It's strange to look at a player who scored 27.0 points per game in a season and say that he struggled, but in the 2009-10 season, that was the case for Kobe Bryant. After posting a PER of 23 or better for nine straight years, Bryant's PER dropped to 21.9 two seasons ago. One of the reasons Bryant declined was how defenses played him in the pick-and-roll. For some reason, that changed and Bryant was able to have a bounceback season in 2010-11, as his PER returned to 23.9.
Two years ago, Bryant was ineffective in pick-and-roll situations, scoring .743 points per possession while shooting 37.8 percent when receiving a screen. That put Bryant in the bottom 40 percent among all NBA players in terms of PPP. When Bryant came off of ball screens, it was apparent that defenses didn't want him to get an open jumper off the dribble, which is always Bryant's first option. To defend that, opponents rarely went under Bryant's ball screens, doing so only 11.1 percent of the time. Instead, they went over screens and tried to contest Bryant's dribble jumper:
They way that defenses tried to play Bryant two years ago was to have the man defending him go over the ball screen and have the man defending the screener hedge out and show. This prevented Bryant not only from getting to the rim, but also from getting open looks with the dribble jumper because both defenders would contest the shot. This resulted in Bryant hitting on just 36.4 percent of his dribble jumpers when using ball screens.
For whatever reason, this sound defensive strategy changed this past season year. Possibly because opponents thought Bryant lost something on his jumper, defenses started going under ball screens when Bryant used them. In fact, after going under them just 11.1 percent of the time two years ago, defenses went under ball screens 25.6 percent of the time. The result was better performance in pick-and-roll situations for Bryant. Last year, Bryant scored .829 PPP, good enough to put him in the top 35 percent of the league, on 40.4 percent shooting. Specifically on dribble jumpers, Bryant shot 43.7 percent. This jump in shooting percentage was due to more defenders going under screens, resulting in more open shots:
Going under screens is much easier on the defender than fighting over screens, getting hit, and working through the contact. The easier play means giving up something--space, in this situation. While there is only limited airspace, because defenses are quickly going under screens then returning to Bryant to contest, that split second where his man is going under the screen and hasn't gotten back to him yet is enough time for Bryant to pull up and knock down the open jumper.
As I mentioned previously, I don't know what caused this change. The Lakers were still having Bryant use ball screens the same way, either up top or on the wing coming to the middle, but after having success stopping him in pick-and-roll situations two years ago, defenses tried something different. It didn't work. I would expect that "Defense Goes Under" number to drop back down to the range it was at two years ago, if not go lower, and defenses will return to trying to get Bryant to take contested jumpers. If they return to this strategy, they should have success stopping him once again.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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