Peyton Manning is often described as a wizard, and genius, and all that may be true. But as Grantland’s Chris Brown writes, he didn’t earn that reputation by mastering complex plays.
His story on Manning and the Bronco offense that No. 18 imported from his time with the Colts got me thinking about, what else, basketball, and specifically about the effecitiveness of the spread pick-and-roll offense.
The obvious NBA parallel to Manning and his simple-but-unstoppable “Dig” and “Dag” plays (more on that in a bit) is Steve Nash, who captained the best offense in the NBA for a number of years relying almost exclusively on the spread pick-and-roll and the occasional quick-hitter.
The reason that the spread pick-and-roll worked so marvelously for the Suns then and continues to be an effective look today for teams like the Knicks, Spurs and Rockets, is that it’s a simple play that can only be defended a few different ways. So, when an offense runs it over and over, it has the opportunity to figure out how the defense is going to approach that play and then can react accordingly. Here’s Brown on Manning’s offense:
By using a small number of personnel groups — typically either three wide receivers and a tight end, or two wide receivers and two tight ends — it limited the number of possible responses from the defense and made it easier for Manning to diagnose its weak spots from both a speedy no-huddle (used whenever a defense tried to substitute) and a regular pace of play.
The small number of plays essentially put the full offense at Manning’s disposal at any time, and by combining few formations with few plays, both veterans and newcomers to the offense had their acclimation eased by the small number of tasks. There were just a handful of routes, typically from one side of the field or the other, run just the way Manning liked them. Despite media intimations to the contrary, the most sophisticated quarterback in the NFL ran what was arguably its simplest offense.
There you have it. A perfect explanation of why the spread-pick-and-roll is so tough to stop, just written about Peyton Manning.
Just as keeping personnel groupings and routes simple made for better communication between Manning and his receivers, spreading the floor by moving the non-screening big man to the perimeter has the effect of removing defensive clutter from the paint. Though there are a number of different passes the ballhandler can make, really he just has to pressure to paint off the dribble — a task aided by a good ball screen — then either shoot or pass to the guy who is open when a defender comes to help.
Depending on where Nash roams with his dribble, he can manipulate the defense into a few predictable responses. And because they ran the same look on possession-after-possession, game-after-game, they got really, really good at running it. Especially Nash, who got to make the same reads over-and-over. And because he happens to be a phenomenal shooter with great vision, he was able to run the best offense in the league.
But what’s great about the concept of spreading things out and making the read simple and repeatable is that it helps lesser players like Jeremy Lin and Raymond Felton. The Knicks and Rockets have the second and seventh best offenses in the league. Though Carmelo Anthony and James Harden’s respective play in isolations are a huge part of those offenses, they also, at their best, rely heavily on high pick-and-rolls and lots of 3-point shots.
Felton and Lin may be good point guards, but point guards of two top offenses? Not likely. That they excel in the spread pick-and-roll is a credit to a system that fosters simple, repeatable reads and lots of 3-pointers and layups. It’s no surprise that both teams acquired a great screening big man (Omer Asik and Tyson Chandler) and made their power forwards shooters (Carmelo Anthony moved to the “four” and Houston asked Marcus Morris to become a shooter) before the offenses took off.
At this point, it’s no mystery that this system works. Thanks to Chris Brown for helping to explain just why it works to well.