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 down.
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 the pick-and-roll.