This is the key to defensive success in the modern NBA

Plus: Volume 11 of Nekias's series: Screen Time

Welcome back to A Farewell to Takes, our quick trip around the NBA and WNBA. Last week, Tommy and I were joined by Derrick White on The Old Man and the Three. Loved catching up with him.

Today’s episode of The Old Man and the Three Things with Tim Legler will be up soon. Until then, check out this edit Jason and Richie put together. It’s my favorite video Jason has ever made.

On to this week’s A Farewell to Takes:

  • Nekias Duncan of The Dunker Spot shares Volume 11 of his series, Screen Time

  • Steve Jones Jr. of The Dunker Spot share some thoughts on modern defense

  • Tommy recommends another podcast

  • Tommy on the BTTALW (Best Thing Tommy Ate Last Week)

Thanks for reading! —JJ

Screen Time, Vol. 11: Nathan Mensah

Offenses have never been more lethal than they are in this era. With primary ball-handlers becoming larger, the collective shooting range expanding and teams leaning further into the importance of spacing, it’s becoming even more difficult to keep the ball out of the basket.

With the game expanding, screening has become even more important. A well-placed off-ball pick can free a movement shooter for a triple or a catch-and-drive. On-ball screens can make shifty ball-handlers even harder to deal with in pick-and-roll and open the door for dump-offs, lobs and fruitful catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Screeners come in all sizes these days, ranging from the burly centers to mismatch-causing smalls. I can’t overstate how important guard-screening has become, especially late in games.

This season, I want to keep tabs on who is — and isn’t — getting the job done as screeners. Every week, I’ll be highlighting a handful of the most powerful or shameful screen-setters in the league.

Let’s get into volume 11. All stats are from January 1st onward, unless otherwise noted.

Screener of the Week: Hornets big Nathan Mensah

There isn't much fun to talk about with the Charlotte Hornets these days. On the year, they're a bottom-five offense and would be the worst defense in the league if the Washington Wizards didn't exist. With LaMelo Ball out, this isn't a team with a bunch of flair -- aside from the so-under-the-radar-it's-worth-updating-your-system season from Terry Rozier and the literal flares within Charlotte's offense.

If we're looking for something, I'd toss the screening of Nate Mensah into the ring as that something.

That guy has been head-hunting since he started getting regular minutes. They're of the textbook variety, too: he's sure to establish a wide and sturdy base before laying the lumber. For a team looking to create advantages any way they can in the half-court without Ball, Mensah's screening has been a genuine asset.

Per Second Spectrum, Mensah ranked 5th among 42 players (min. 50 picks) in on-ball screen contact rate this week, converting on 66% of his screens. In terms of die-on-screen rate -- the true wipe-'em-out screens -- Mensah's 11.3 mark was tops in the league by a full five percentage points (Jusuf Nurkic, 6.3%). The next step for Mensah is rolling to the basket as hard as he screens, but hey. Baby steps!

Stray Thoughts:

  • Your most productive on-ball screener this week, minimum of 50 picks set? Warriors rookie big man Trayce Jackson-Davis! He made contact on over half his screens (54.6%), and the Warriors generated roughly 1.39 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a PnR with TJD. That, among many other things, is why Warrior fans and media have been pining for him to get more playing time.

  • In the Inverted Division, quick shoutouts to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (24 picks, 1.64 PPP, his work in Denver's Double Drag/PnR looks continue to be important), Josh Green (19 picks, 1.56 PPP, Luka and Kyrie send their regards), Fred VanVleet (19 picks, 1.35 PPP, top-20 in contact rate among 121 players to set at least 15 this week), Marcus Smart (28 picks, most set by a guard this week), and Cole Anthony (15 picks, 66.7% contact rate).


JJ and Tommy was joined by Derrick White on the latest episode for his second appearance on The Old Man and the Three. The Celtics guard shares what makes a good role player, how to impact winning as a role player, playing with Jrue and Porzingis. And as a bonus, this episode also has a rant from JJ about the false narrative that the foul rules favor the offensive player.

YouTube | Wondery+ | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | wherever you listen to your podcasts

On modern defense

On the most recent Islands in the League, JJ touched on the continued evolution of offensive efficiency and why NBA offenses are becoming harder and harder to guard. It’s a fair point considering last year’s Sacramento Kings record offensive rating of 118.6 would be the 8th best offensive rating this year, 0.1 behind the Denver Nuggets and less than a point above the Los Angeles Clippers (117.8) and New York Knicks (117.7). Think about that.

