Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, John Stockton and Karl Malone take the spotlight.
Context: Starting on Monday, we're taking this week to look at some of the greatest duos in NBA history.
They won't go down as the greatest one-two punch of all-time, but you can't talk about the league's most iconic duos without mentioning Stockton and Malone.
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Stockton and Malone dominated the league for nearly two decades as teammates on the Utah Jazz. While they were unable to win a championship together - they came up short in the NBA Finals twice, both times against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls - they're recognized as some of the best players to have ever graced the hardwood, especially at their respective positions. Stockton is often viewed as the ultimate point guard and there is only one player in NBA history who has ever scored more points in their career than Malone.
On the strength of Stockton's passing and Malone's scoring, the two formed arguably the most feared pick-and-roll tandem in league history.
The play: There are hundreds of Stockton and Malone pick-and-rolls you can pick from to illustrate what made them special, but here's one from 2002-03, the duo's final season together when they were still causing headaches for opposing teams.
Breakdown: Trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by four points with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Jazz turn towards their time-tested bread and butter.
What's interesting about Stockton and Malone is that they ran almost all of their pick-and-rolls inside the 3-point line, basically at the free throw line extended. That's quite different from how teams run pick-and-rolls nowadays. For players like Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry, they often have the big man set the screen beyond the 3-point line so they can walk into a pull-up 3-pointer if their defender drops underneath the screen.
While Stockton was one of the best 3-point shooters in the league for most of his career, he didn't shoot them in nearly the same volume as point guards do today. (In his defence, nobody did). He was still more than capable of punishing defenders for going underneath screens, only he liked to do so by pulling-up around the elbow and free throw line.
"[Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan] wanted the pick-and-roll at the free throw line because once a great point guard like John Stockton, who shot 52 percent from the field - people don't realize that," Malone explained on NBA TV years ago. "He was absolutely deadly in here."
Malone sets a hard screen on Timberwolves guard Troy Hudson, who is defending Stockton. It's safe to assume that he knew what was coming, but Hudson still gets caught up in Malone's screen, which forces Kevin Garnett to hedge to stop Stockton from turning the corner and getting an uncontested pull-up from his sweet spot.
However, in doing so, Malone is left unguarded for a split second.
Remember, this is Garnett at his absolute peak physical apex and in the midst of six straight All-Defence First Team selections. One of the best and most versatile defenders in NBA history ... helpless.
As that's going on, notice what the three other players on the Jazz are doing on the other side of the court. The spacing is far from perfect, but Greg Ostertag and Matt Harpring prevent their defenders from completely selling out on them to clog the paint by setting down screens for Andrei Kirilenko to curl off of.
That draws just enough attention away from Stockton and Malone for Malone to roll to the paint for a layup, set up by a picture-perfect pass from Stockton.
The Jazz did that all the time. Watch a highlight reel of Stockon and Malone pick-and-rolls, and you'll see the three players who are sharing the court with them moving in unison to keep the weakside defence busy while Stockton and Malone pick-and-rolled teams to death. It was the perfect decoy.
Why it matters: Between the two of them, Stockton and Malone had an answer to pretty much everything a team could throw at them in a pick-and-roll.
It started with Stockton. If he wasn't comfortable pulling-up for midrange jump shots, teams would have dropped underneath Malone's screen every time to dare him to beat them from outside. The shot location data on Basketball Reference only goes back to 2000-01 - by which point Stockton was in his late 30s and well past his prime - but he was still automatic from midrange. Between 2000 and 2003, Stockton shot 46.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 47.9 percent from between 16-feet and the 3-point line. His final season in the NBA, a 40-year-old Stockton still ranked in the 90th percentile on long 2s.
Because Stockton could knock down midrange pull-ups, it forced Malone's defender to make a decision. If they hedged like Garnett did in the example above, it gave Malone a window to roll to the basket.
"I don't ever run into it," Malone said when explaining the art of a pick-and-roll. "I walk over because I want to see what [my defender] is doing ... if [my defender hard hedges], I'm gone."
At 6-foot-9 and 259 pounds, there weren't many players who could stop Malone when he got downhill. He was a powerful finisher and he had a soft enough touch to finish in a variety of ways when he wasn't able to get all the way to the rim.
Malone even had a solid midrange jumper. If his defender hedged and retreated to the paint in anticipation of him rolling, he was still capable of making them pay.
Switching wasn't an option either. Stockton wasn't a big-time scorer, but he could create his own shot against bigger defenders on an island. As for Malone, he's widely recognized as one of the greatest post scorers in NBA history. If like-sized defenders had a hard team stopping him from scoring with his back to the basket, smaller defenders had no chance.
It might sound simple, but the reason pick-and-rolls between Stockton and Malone were next to impossible to slow down is because they worked in perfect harmony. Stockton was as well-rounded of a point guard as the league has ever seen and he always played under control. Malone complimented him perfectly, a scoring machine who played with a blend of power and grace you rarely see in a player his size, even still to this day.
And just when teams thought they knew what was coming next, the two knew exactly what to do.
"Stockton and Malone ran the pick-and-roll better than any two people who have ever played the game," former Denver Nuggets head coach Dan Issel once said. "They would watch how you were going to defend it and then adjust on the fly."
All videos and images used are from "Stockton & Malone - The Art Of The Pick&Roll" on YouTube.
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