Joel Embiid and James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers are diametrically opposed as player types. Harden has averaged more than 10 assists a game for two seasons in a row and led the league in isolations per possession every season since at least 2015-16while Embiid has led the league in post-ups per possession every season since 2019-20. Such players should draw vastly different types of defenders, so when Embiid sets a pick for Harden, switching the defenders guarding each player ought to be anathema to an intelligent defense.
Yet during Game 1 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Embiid set 20 screens for Harden, and the Raptors switched on 10 of them — tied for the 19th most in a single playoff game since 2013-14, when Second Spectrum began tracking data. Game 2 saw three more Toronto switches on nine Embiid-for-Harden screens, and Game 3 six more on 19 total pick and rolls between the two.
Switching pick and rolls, or asking two defenders to simply exchange whom they are guarding, doesn’t have a long history in the NBA. In capitalizing on Draymond Green’s unique ability to defend any position, Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors catapulted it to the forefront of the league during the team’s series of championship runs. This approach ranked some viewers because of the “laziness” they saw in it, but it soon spread beyond the Golden State. The Houston Rockets took the process a step further behind the talents of Harden as a guard who was capable of defending anyone in the post.
The 2018 Western Conference finals matchup between the Rockets and Warriors represented perhaps the pinnacle of switching in an NBA playoff series, as both teams switched the majority of picks. (Their postseason runs in 2018 actually rank first and second, respectively, in switches per 100 possessions since 2013-14.) If switching was an advantageous innovation in 2018, competency in the move has since become almost a necessary requirement for NBA teams. In 2014-15, the Warriors and Rockets each ran over 1,000 switches. This year, 25 teams have reached that mark, with three crossing the 2,000-switch threshold.
Not only are more teams adopting the strategy, but it’s also increasingly replacing other approaches to defending pick and rolls. But switching has largely been more effective, especially this season, than other options.
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Within the overall rise in switching, there’s a strong correlation between teams that switch well and those that win games. This year, the 14 teams that conceded the lowest points per chance when switching in the regular season all qualified for the play-in games or postseason.
Switching specifically counters the evolution of NBA offenses over the past several years. With corners-filled pick and rolls spacing the floor more than ever off the ball and pull up shooting spacing the floor more than ever before on the ball, defenses are stretched thin. In the same way that predator and prey coevolve to gain advantages on one another — like bats using echolocation only for moths to develop erratic flight patterns — NBA offenses and defenses evolve in direct response to the other’s development.
Switching defuses the exploding offenses of the pace-and-space era. Because ball defenders don’t have to jump far beyond the 3-point line, as they often do for defensive options like “over” or “weak” coverage, switching allows defenses to unstretch and remain closer together. There are a variety of benefits. Outside of blitzes, switching is the pick-and-roll defense type least likely to result in the ball handler shooting or a defender dying on the screen and the most likely to result in the screener committing a turnover. This season, three of the teams that ranked in the top seven in terms of switching frequency also ranked in the top seven at forcing opponents into longer offensive possessions.
NBA teams’ decision to switch is rooted in their defensive identity, with teams trying to imprint their preferences on opposing offenses: slower play, forcing the ball away from primary ball handlers and keeping defenders in relative stasis without having to rotate far away from the rim . It’s a means of reasserting control.
The battle between the Raptors and Sixers is in part one of identity and control. The Raptors switch and layer traps and rotations behind the action so that if the player drives past his new defender, he’ll be met by more long-armed foes. They led the league in opposing turnover rateaccording to Cleaning the Glass, and they were second at forcing turnovers from either the ball handler or the screener after a switched pick and roll, per Second Spectrum.
Toronto’s intention with such a frantic style of defense is to spark transition offense, largely because the Raptors ranked 26th in half-court offense in points per play during the regular season. Pace and identity on one end bypass team weaknesses on the other end.
But the Raptors aren’t the only team switching pick and rolls in the series. In fact, the Sixers have done it only slightly less frequently. To this point in the postseason, Philadelphia ranks 13th and Toronto fifth in terms of frequency of switches against pick and rolls in a playoff run since 2013-14. The Sixers have switched a sizable number of Fred VanVleet’s pick and rolls and a majority run by Pascal Siakam. Toronto wants to play in the post and force rotations to open up threes and offensive rebounds. In Harden, the Sixers have a guard who has long proven himself capable of defending the post in a switch. When defending the ballhandler, he has given up only 2 points in three post-ups so far in the series. Furthermore, switching at the point of attack is meant to minimize rotations, keeping the Sixers in position to rebound Toronto’s misses.
Those intentions haven’t translated to ideal results on the court for either team. Toronto’s switching and attention to Harden and Embiid has allowed Tyrese Maxey to run wild, averaging 26.7 points per game on 69.0 percent effective field-goal percentage.
Meanwhile, VanVleet hasn’t yet attempted a shot in the 17 pick and rolls that the Sixers have switched with him handling, but his teammates have thrived with Embiid out of the paint facing VanVleet.
Both offenses have evolved in direct response to the threats posed by switching. The oft-static Sixers boast the player who led the league in isolations and the player who led the league in post-ups, yet instead it was Maxey powering the offense for the first two games as a release valve with his shooting and dynamic drives. After seeing a smaller rate of switches in the regular season against the Sixers, Siakam attacked switches aggressively in Game 1, making the play one of Toronto’s most efficient options. Both teams saw better defensive results switching in Game 2, so the two coaches developed new offensive plans to defeat the switch in Game 3. With Toronto paying more attention to Maxey, the Sixers played search and destroy with Toronto’s switches, as Harden hit two pull -up triples en route to the Sixers scoring 13 points out of the six Harden-Embiid pick and rolls that were switched. Meanwhile, the Raptors sought to draw Embiid out of the paint by having whomever Embiid guarded set 33 on- and 16 off-ball screens, mostly for Gary Trent Jr. and VanVleet — Toronto’s only capable pull-up shooters.
Switching has in part allowed Toronto to keep pace with philadelphia in the half court so far, but transition play — when pick and rolls are far less critical — has rocketed the Sixers to a 3-0 series lead. Both teams continue to wrestle for control of identity when their opponent has the basketball in the half court, and if Toronto is going to tread untrodden ground and come back in the series, it will need to innovate even further in defending the Harden-Embiid pick and roll without opening the court up for Philadelphia’s supporting cast. Whichever team manages to move on, more switching awaits it in future rounds. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat finished first and second in switching frequency this regular season and first and seventh in fewest points allowed per chance.
The NBA has undergone dramatic and rapid evolution in the past few years, resulting in 2021-22 recording the second-highest offensive rating since the stat was first calculated in 1973-74. But Newton’s third law always finds a way to balance the scales. Switching is the latest in the evolutionary arms race of NBA tactics. Who knows what adaptation offenses will develop next?
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