How it works
Over the last decade, the pick-and-roll has become the basis of almost every NBA offense. Ideally, the ball handler will have the burst to get to and finish at the rim, the timing to find passing angles and a jumpshot to keep the defense honest. His job is to use the screen to create a 5-on-4 advantage by rubbing his defender off the screen, or to draw two defenders to create a 4-on-3 elsewhere on the court. The roll man must have the brute athleticism to finish at and above the rim, but there’s also something subtle at work in the chemistry between great pick-and-roll partners.
First, there’s the screen itself — an element that is often overshadowed by the subsequent action. The big men in Miami and San Antonio are all well-trained to approach the screen at full speed then switch screening angle at the last second. Moving quickly into the screen keeps the defense off balance and helps prevent an effective hedge-and-recover or trap on the ballhandler.
From there, it’s up to the roll man to maintain a clean passing angle by keeping time in an improvisational dance with the ballhandler and two (or more) defenders. Once he gets the ball, the roller must have that combination of power and cleverness that defines the game’s best finishers.
Top pick-and-roll duos
1. Dwyane Wade – Chris Bosh
While this is a pick-and-roll list, it must be stated that Bosh doesn’t simply screen and dive with reckless abandon to the basket. In fact, Bosh excels at changing the pace and the location of his rolls, making him a threat to do everything from sink an open jumper to finish under duress at the rim. With a hedging defender so occupied with where and when he needs to recover to Bosh, the attack-minded Wade gains an even more decided advantage during his forays to the hoop.
2. LeBron James – Chris Bosh
James adds another dimension to Miami’s pick-and-roll attack with his ability to pick out players far on the other side of the court, further pressuring the defense to abandon Bosh on the roll. These two have fantastic chemistry, and at 6-8, James’s ability to slip in that pocket bounce pass — and Bosh’s soft hands on those low, sharp feeds — make this action one of Miami’s most reliable offensive plays.
3. Chris Paul — Blake Griffin
Unlike Bosh, Griffin hardly inspires fear with his jumpshot, so defenses are always anticipating a roll to the rim. This tends to mitigate the effectiveness of the action because Griffin has yet to play with a shooting big man who can open the middle of the court for his rolls. Still, Griffin has excellent hands and finishes at the rim better than any rollman in basketball, and Chris Paul is the best in the NBA when it comes to effectively dislodging his defender with the ball screen. Despite the “Lob City” nickname, it’s really more like Bounce Pass Municipality — Paul prefers to sneak the ball to Griffin off the hop because Griffin is so adept at finishing off of one dribble.
4. James Harden – Nick Collison
It certainly seems like a stretch to see a reserve big man make this list, but Nick Collison is no ordinary sub. He’s not exactly a top-flight finisher, but over the years Collison proved at least capable in that department (unlike his turnover-prone teammate, Kendrick Perkins). Combined with his best attribute – the ability to set bone-jarring screens — it helps Collison turn even marginal ball handlers into scoring threats. But his partner on this list is no ordinary ball handler — it’s foul-drawing machine James Harden. With Collison setting him loose, Harden becomes an even bigger threat to rack up free throws and buckets against overwhelmed defenses.
5. Steph Curry – David Lee
Curry’s ankle issues delayed the rise of what could be the league’s most effective pick-and-roll combo. Lee is a tough cover as the roll man because of his athleticism and dribbling skill (though, like Bosh, he also varies the pace and location of his roll). When coupled with a lights-out shooter like Curry, it puts immense pressure on the hedging defender. If he focuses too much on deterring a Curry jumper, Lee has more space diving to the basket. If Lee receives his attention, Curry most likely finds room to unleash his sweet stroke.
Emerging pairings for 2012-13
1. Steve Nash – Dwight Howard
Even with the legendary point guard closing in on 40, this is still a dream pairing. Nash is still a pick-and-roll savant and now he teams up with an elite finisher (and underrated screener) in Howard. If the Lakers can figure out spacing issues around them, this twosome has a chance to be the best in the league.
2. Jeff Teague – Josh Smith
With Joe Johnson now in Brooklyn, Teague — an absolute jet with the ball in his hands — has a chance to break out in a big way. With shooters spreading the floor around him, Teague in any pick-and-roll is nearly impossible to keep out of the paint. Paired with Smith, he has roll man that could be just as devastating as Amar’e Stoudamire was in his prime. If head coach Larry Drew cuts them loose, this could be a terrifying duo for Atlanta.
3. Steve Nash – Pau Gasol
Though the Nash-Howard combo will get more notoriety thanks to Howard’s thunderous dunks, the Nash-Gasol pairing might be just as effective. While Howard will make his mark slamming down lobs, Gasol — thanks to be superbly skilled — is much better suited to catch those patented Nash pocket passes early in the roll. From there he can use a dribble to finish at the hoop with either hand or read a weakside rotation and find the open shooter. But like we alluded to with Howard, the limiting factor on their success will be their teammates ability to knock down those open looks.
4. Gordon Hayward – Derrick Favors
Make no mistake about it, Favors — a Stoudemire clone — is going to be an absolute force in any pick-and-roll no matter who is handling the ball. But don’t sleep on Hayward. The third year guard has an enviable combination of size, handles, shooting ability and willingness to pass that very few wing players can match. He could function in much the same way as Hedo Turkoglu did in his Magic heyday. Putting these two together won’t make Jazz fans forgot about Stockton and Malone, but they have a chance to be quite good in their own right.