Term: Weak (Defense)
Definition: A pick-and-roll defense in which the on-ball defender shades the ball-handler toward his left hand.
(Note: Please read the dictionary entries for “drop” and “ice” before beginning below. This will allow for a more complete understanding of the weaking concept, as elements that overlap between the three terms will not be thoroughly reexamined here.)
Explanation: Even at the NBA level, most players are one-hand dominant. In the pick-and-roll, this can be particularly detrimental to playmaking. Although it does not typically limit a ball-handler’s ability to throw a short pocket pass or finish at the rim, the weak side of the floor can become inaccessible as off-hand cross-court passes lose their zip. Some players are not even able to throw these passes with their off hand in the first place.
NBA defenses attack this deficiency by “weaking” middle pick-and-rolls — pushing ball-handlers to their left hand regardless of the screen’s directionality. The result is essentially a combination of coverages: an ice when the screen comes on the on-ball defender’s left side, and a drop when it comes on the right. Either way, the ball-handler moves to his left.
Against left-handed players, the terminology can, on the surface, cause some confusion. “Weaking” a lefty guides the ball toward his dominant hand, defeating the purpose of the coverage. Wouldn’t weaking a lefty, then, mean forcing him right?
While this might seem logical, it lacks practicality in the chaos of game action. When a defensive big — the one who calls out all pick-and-roll coverages to the on-ball defender — yells “weak” to his on-ball teammate, he cannot reasonably expect the on-ball defender to properly assess the handedness of the ball-handler and instantaneously push him to that particular ball-handler’s weak hand. Although it is true that defenders should know opposing personnel, defenders generally cycle through multiple matchups within each game. Furthermore, this type of inverse thinking — remembering the handedness of the ball-handler and forcing him opposite — leads to mistakes.
The easier solution — and the one that most teams stick to — is to assign left as “weak,” and right as “strong.” This places the burden of thinking on the defensive big, who usually has time to assess the handedness of the ball-handler before the ball-screen occurs. This also allows the on-ball defender to become instinctually reactive to the coverage call. Because the entire weak and strong pick-and-roll defense relies on his ability to guide the ball in a specific direction, any time he wastes deciphering his duties is time for the ball-handler to break the coverage.
Another important point here is that the weaking only occurs in the middle. Although making ball-handlers operate on their off hand favors the defense, the extra defender that the sideline provides is an even greater advantage. If a right-handed player uses a right side pick-and-roll, weaking him would push him middle. This is a much less favorable outcome than icing the side ball-screen and sending him down to the corner — even if he’s on his strong hand.
Before we dive into the detailed mechanics of the coverage itself, it’s important to note that “weak” and “strong” do not always refer to this type of pick-and-roll defense. As mentioned in the “drop” explanation, single-syllable coverage calls are always easier for the defensive big to yell repeatedly. Teams who do not weak pick-and-rolls in the traditional sense sometimes use this term as a replacement for “drop right” and “drop left” — that is, they’re responding to the direction of the screen instead of pushing the ball somewhere intentionally. With one word instead of two, the defensive big can provide a coverage and a direction.
How to Weak a Middle Pick-and-Roll
A weak or strong of a middle ball-screen is often a natural continuation of how many players guard on the perimeter. Against a dangerous offensive player, defenders try to gain the upper hand by forcing their man to his lesser area of strength — his off hand. When an offensive big moves into a ball-screen, he usually prioritizes contact over direction. This means he will cede to the stance of the on-ball defender and set his screen on the defense’s preferred side.
Look at how Ricky Rubio of the Utah Jazz aligns his feet as Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics brings the ball across half-court. Rubio is already gently shading Irving to his weak (left) hand. As Irving’s teammate Al Horford sprints out to set a ball-screen, he has two choices. Setting it on Rubio’s left would require a circuitous route from Irving to get around Rubio’s body, which is primed to block that path. Setting it on Rubio’s right would make for an easier point of contact, as Rubio is already conceding this space. Irving also has the ball on his left, and would not need extra effort to steer Rubio into the screen.
All of this makes Horford’s choice easy, and he chooses Rubio’s right side.
As with any ball-screen coverage, getting into the ball-handler is crucial. Once Horford declares his side, Rubio’s teammate who is guarding Horford, Jonas Jerebko, communicates the coverage. Rubio now has one job: do not let Irving go right. Otherwise, Jerebko will be caught on the wrong side of the screen and Irving can slice right down the middle of the floor.
As we can see in the video of the play below, this is an example of how a weak mirrors a drop mechanically. The only real difference is that the weak is active versus reactive. In a drop against a middle pick-and-roll, the defense does not care on which side of the on-ball defender the screen is set. The offense, therefore, is in the driver’s seat. In a weak, the defense dictates to the offense.
Differentiating between a weak and a drop on film is often difficult. In both coverages, the on-ball defender gets into the ball upon hearing the coverage call and does not let the ball-handler reject the screen. In both coverages, the defensive guard goes over or under. In both coverages, the defender guarding the screener is in an aggressive or deep drop, starting at or below the level of the screen and staying between the ball and the basket.
The same goes for the difference between a weak and an ice. Above, Horford chooses the easiest path for screening contact — morphing the weak effectively into a drop. But in the play below, Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies makes the opposite choice. Notice how he never actually sets a screen on Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets. This weak, therefore, turns into an ice.
