NBA tactical discussion : The art of ‘Pick and Roll’


The most lethal and unguardable move in all of basketball today is the pick and roll.

When executed correctly, a pick and roll will almost always lead to an open shot, either near the rim or from the player’s preferred spot on the court. It is actually one of the easiest plays to set, a move that involves a minimum of two players to execute. With a number of variations also possible with each move, the defense always has to be on their toes to stop the opposition from scoring.

How does it really work then? Well, the ball handler usually will bring the ball up near the three point line. The center or power forward will set the screen on the player guarding the ball handler. This will create a mismatch and confusion. The defending center will have to switch over to the ball handler and the man guarding the ball handler has to switch to the big man. Going over and under screens is also possible, but not always feasible. When the pick is set, the big man has to then roll towards the basket to complete the move. In this way, many opportunities open up. Firstly, the ball can be thrown to the guy rolling towards the basket, giving him an easy shot close to the rim, either unguarded or guarded by a smaller player.

This is the most staple of all moves, used to devastating effect by the likes of John Stockton and Karl Malone, Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and by Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan more recently.

Another variation that can take place is that the ball handler can drive to the basket himself, using his speed and agility to leave behind the bigger player who is now defending him. This is another good way to get a shot close to the basket, and also opens up a lot more avenues. The ball can be passed back to player who set the pick, either for an easy jumper or for the alley-oop, depending on is position and comfort. Guys like Jordan prefer the alley oop pass, where as someone like Dirk Nowitzki will happily settle for an open jump shot. A third player could make his run and cut inside to the basket at this time, another way to get an open shot at the rim.

Other than passing or dribbling to the rim, the ball handling player can also take a quick jump shot after the screen is set. The Golden State Warriors have made this their go to move, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thomson getting open looks from downtown after screens from the big men. It’s a strategy that has served them well and is close to unbeatable when players are on song.

Another variation frequently used is the double screen. After the initial pick and roll opportunity, a second screen is set to make sure that if the first screen did not work efficiently, the second one will do the trick. Of course, a lot of defenders are able to defend this kind of move, but it usually requires good team chemistry. The defender needs to be aware of the incoming screen and take position accordingly. Sometimes switching is the best alternative, but it generally leads to a mismatch and disorganizes the whole team.

For such a basic and simple move, the pick and roll sure has a lot of variants and is deadly when executed well, as has been evidenced in the NBA for more than two decades now. The move is still as effective as it was all those years back, and continues to torment defenses.