Analyzing the Pick and Roll

The NBA has changed. From the big man era in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to the wing craze of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, to today’s transition and three-point shooting game, basketball has a persistent habit of developing over time. One thing that has not changed since its popularization in professional basketball is the pick and roll. Ever since its mass introduction in the 1990’s John Stockton led Utah Jazz offense, the pick and roll has thrived in the NBA. This presents the question: in a modern basketball world where pace, space, and three-pointers rule, why is the pick and roll still utilized?

Because it’s effective.

In the pick and roll, players have a myriad of options. The ball handler can pull up for a jump shot, drive to the basket for a layup, pass the ball off to the big man as he rolls to the basket, or kick it out to the perimeter. The versatility of the pick and roll is what keeps it alive and thriving. No other form of attacking the basket has as many options and variants as the tried and true pick and roll.

Let’s take a look at the individual options within this attack.

Option 1: Ball Handler Shot

The logical first option of the pick and roll is a jump shot for the ball handler. As the screener comes high to set a screen on the ball handler’s man, the ball handler rubs off the pick and pulls up for a jumper. This shot can come from the wing, like in the above gif, from the top, or even from the elbow.

One important, and often undervalued, part of this play is the set up the ball handler must do to make the pick and roll truly effective. Above, instead of just waiting patiently for his teammate to come set the pick, Chris Paul distracts his defender with a front crossover. This very simply dribble move is enough to get his defender ball watching, thus slowing down his reaction time.

Another key reason that Paul was able to get a shot off is the indecisive movement by the defense. The screener’s man does not communicate early enough with ball handler’s man. Gerald Green tries to go under the screen while Alex Len makes a half-hearted attempt to switch on to CP3 – but during this brief moment, the shot is already in the air.

Option 2: Ball Handler Drive

The second option in any pick and roll progression is a drive by the ball handler. Let’s walk through the action in the above gif.

As the defense gets ready to defend the screen, the ball handler, Chandler Parsons, takes a quick jab step away from the screen. In this one simple move, he gets his defender off-balance. Because he fell for the jab, Parsons’ man is forced to fight over the screen, essentially taking himself out of the play.

Now, the only defender between Parsons and the basket is the screener’s man. The reason that most offenses use the pick and roll is to create mismatches. In this case, the screener’s man is a larger, slower player, incapable of matching up with the smaller, quicker Chandler Parsons. After leaving his man in the dust, Parsons is only three dribbles away from a layup.

Option 3: Pass to the Roll Man

Like the ball handler drive, the pass to the roll man option of the pick and role relies on forcing mismatches. Once again, the ball handler makes his defender go over the screen, leaving him out of position. Now that the ball handler’s defender is out of the picture, the offense has a two-on-one against the screener’s defender.

In the above gif, instead of going at the big man defender – who is actually in very good position to defend the drive – Jose Calderon sees Amar’e Stoudemire rolling to the basket. As soon as Stoudemire’s defender chooses to stay with the ball handler, Calderon dishes the ball to the wide open roll man for the dunk.

Option 4: Pass to the Perimeter

The last standard option in a pick and roll progression is a pass out to the perimeter. In the above gif, the Spurs run a wing pick and roll, isolating the defense on one side of the court. The ball handler’s man tries to go over the screen, essentially taking himself out of the play. Manu Ginobili goes one-on-one with the screener’s man, a much slower player, and beats him around the baseline.

All five Denver players get sucked in by Manu’s simple baseline drive, leaving spot up specialist Danny Green wide open for three.

Variant 1: Pick and Pop

Now that we have looked at the main progression of the pick and roll, we are going to look at two specific variants that have evolved over time. First up: the pick and pop.

The pick and pop is identical to the pick and roll in every way, except for one. After the ball handler takes the screen, the big man does not role to the basket. Instead, he “pops out” for a jump shot. This play works because of the attention placed on the ball handler as he goes around the screen. Defenses are most concerned with the ball and often lose sight of the pop man.

Especially in the modern NBA’s three-point oriented offenses, the pick and pop is a valuable weapon for any team.

Variant 2: Spain Pick and Roll

The final variant of the pick and roll is called the Spain pick and roll. Popularized over the last couple of seasons, it is one of the league’s most newly developed offensive sets.

Spain is nearly identical to any normal pick and roll. The ball handler calls for the screen and the screener sets the screen, giving the ball handler a brief one-on-one opportunity with a bigger, slower defender. Notice the one difference between a standard pick and roll and the Spain pick and roll in the above gif. Instead of the offense playing a “two man game” with the ball handler and the screener/roll man, there is an added third person.

This third man steps behind the screener’s man and attempts to screen the screener’s defender before spacing out to the perimeter. Doing this completely throws off the defense’s timing, leaving them vulnerable to any offensive attack.