Or is this coverage just an ice all the way through?
Without actually knowing the precise pick-and-roll coverages beforehand, it is a guessing game. Hearing the defensive big call out “weak” before a ball-screen and seeing this type of on-ball footwork can sometimes be an indicator, but even this can be misleading. As mentioned before, this can still simply be a synonym for a “drop right,” “drop left,” or the team’s term for an ice coverage.
More predictive is the timing of the big’s call and the subsequent on-ball reaction. If the defensive big indicates a coverage well before the screener has even declared a side, and the on-ball defender immediately starts pushing the ball one way or the other, it can be reasonably assumed that the pick-and-roll defense is a weak or strong. Remember that, in a drop, the big gives a coverage and a direction. If he doesn’t know the direction when he’s picking his coverage, he must be telling his on-ball teammate to force the ball one way regardless of the screen side.
The pick-and-roll defense below by Pau Gasol and Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs is a good example of this. Notice how Patty Mills slowly slides to cut off the right side of the floor well before Deyonta Davis of the Memphis Grizzlies sets a ball-screen for teammate Andrew Harrison.
Further evidence is the run-up angle of Davis before the screen. Based on where he starts, it would be logical for him to set the ball-screen on Mills’ left side. But because of the way the Spurs want to weak this ball-screen, Davis takes the guaranteed contact and changes his screening angle to the right.
Deciphering an opponent’s pick-and-roll coverage is more than just an intellectual exercise. Although there might not be direct practical consequences in the moment of the play since the weak functionally transforms into a drop or ice, understanding an opponent’s motives can provide game planning advantages. Just because the weak looks like a drop or ice does not mean they all originate with the same intentions. Remember that, in a weak, the defense actively coerces the ball’s direction to the weak hand. In a drop, the defense is reactive. In an ice, the defense is once again proactive, but primarily concerned with using the sideline as its main advantage. The offensive counters designed to exploit all of these coverages depend on knowledge of these differences.
The Importance Of An Early Weak
The advantages provided by a weak — its active posture and sending the ball to the weak hand — are obvious and would seem to encourage its use as much as possible. But the weak does have a downside.
Similar to an ice, being early, loud and continuous with a weak call is of prime importance. A late call hinders the on-ball guard’s ability to cut off one side of the floor, and the late effort to push the ball-handler in the specified direction can actually lead to a complete blow-by. This is magnified by the fact that all of this occurs in the open space of the middle of the floor as opposed to the tighter area along the sideline in an ice.
We can see this in action for Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz below, when he cannot jump to the right side of Dion Waiters of the Miami Heat in time. Despite the handicapped position, Mitchell cannot abort his effort and move into a completely trail. He is committed to a continued slide, and in an effort not to foul, finally allows Waiters to turn the corner cleanly.
Rudy Gobert, Mitchell’s teammate, is left in a two-on-one with little hope of Mitchell, now the rearview pursuer, getting back in the play. Gobert guesses that Waiters will dish it to the rolling big, Hassan Whiteside. Waiters keeps it instead and scores.
One of the benefits of the more conservative drop is that these situations do not happen. Generally, the on-ball defender jumps immediately into a rearview pursuit, staying connected to the ball-handler and fighting to get back in front. When a weak coverage fails, the gate blows wide open.
That’s why some coaches do not implement a weak pick-and-roll coverage across the board. Instead, they target especially talented players or those with a significant left-right skill discrepancy. For players who are not that talented to begin with, the increased risk might not be worth the minimal reward.
There is no practical difference between a “strong” and “weak” pick-and-roll coverage other than direction. Weak is also the active coverage which the defense wants to implement. Strong is the default when the defense does not have time to dictate. Against a left-handed ball-handler, however, this idea is reversed because as mentioned earlier, it is easier to label “weak” as force left and “strong” as force right as a rule of thumb. “Weak” as weak hand requires too much mental manuevering in the flow of play.
Here’s an example of the New Orleans Pelicans trying to strong James Harden of the Houston Rockets. Jrue Holiday, who starts in a force right position, is all but daring the lefty Harden to go to his weak hand. Nene Hilario, who moves in to set a drag on Holiday, changes his screening angle to ensure contact — further encouraging Harden to move to his right. Harden with little choice as to his direction, submits.
The off-ball rotations involved in a weak — stunts against pops, tags against rolls and paint switches when necessary — all follow the same exact rules as a drop or ice. The only difference is that these off-ball players must remain a touch more mentally sharp throughout the coverage call. In a drop or ice, the audible call should trigger specific tagging or stunting responses. In a weak, these off-ball players must be clued in visually, as either a drop or ice could develop in a given situation. Most players are already tracking man and ball anyway, but this dual recognition is an added must for a weak.
Film Study: “Weak”
Below is a video compilation of various examples of NBA defenses weaking middle pick-and-rolls. Listen for the early coverage calls and be on the lookout for how the on-ball defender shifts into a one-side shade before the screener establishes his direction. Also notice how the responsbilities of the off-ball players change depending on whether the mechanics end up resembling a drop against a roll, drop against a pop, ice against a roll or ice against a pop.