WHAT'S THE SUREST WAY TO THE NBA? LEARN THE SIMPLE—YET UNSTOPPABLE—STANDBY THAT TEAMS ARE RELYING ON MORE THAN EVER
This is an article from the Oct. 29, 2012 issue
Late one evening in the fall of 2008, as the Weber State Wildcats hoisted jump shots after practice at the Dee Events Center, a freshman point guard named Damian Lillard made a promise that sounded like a boast. "I'm going to the NBA," he said. If he had been at Kentucky, the coaches might have shrugged, but at Weber State they laughed.
"You're clueless," replied one of the assistants, Phil Beckner. "For one thing, you don't know the pick-and-roll."
Lillard was, in fact, familiar with the play, having run it occasionally in high school with his AAU team, the Oakland Rebels. "I know pick-and-roll," he shot back.
"Bulls---," Beckner said.
A week later the coach presented Lillard with an eight-minute DVD of Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Deron Williams running 10 pick-and-rolls each. The freshman watched the video five times in his first sitting. "That was the beginning of everything," says Lillard, drafted sixth overall by the Trail Blazers in June. "I wanted to do what those guys were doing."
The pick-and-roll has been a pillar of NBA offenses since Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens were delivering pocket passes, but never has the set permeated playbooks as it does today. In 2004, when Synergy Sports began tracking the play, teams ran it on 14.5 possessions per game. Last season they were up to 26.1, and according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, the Spurs ran more than 60 pick-and-rolls per game against his team in the 2012 Western Conference finals, sometimes as many as six in a single possession. "You never saw that when I played," says Brooks, an NBA point guard from 1988 to '98. "There were a few throughout the game, but that was it. The pick-and-roll is at an alltime high right now. It's gotten to the point where if you don't have it in your package, you're behind."
The proliferation of the pick-and-roll is a natural by-product of the point guard revolution. When the NBA belonged to big men, coaches ordered their floor generals to dump entry passes into the post and stand back. Those same coaches now search for ways to keep the ball in their playmakers' hands. The pick-and-roll showcases the diverse talents of today's premier point guards, allowing them to drive, shoot, pass and make a complicated series of decisions all in the same set. Executed properly, the pick-and-roll spawns a five-on-four half-court fast break, with a ballhandler bouncing off a big man's high screen and evaluating his many options: bury a pull-up three-pointer, drive for a layup, kick to an open shooter, or lure two defenders from the paint and hit the screener careering to the basket for a rim-rattling dunk.
Not every pick-and-roll ballhandler is a point guard—think James Harden and LeBron James—but according to Synergy, eight of the nine most productive pick-and-roll teams last season had these luminaries at the point: Nash, Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Jason Kidd and Jeremy Lin. "Those guys are all so good and so offensive-minded, they can put you in a position where it's impossible to defend," says Brooks. "You're constantly picking your poison."
The pick-and-roll doesn't work for everyone, though. The Blazers finished 20th in pick-and-roll production last season, with pudgy point guard Raymond Felton lumbering around screens, clanking threes and underlining a fundamental truth about the NBA's most popular play: You must find the right person to initiate it, wherever he might be—even at Weber State.
Before every practice Beckner and Lillard worked together almost exclusively on the pick-and-roll. Beckner acted as the defender, and a trash can or folding chair was the screener. When Lillard dribbled around the obstacle and Beckner hopped out on him, Lillard was confronted with the decision that faces every pick-and-roll point guard: drive, dish or let fly. In its 2008--09 Big Sky opener against Northern Colorado, Weber State trailed by three points in the final seconds and called a play for guard Kellen McCoy. But when Northern Colorado denied McCoy, Lillard waved a teammate over for a pick, turning him into an imaginary trash can. The defender ducked under the screen, and the fearless freshman sank a 23-footer at the buzzer to force overtime. "Pick-and-roll is such a big part of the NBA, and we knew Damian had a chance to get [to the league]," says Weber State coach Randy Rahe, "so it only made sense to add more of it to our offense."
College teams use brush screens to free dribblers, but only a few run the pick-and-roll as frequently as NBA clubs. Though the play is one of the most basic in the game—it's a staple of playground two-on-two—most point guards don't learn the intricacies until they turn pro. Rahe came up with five different pick-and-roll actions for Lillard and called them as many as 15 times per game. Beckner and Lillard studied clips of all the pick-and-rolls alongside cut-ups of Paul's and Parker's. NBA scouts flocked to the Weber State campus in Ogden, Utah. "All our analytics told us he was the most effective pick-and-roll player in college basketball," says Blazers general manager Neil Olshey. "Then you go to see him and he's running middle pick-and-rolls, side pick-and-rolls, and he's involving others. He had a translatable skill."
