Snaking the Ball Screen

Damian Lillard

Did you learn anything as the NBA Playoffs advanced to the Conference Finals?  Other than the fact that the seven-game format once again makes it very difficult for the lower seeds to advance, there probably wasn’t much there, but this old dog did pick up a trick or two.  I was reminded again how important it is to keep adjusting, to keep learning, and to keep improving.  The basic pick and roll is changing before our eyes.  I find myself once again learning to adjust as I watch the best players in the world and see the back and forth adjustments made by coaches to both utilize and stymie ball screens.  In many cases, it’s the game within the game right now and as I watched each series I learned a new technique called “snaking” a ball screen.  No more is it simply pick and roll or pop or accelerate.  Now we’re going to add snaking!


Coaching in the playoffs truly is a chess match.  It’s a chess match of exploiting mismatches and creating small advantages on either side of the ball.  That’s why the ball screen is such an important element and has become one of the first things coaches at any level address.  It’s the first thing our team considers and it typically is the first defensive adjustment we make in any game.  We may simply switch and deal with mismatches through our help defense.  We may go under screens and allow open shots to poor shooters or we may trap and use ball screens as a way to trigger a scramble on defense.  But it’s not just the defense that makes adjustments.  The offense will adjust too, and for me as an offensive coach, I have to decide – do I teach a standard, limited way to use and read ball screens or do I learn and grow and make adjustments?

Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

I was influenced in my career by former NBA assistant coach, Mike Thibault, who currently has the most career coaching wins in the WNBA.  After watching Mike’s teams in training camp, I learned to stress the importance of having ball-handlers stretch a ball screen by using at least two dribbles to get past a screen.  This forces the defense to declare how they’re defending, especially early in games. By forcing post defenders to show or hedge, quicker ball-handlers can attack the bigs and accelerate to force the action.  I still believe it’s a very important concept!  But now, NBA teams have adjusted once more by “snaking.”   For a detailed looked at the chess match of ballscreens, consider Zach Lower’s thorough look in Avoiding NBA Extinction.  He brought up the concept of snaking earlier in the season on

 ” . . . by having their ball handlers go around the pick in one direction, and then veer right back the other way, toward the middle of the floor. . .Teams call this “snaking” the pick-and-roll, and it’s a way to lure the Blazers (and other teams that use this strategy) into switching a big man onto a smaller ball handler.”  

And here’s a quick example from James Harden of the Rockets:

As I learned more, I was fascinated to watch how many guards snake off of ball screens.  Portland’s Damian Lillard and the Clippers’ Chris Paul are two of the best and can be best appreciated when you watch compilations of the reads they make when using a ball screen, like these highlights of Lillard:

While there are many big men who can aggressively slide and show in one direction, there are few who can react quickly enough to slide back against a snake.  And that’s how great ball-handlers can create even more opportunities off the ball screen.  In the conference finals watch for Lance Stephenson, Russell Westbrook, and the crafty Tony Parker to snake off ball screens.  You’ll see it a lot!

LIFE – Make the adjustment.

If you’ve been with me the past year, you’ll know that the concept of making adjustments is very important to me.  While I struggle like everyone else with making adjustments in certain areas in my life, I’ve come to realize that apathy and sitting still when the world changes around us is something to avoid.  Too many of us are unwilling to make the adjustments, but even more of us aren’t even aware we need to adjust!  Certainly it’s important to identify your core values and relentlessly hold on to them, but there are times we need to tweak our approach.

Right now, my daughter is learning how to drive.  This idea of being aware and then making adjustments is extremely vital.  She’ll get it.  I’m just praying it will be soon!

FAITH – Growth through adjustments.

Good coaches and players realize that you need the fundamentals and you need core principles, but it’s foolish not to adjust as the game changes.  Our faith walk in a broken, sinful world is the same.  If you sleepwalk through life and refuse to adjust to the pressures and influences of our society, you’ll quickly find yourself walking outside of God’s will:

 Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. (2 Peter 3:17)

That’s why, like a good coach, each of us must continue to learn and adjust.  We can find different ways to address those habits and influences that tear us down before we even realize what’s going on!   And as Solomon tells us,

Get wisdom, get understanding;
    do not forget my words or turn away from them.  (Proverbs 4:5)


2 thoughts on “Snaking the Ball Screen

  1. Pingback: Throwback Monday: Snaking the Ball Screen | 3 Point Wisdom

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