It’s not simply pace that impacts it; if you look at the top 10 teams in Pace on, 6 out of the top 10 are sub .500 teams (Wizards and Spurs are 2 and 3, Hawks and Pistons are 5 and 7, Lakers and Jazz are 9 and 10). If traditional stats are more of your jam, the 14-21 Atlanta Hawks are 3rd in the league in PPG with 122.2 a night. The Kings averaged 120.7 PPG last year. The Memphis Grizzlies are at the bottom of the league in PPG with 107.8 which feels a lot different than 10 seasons ago when they were 27th with 96.1 a night.

One of the things that stands out to me on the court, is defenses have a lot more to worry about. It’s not just the pace and tempo and space and shooting. It’s the drives, it’s teams attacking matchups, it’s having to make multiple efforts on a single possession over and over and over again. The teams that made those multiple efforts were typically considered some of the elite defenses in the league. Now defending 2-3 actions might mean you’ve survived the first 12 seconds of the shot clock.

Defense these days is about sustaining effort and avoiding breakdowns. You have to take a look at the amount of teams who can put pressure on your early in the clock, not just in transition but flowing into their secondary actions. Sure there are technical errors and breakdowns that occur. Overhelping continues to evade the league as the desire to make teams take and make tough two’s continues to slide away, opening plays up for offenses. On the other hand, that speaks to the talent level in the league. More guys who can space, more guys who can shoot, more versatility and … it’s a copy cat league. There are far more teams who can punish a defensive breakdown now than in the past. That used to be reserved for the elite offenses, now you see more and more teams understanding what the next pass, play or read is once you make a mistake.

Defensively the idea is to take what a team wants to do away, force them to do something else. How many teams are comfortable playing late in the clock these days? The days of stopping everything to call out a set and being able to sit on it have gone away. Schemes are fun to talk about but are ultimately static. The Bucks have been able to use Brook Lopez in a drop, have Giannis switch, use Bobby Portis to show at the level or switch and their biggest issue is the nights where their rotations are off, they can’t contain dribble penetration and they overhelp. The key to defensive success these days is having a strong base. Can you communicate, can you show help and recover, can you do that multiple times in a possession? Can you keep the ball in front, can you nail your rotations in pick and roll?

The talent level has increased, and offenses have continued to poke at defenses. Bigs are finding themselves having to adjust to different help positions on the floor, having to show early help and recover while also defending in pick and roll and protecting the rim. More and more teams have improved at scram switching players out of matchups they don’t like, more and more offenses have improved at attacking those rotations. Offenses are designed to take what defenses do and bend them consistently, tilting the floor to find an advantage. There are three phases of defense: anticipating, reacting and dictating … a whole lot of teams are having to react.

I will say defense is not gone you just have to alter the lens you see it in. There is a build up effect as we march to the playoffs, keep your eyes peeled. You still have moments where Boston will take Porzingis, put him on a non shooter, make all of your actions a switch everywhere else. Miami can still throw a zone defense out there to force your offense to return to the mud. The Nets may throw switching, traps and hedges at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in an attempt to just keep him out of rhythm. Scheme versatility and gameplans will continue to get stronger as the season goes on. The payoff will come in the playoffs. —Steve

What Tommy has been watching

Much has been written about the OG Anunoby trade and its immediate impact on the Knicks. The Dunker Spot touched on it last week, but I haven't seen as much bout the immediate impact on the Raptors. Since the trade, Toronto is the 4th best offense in the league (123.6 ORtg); they were 17th before. They are undefeated, and while more trades may be coming, they are intriguing in the bottom half of an East bracket that promises to have a lot of flux. Es Baraheni and Samson Folk and of The Rapcast do great job on socials and pods to generally breaking down the BTS of this team. This week's focus was on how the new pieces fit with Scottie Barnes and Siakam, and it was really smart and worth watching. —Tommy

Best Thing Tommy Ate Last Week: Squid and Scallion Skewers at Dame

Dame, a tiny spot on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Villlage, has been open for a few years now. The menu isn't complicated; it's almost all seafood with a vibe inside that feels more like a small family restaurant in Maine than a buzzing restaurant in NYC. Sue, Megan, Hasan, and I went there last Wednesday late after a show to check it out. While my expectations were pretty high, they were exceeded by the quality of the fish. Everything was great (the fish and chips, tuna tartare, kedgree rice), but the squid and scallion skewers appetizer easily stole the show. One of the best small plates I've had in New York in a long time. —Tommy

Dame | Instagram | 87 MacDougal St, New York, NY 10012

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