Of course, a point guard can memorize every nuance of the pick-and-roll and get nowhere if he can't shoot. At 6'3", 195 pounds, Lillard is a power guard who sank 39.0% of his three-pointers as a Wildcat, comparable with Nash's 40.1% at Santa Clara. "Steve Nash is the best at pick-and-roll because of his shooting," says Mike D'Antoni, who coached him in Phoenix. "That makes everything easier."
When Nash bounds off a pick, his defender has to climb over the screener, lest he give Nash the space to pull up and fire. Once the defender goes over, Nash has a head start to the basket, and his team is playing five-on-four. On the other hand, Boston's Rajon Rondo shoots 24.1% from three-point range, so when he dribbles around a screen, his defender can slide under the screener, regain position and dare Rondo to put it up.
Few point guards shoot as well as Nash, but in order to run the pick-and-roll consistently, all must shoot well enough to make the defender go over. Chicago's Derrick Rose crossed that threshold in his third season, and now he scores the most points per game of any pick-and-roll ballhandler (chart, page 69). D'Antoni used to give Nash a checklist once he cleared the screen: The first option was a pocket pass back to the screener; if that was covered, Nash continued to the basket; if he was cut off, he kicked to a shooter. Only in the final minutes did Nash actually use the screen for his own three. "If we run this, I don't care what the defense is doing, they're not stopping it," D'Antoni says. "We may mess up or miss a shot, but you can't really stop it."
Nash has made millions for whatever big man is fortunate enough to play with him. Last season Suns power forward Marcin Gortat scored the most points per game of any roll man, according to Synergy. In 2005--06, when Amar'e Stoudemire was injured, Shawn Marion, Tim Thomas and Boris Diaw all finished in the top eight. In Los Angeles, Nash will be partnered with Dwight Howard, a celebrity marriage in the pick-and-roll world. "I just don't know if you can do better than that," D'Antoni says.
Every team is trying to develop its own incarnation of John Stockton and Karl Malone, the pair that sparked the pick-and-roll craze. "We were a lot different, though," says Jerry Sloan, who coached Stockton and Malone with the Jazz. "Now teams are running it from the start of games, spacing the floor, using it to get threes. John and Karl saved it for the end when they got into trouble. Karl would set a screen, and it was like running into a piece of cast iron. Then he'd flare out for a jump shot. We didn't invent anything. We just had the right guys."
The archetypal roll man is accurate enough to pop out for a midrange jumper and swift enough to drive to the rim for a layup. A prime example is Hornets forward Anthony Davis, the first overall pick in the June draft. Another is Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who just needed a savvy point guard to take advantage of his skills. "When I come off the screen, and LaMarcus's man goes to me, I've noticed that he likes to roll just under the free throw line," Lillard says. "If I can make that pass to him, he'll stop right above the block for a short pull-up jumper."
The pick-and-roll is a dance, one big partner and one small, moving in a mosh pit. At Weber State, Lillard relied on the play to create shots for himself. In Portland he will use it to benefit Aldridge. "He has to play off LaMarcus," says Blazers assistant David Vanterpool. "He has to figure out how to let the pick-and-roll develop and when to pass the ball."
The first play of Lillard's pro career was promising. Against the Hornets in the Las Vegas Summer League, Lillard dribbled around a pick by rookie Meyers Leonard and noticed that his defender was climbing over the screen. Word was already out on Lillard's jumper. The point guard saw Leonard slipping to the hoop and threaded a one-handed bounce pass that Leonard collected and laid in. "It was unbelievable to see somebody so young with that skill," Leonard says of Lillard. "He's one of a kind."
During training camp Olshey asked Lillard how he was holding up, and the rookie responded, "I can't believe how easy this is." Lillard played four years at a college that prepared him for something beyond the Sweet 16. He didn't become a lottery pick in spite of Weber State. He became a lottery pick because of it.
On opening night the Blazers will host the Lakers, and then they will travel to Oklahoma City. Lillard will quickly discover that he is not in Ogden anymore. Just as teams are running the pick-and-roll more, they are also devising new ways to stop it. In the first two games of the Western Conference finals the Spurs cleaved the Thunder with their incessant pick-and-rolls. Then Brooks adjusted, switching on screens with flyswatters such as Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, and the Thunder reeled off four straight victories. The Spurs' production in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, fell by more than 16 points per game after Game 2.
While the best offensive pick-and-roll players tend to be explosive guards who are also three-point threats and big men who can shoot midrange jumpers, the desired defenders are long-armed power forwards and centers who can rush out to the perimeter and scramble back to the paint. The Celtics, with Kevin Garnett, and the Bulls, with Joakim Noah, are among the top three in opposing pick-and-roll field goal percentages. "Damian is precocious in NBA terms," says Blazers coach Terry Stotts, "but defenses will make his pick-and-rolls a priority."
The pterodactyls are coming, Ibaka and Garnett in Lillard's chest and under his chin, hedging and harassing 25 feet from the basket. The rookie can't wait. It's how he rolls.