Jerry Sloan was once one of the NBA’s best point guards, though sadly, he held the title at a point in history in which it hardly had any meaning. The NBA he played in ran everything through centers, and with giants like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell roaming the painted area, they could hardly be blamed for that. Plays were designed to create post-ups. Off-ball motion was meant to take advantage of the vision their size granted. Chamberlain even led the league in total assists in the 1967-68 season.
The league continued on that course for another two decades, with Chamberlain and Russell leading into players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Sloan coached one such player in Chicago, Artis Gilmore, but was still fired in 1982. So when he landed in Utah a few years later, he set about creating a different kind of offense, one that could still maximize the imposing size of a big man while taking advantage of the decision-making ability point guards like he relied upon.
And so, I present the pick-and-roll, trademark Jerry Sloan, 1988.
On the surface, it is one of the simplest plays in basketball. A ball-handler, usually John Stockton, awaits a screen from a teammate, usually Karl Malone. That teammate then dives to the basket in the confusion of a defense navigating that screen for, ideally, a dunk. As simple as it is to run, its success relies on variation.
“We have 11 options off just the action of me setting the pick,” Malone said in 1998. “That’s the beauty of it. For every adjustment defenses make, we have an option that’s already worked against it a thousand times.”
If, for instance, both defenders swarm Stockton, Malone could leak out for an open jumper.
If Malone’s screen managed to envelop both defenders, Stockton could quickly fire off a jumper of his own.
Blitz the screen and Malone gets a four-on-three. Duck under it and Stockton shoots. Fight through it and he drives. Every defensive decision has a scripted offensive response. A ball-screen will almost always yield a mismatch or opening of some sort. It just takes the right decision-maker to capitalize on it, and in Stockton, Sloan practically had a second coach on the court. Stockton retired as the NBA‘s all-time assists leader. Malone is second all-time in scoring. This single play was the biggest reason why.
The Jazz rode it to the playoffs in every season the trio spent together. They rode it to the Finals twice. But they could never quite manage to ride it all the way to a championship, falling short against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls twice. There’s a shred of irony in that. Chicago only managed to reach the Finals in 1998 on the back of Sloan’s play. For all of the historical shine Phil Jackson’s legendary triangle offense gets, Jordan only managed to knock off the Indiana Pacers by spamming pick-and-rolls at Rik Smits in the final minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Such moments are emblematic of Sloan’s true legacy. While he never ultimately reached the mountaintop, he created something that allowed countless others to do so. The pick-and-roll is now the bedrock of modern offense, with teams dedicating enormous chunks of their strategy to that single play. The league-leader this season? Sloan’s Jazz. Synergy Sports estimates that 25.8 percent of their offense is derived from a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Every team has an array of pick-and-rolls in their playbook, and as time has passed, many have meaningfully improved Sloan’s original vision.
The biggest innovation has come with modern spacing. Sloan, at his core, was an old school coach. His fundamental offensive goal was to get to the basket, and his Utah teams reflected that by finishing dead last in the NBA in 3-point attempts in each of their NBA Finals seasons. The modern pick-and-roll relies heavily on spacing, a revolution brought about by Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns. When defenses used more than two defenders on the initial pick-and-roll action itself, Steve Nash kicked the ball out to an open shooter.
That shooting isn’t confined to perimeter players. Whereas Malone’s jumpers typically came within the arc, modern big men routinely pop behind the line.
In fact, modern big men are so skilled that they often run the play themselves.
The right guards can similarly pull it off without a big man.
The play has become so popular that innovations haven’t even been limited to the United States. One of the most popular modern variants is the Spain pick-and-roll, which features a back-screen from a guard meant to disrupt the big’s defender.
These represent only a small sampling of the wildly diverse modern pick-and-roll. The only thing each and every one of them shares is a point of origin. Sloan dominated the NBA for a decade with a single play, and budding offensive masterminds around the globe took notice and put their own spin on it. The result is a play that takes hundreds of different forms and contributes thousands of points every year.
So while Sloan may have never won a championship of his own, he has contributed to more of them than practically anyone in the history of the NBA. As archaic as his system might look now, what it has since become has turned him into the godfather of modern offense. Its tentacles touch every professional basketball team on the planet. It may not have been the legacy Sloan planned, but it’s one that he should be proud of.