It should have gone the way of the two-handed set shot by now,
another dusty relic from an earlier time, as out of place in
today's NBA as big-band music in the age of hip-hop. In a sport
that is so often played above the rim by guys with nicknames
like Air and Glide, the pick-and-roll seems almost quaint in the
way it is rooted to the floor.
This is an article from the Nov. 13, 1995 issue
Yet it remains, year after year, one of the most reliable
tactics, a keystone of the pro offense. Watch any game and you
will see it repeatedly, a dozen, two dozen times. Tune in a game
at any point and you won't watch more than a few minutes before
it happens: A player sets a pick for the dribbler and then rolls
to an open spot, looking for a return pass and an easy basket.
"The pick-and-roll is the play you run right after The
Star-Spangled Banner," says Charlotte Hornet assistant coach and
noted defensive guru John Bach.
On one level it is such a simple play, but on another it is full
of nuance, with options on top of options. Like good sleight of
hand, if it is done deftly enough it will succeed even though
the opponent has seen it so many times before. "If you had five
guys who knew how to run the pick-and-roll and do it really
well, you wouldn't need any other offense," says Hall of Fame
guard Bob Cousy. "You could take your transition baskets when
they came, then sit back and run the pick-and-roll all night."
Some teams do almost exactly that. For the past four seasons the
New York Knicks under Pat Riley (now coaching the Miami Heat)
used the pick-and-roll constantly to initiate their offense and
free center Patrick Ewing for the medium-range jumpers he shoots
so well. And any team that cannot defend against the
pick-and-roll is likely to be fed a steady diet of it. "The
teams left standing near the end [of the postseason] are the
ones that know how to attack that play defensively," says Bach.
"It's essential. I guarantee that the first week of training
camp, every team in the league spent time working on the one or
two main ways they want to contain the pick-and-roll."
The play usually calls for the teaming of a David with a
Goliath: a small, clever guard with an imposing big man, like
Cousy and Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and
'60s, Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer with the Detroit Pistons in
the '80s, or the tandem widely regarded as the most dangerous
pick-and-roll pair in today's NBA, Utah Jazz guard John Stockton
and forward Karl Malone. "Malone comes out and sets that big
pick," says Cousy, "and Stockton handles the ball like a
But as the game has evolved, bigger ball handlers have become
just as adept at running the play as smaller point guards.
Six-foot-nine guard Magic Johnson ran it skillfully with center
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Los Angeles Lakers' glory days in
the 1980s, the same decade in which 6'9" Celtic forward Larry
Bird was moving behind screens set by center Robert Parish or
forward Kevin McHale. "I always thought it was such an easy play
when Robert and I ran it," says Bird. "To start with, he set
really great picks. That's where everything got going. Once he
set the pick, I was pretty sure we were either going to have a
mismatch or at least some room to get off a shot. Robert was
also great at rolling to the basket. If the defense switched, it
was so easy to just drop the ball down to him in the post."
Easy? True, it is one of the first pieces of teamwork children
learn in pickup games: Set a pick for a teammate and then slip
off unguarded as two defenders go after the man with the ball.
But that is just the theme around which skilled ball handlers,
penetrators, passers and shooters write volumes of variations.
Picture a clever guard like Stockton as he comes off a Malone
pick with the ball. "Depending on what the defense does, he can
penetrate to the basket or step back and shoot the jumper over
you, both of which he does equally well," says Bach. "Or he can
look for Malone, who may be diving to the basket or popping out
to an open spot for a jumper, both of which he can do equally
well. Two guys who know what they're doing can make the simple
little screen roll look like about half a dozen different plays."
The pick-and-roll also survives because even when it doesn't
lead directly to a basket, it often produces mismatches, which
NBA coaches value more highly than an endorsement deal with
Armani. Nothing pleases a coach more than to see his team on
offense with a lead-footed big man trying to guard a quick
little guy on the perimeter, or a smaller player trying to stop
a forward or center close to the basket. The pick-and-roll can
create those situations because it often forces defenders to
switch men and put themselves in unfamiliar positions on the
floor. "The biggest thing about the pick-and-roll is that it
keeps the defense off-balance," says Bird. "You're making your
opponents work, and you're forcing them into decisions. Then if
they make one little mistake, you've got yourself a basket."
It all begins with the pick. A solid screen can open up a wealth
of options, especially when it leaves an unsuspecting defender
checking his dental work. Among the players known for setting
particularly punishing picks are Malone, Detroit forward Otis
Thorpe and the bruising Knick triumvirate of Ewing and massive
forwards Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. "Have you ever been
reading something and walked right into a door? Bam!" says
Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson. "That's what it's like to run
into a pick by one of those guys. That's one thing that makes
the pick-and-roll so effective. You're trying to recover from
the pick, and the man you were supposed to be guarding is
nailing a jumper."
