Knicks picking this ancient play, on a roll
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It is a mere hypothetical now, a dream that never came true on many levels.
LeBron James in a Knicks uniform would have been special because he arguably would have been the greatest player to ever call the Garden his home court.
And from a pure basketball standpoint, he and Amar'e Stoudemire might have formed the most formidable pick-and-roll tandem the game has ever seen.
LeBron grinned as he considered the thought. "It would be very tough," he said.
But even without LeBron, Stoudemire has been almost unstoppable for the Knicks, and the pick-and-roll has been a big reason.
"To me, it's unguardable," Mike D'Antoni said of the staple play in his well-known high-scoring offensive system. "I don't care what they do, you can't guard it."
How it works
The pick-and-roll is one of the most basic plays in the game of basketball. You'll see it anywhere the game is played and at any level.
The way it works is elementary: A player momentarily gets in the way of the ballhandler's defender and the ballhandler dribbles in the direction of the pick. Then the player setting the pick rolls off the defender toward the basket with a backward pivot, keeping his eyes on the ball. If the defender of the player setting the pick switches to stop the ball, that creates an opening for a pass. If the defender doesn't switch, it allows an open shot for the ballhandler.
When you combine a strong ballhandler who can shoot and make quick decisions with a big man who has good hands and athleticism, you have the makings of a dominant pick-and-roll.
"When he gets the ball on the way to the basket, it's really tough to stop him," Nash said of Stoudemire. "He has great hands, he's a great athlete and he's a great finisher. That's why he's tops in that."
Stoudemire has become one of the league's top scorers this season as a direct result of his dramatically increased efficiency in the pick-and-roll. According to a study by Synergy Sports Technology done specifically for Newsday after 28 games, despite the fact that Stoudemire is in the pick-and-roll 6.2 percent less of the time this season than he was last season with the Suns, he is scoring 0.187 more points per possession in the pick-and-roll than he did last season.
More impressive is that he is shooting an amazing 70.8 percent on his field-goal attempts that come off the pick-and-roll, which is 12.5 percent better than last season. Stoudemire's 1.364 points per possession in the pick-and-roll this season ranks him in the 93rd percentile among all NBA players in 2010-11.
And that's why when it comes to the pick-and-roll, "All you've got to do is get him the ball," LeBron said of Stoudemire. "He takes care of the rest."
It is fitting that Stoudemire and D'Antoni have revived the pick-and-roll in New York. After all, this is where, according to legend, the play was born.
A blast from the past
History says that in 1923, an all-black team named the New York Renaissance - they generally were known as "The Rens" - had a player named John "Boy Wonder" Isaacs, who is credited with inventing the play as part of the team's popular motion offense, which crowds loved to watch.
D'Antoni, a point guard during his days as a European star, thrived in the pick-and-roll and utilized it when he became a coach overseas. He didn't, however, implement it when he got his first NBA coaching job with the Denver Nuggets in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
That team had a young Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess and Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz, all players who could have been very effective in the pick-and-roll. It's a move D'Antoni regrets - "That was a lost year," he said - but he didn't make the same mistake twice when he got his second coaching opportunity with the Suns late in the 2003-04 season.
With Nash, who joined the Suns the following season, and a young Stoudemire, plus good perimeter shooters who could punish collapsing defenses, the Suns became the league's most prolific offense. And all off one very basic play that everyone knew was coming but no one could stop.
Playing the game
Overall, NBA teams have used the pick-and-roll 11.7 percent of the time this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology. The Orlando Magic leads the way at 16.6 percent. The Knicks' use is more of the median, at 11.6 percent.
The league has had some great pick-and-roll combos in its history. John Stockton and Karl Malone might have been the best, but Nash and Stoudemire were a close second. "You read the defense," Nash said. "If they make a mistake or if they choose to guard it one way, you try to make them pay in another."
It sounds easy, but not everyone can do it. Toney Douglas, for instance, is still trying to master it in his second season.
"You've got to read more than just one defender," Douglas said. "You've got to read the big man, how the guard is playing you and how the defenders are guarding my teammates in the corner. So you have three or four guys and you have to pick and choose which guy is open."
Then there is the pick, which can happen in a variety of ways. The traditional manner is to have the big man set up strong and let the guard run his defender into the pick so it stops the defender. But over the years, D'Antoni has discovered a different philosophy, which has the big man roll before ever actually setting the pick. The idea is that actually setting the pick, while it does slow the defender, also slows the big man. Instead, D'Antoni instructs his players to create just enough presence to make the defender pause or step closer to his man, which opens up a seam for a pass.
"Most of the time, you don't even need contact," D'Antoni said. "That has to change during the game and how [opposing] coaches and players read it, but a lot of times, you don't need to make contact. There's no reason for it. It only slows you down."
David Lee learned that despite being undersized as a 6-9 center, he could use his quickness to take advantage of opposing big men. And Chris Duhon proved to be adept at hitting Lee, who could finish with either hand.
It took Felton the entire preseason, plus the first 12 games of the season, to develop the timing and recognition he needed to be effective with Stoudemire. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Felton was producing .93 points per game off his pick-and-roll passes during the first 12 games of the season (4-8). But in the next 16 games, which resulted in a 12-4 record, that number increased to 1.064 points per possession. "The more aggressive I am," Felton said, "the more open he's going to be."
Pick your poison
A key component is to surround the pick-and-roll tandem with perimeter shooters, because the only way to stop a pick-and-roll is to clog the middle, as teams did earlier in the season to bottle up Stoudemire. But as Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari started hitting open jumpers that came as a result, the Knicks' offense became a deadly game of pick your poison.
And as they continue to upgrade the roster, the pick-and-roll will remain the foundation of the Knicks' offensive system.
"We just keep refining it," D'Antoni said, "and keep trying to see how to get it better."