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.
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 clone 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 world-class violinist."
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.