Defensive players understandably try to avoid running into such
human walls, and it is the ball handler's job to make sure that
they have no choice. The man with the ball must set up the pick
properly by coming as close to the pick setter as possible,
thereby leaving his defender no room to squeeze through.
Washington Bullet guard Mark Price is known for being
particularly adept at this maneuver, which forces his defender
to either run into the pick--leaving him a step or two behind and
allowing Price to penetrate--or to go behind the pick, which
gives Price the tiny opening he needs to display what may be the
quickest release on a jump shot in the league.
The more versatile the two offensive players are, the more
nightmarish the pick-and-roll is to defend against. It's hard
enough to try to contain Stockton, Price or Phoenix Sun guard
Kevin Johnson when one of them comes off a pick, but the job
becomes far more difficult when the big man who sets the pick is
an outside threat as well. While defenses could be fairly
certain that the Celtics' Russell, a weak outside shooter, would
roll to the basket after setting his pick, such current big men
as Ewing, Malone, Houston Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon and San
Antonio Spur center David Robinson are just as likely to slide
out into an area to shoot an open jumper. "What has happened now
is that big guys have become jump shooters," says Detroit coach
Doug Collins. "Ewing, Robinson, Olajuwon--instead of fighting
guys in the post, they've been fading. That makes it a difficult
play to stop because you're running across the floor to a guy
who's just faded to the corner. If your big guy can shoot it, it
can cause all kinds of problems."
Stockton labels this variation the "pick-and-pop." Laimbeer, who
had remarkable range for a big man, helped popularize the
option. This season look for new Phoenix center John (Hot Rod)
Williams, who teamed with Price for years on the Cleveland
Cavaliers, to work the pick-and-pop with Kevin Johnson.
The pick-and-roll becomes an even bigger problem for the defense
when the two offensive players know each other as well as do
Stockton and Malone, who have played together for 10 seasons.
They don't run the play as much as they used to--"A long time ago
we seemed to run it every other play," says Stockton--which makes
it even more remarkable that they often decide to run it without
the slightest communication. "It's just a feeling you get," says
Malone. After he sets the pick, it is up to him to decide what
spot to roll to, based on the position of the defenders.
Stockton must make the same read, and like a quarterback
throwing to a receiver, Stockton's pass is often on the way to
Malone before he has even arrived at the intended spot.
There are as many ways of defending against the pick-and-roll as
there are ways of running it. The first priority is to stop the
ball handler from penetrating. One of the most popular ways to
do that is to "blitz" the ball handler, an appropriate term
because it's similar to rushing the passer in football. The
defense sends two players--usually the men guarding the ball
handler and the pick setter--to double-team the dribbler as he
comes off the pick and then dispatches a third man to help on
the player who rolls. The double team on the ball handler is
meant to make it difficult for him to make a pass or penetrate.
It's a risky maneuver because the double-teaming and switching
take the defensive team out of man-to-man coverage and thus
leave it vulnerable to illegal-defense calls. But a team that
rotates well defensively can make the blitz work. "You're
basically trying to take the offense out of the play before it
can get rolling," says Portland Trail Blazer center Chris Dudley.
While they're at it, some defenses try to dole out enough
punishment to make guards think twice about running the play too
often. In recent years the Knicks have tended not only to
double-team the ball handler, but also to make a sandwich out of
him with as much body contact as they could get away with.
Price, for instance, is particularly adept at knifing through
double teams on the pick-and-roll, but in the playoffs against
Cleveland last year, New York made sure he was bumped and banged
every time he tried that strategy, and eventually it wore him
Another defensive technique against the pick-and-roll is what
Bach, who helped coordinate the Chicago Bulls' defense during
their three straight championship seasons in the early 1990s,
calls "showing your numbers." As the guard comes off the pick,
the big man matched up with the pick setter steps out to contain
the guard long enough for the original defender to catch up, and
then the big man scrambles back quickly to his own man. The big
man has to step far enough out and turn his body enough for the
ball handler to see his numbers, or else he hasn't contained the
guard. "The quicker big men, like Olajuwon and [Miami's Alonzo]
Mourning, can do this," Bach says. "Some guys, like Ewing, may
not be as quick, but they really commit and make it work."
But as defenses try to catch up to the pick-and-roll, the play
continues to evolve. "Teams used to set the pick in one area,"
says Magic assistant coach Richie Adubato. "Now they set the
pick all over the court. They will set it on the side, on the
top and on the move. Teams are now using it in fast-break
situations. We're seeing double pick-and-rolls [in which the
ball handler works with two men setting side-by-side picks].
That's even harder to stop because the defender can get over the
first pick, and now here comes the second. The defender has to
work twice as hard."
Defenders, like defenses, eventually catch up. "It's always in a
cycle," says Stockton. "One set of plays will work really well
for a time, and then defenses figure it out, and you go to
something else." But always, it seems, the cycle leads back to