’ offense figured out how to score more effectively, the game broke wide open behind a barrage of Paul George’s three-pointers. The floaters that once felt like power-punches had begun to feel more like soft jabs. The coverage proved effective as the Cavs neglected the three-pointer completely, only attempting ten three-pointers in total and finishing the game with just 99 points. So, yes, the Clippers got bullied in the midrange, but they won the game by 21 points by making 16 more threes than Cleveland did. And when everything averaged out over the course of a full game, Sexton was just 5-14 from mid-range. It’s becoming increasingly harder to win NBA games with the bulk of your offensive production coming from inside the arc.
Defending Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum in a drop coverage was a much different experience than Cleveland’s guard combo. While “Sexland” didn’t generate any three-point attempts out of the pick-and-roll, Tatum converted on three of his four attempts. Four attempts isn’t an insane number due to Tatum’s ability to use his size to finish at the rim or make other decisions, but the shot is there for the taking. There is, however, a risk you take in using this defense down the stretch of games when stops are important. It was Kemba Walker’s go-ahead mid-range jumper off of the pick-and-roll that put the nail in the Clippers’ coffin.
Drop coverage isn’t going to be used against the elite, high-volume three-point shooters like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. The Clippers have already shown that won’t be the case this season. As for the others, Ty Lue seems willing to bet on the drop, concede two-point shots, and make opponents have to beat them with their decision-making all while trusting that the Clippers’ high-powered offense will continue to efficiently outexecute their opponents.
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