The most effective play in basketball is also the simplest: the pick and roll. The pick and roll serves as the basis of offensive basketball understanding, and nearly every coach at every level of competitive ball uses a system based around the classic pick and roll. The beauty of the pick and roll lies in its lethal simplicity; an effective defense requires excellent communication and defensive principles in order to negate. Just as a painter requires the correct tools to create his masterpiece, the pick and roll requires specific skills in order to maximize its effectiveness. The ball handler needs an effective off the dribble shot and the supernatural ability to anticipate the passing lanes that develop as his partner charges towards the bucket. The screener needs to be an excellent finisher around the rim, with soft hands, a sweet mid-range jumper, and excellent footwork to seal off his man on the roll.
Without a doubt, the most deadly pick and roll combo in basketball history is John Stockton and Karl Malone, who together led the Utah Jazz during the late 80’s and the 90’s. Their partnership brought out the best in both players, and together they unleashed the lethal potential of basketball’s most famous play.
The beauty of the Stockton to Malone pick and roll was the multitude of ways both players could score after the screen was set. John Stockton was an excellent shooter, who shot 54% for his career from 2 point range and 38% from three. Giving Stockton even a sliver of daylight after the screen was a death sentence, as the Houston Rockets and Charles Barkley could tell you. He also possessed a supernatural ability to visualize passing lanes and to fit the ball into passing windows only he and Malone could see. Malone himself was a deadly mid range shooter, so if the defender left him near the elbow Malone could use the threat of the jumper to create a lane to the basket. Malone was an incredibly skilled finisher around the rim, able to finish through contact with ease. Together, Stockton and Malone led the Utah Jazz to the playoffs 18 times in a row, from 1985-2003. The Jazz made the finals in 1997 and ’98 but ended up becoming the latest of Michael Jordan’s victims.
Their partnership helped elevate Stockton and Malone to all time great status individually. Stockton is by far the career leader in assists, with 15,806, which is roughly 3800 more than Jason Kidd, who is second on the list. Karl Malone is second on the career points leaderboard, less than 2000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The artistry on display when watching Stockton and Malone play is rivaled by very few in the history of basketball. Too often we overlook the beautiful simplicity in basketball to focus on other things. Every once in a while someone or something comes along and reminds us of the beauty of the game. Much like experiencing an artist’s masterpiece, watching John Stockton and Karl Malone’s mastery of the pick and roll is mystifying and enthralling in its own way.