NBA playoffs 2021: Why the pick-and-roll is the single most important play in the NBA

Seven years ago, a high school freshman popped in a DVD to study his favorite player, Steve Nash, run his favorite play. Today, Trae Young, with rollers Clint Capela and John Collins, runs perhaps the NBA's most devastating version of the pick-and-roll. Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 2004, a couple of months after point guard Steve Nash signed with the Phoenix Suns, he joined some of his new teammates at the team's arena for some 5-on-5 pickup.

Forward Amar'e Stoudemire, coming into his third year, had arrived in impeccable shape. And from the moment he took the floor with Nash in that hot gym in late summer, the two cultivated an immediate rapport with the most ordinary of two-man actions.

"It was magical," Stoudemire says now. "It was happening so easily for us. The way Steve was reading the defense and playing the offense, and the way I was being forceful around the basket ... He was making these brilliant passes, and I was attacking the rim. We knew at that point that we were going to be a really good team because Steve and I started to develop chemistry that was unheard of."

New coach Mike D'Antoni, general manager Bryan Colangelo and various members of their respective staffs would drop into the gym to observe the games and catch a glimpse of how their new point guard might supercharge a Suns offense that had ranked 21st in offensive efficiency the previous season.

The pick-and-roll had been around for decades, but it had historically been more complementary than foundational. What Nash and Stoudemire were choreographing in that gym was a revelation. They ran the pick-and-roll at full speed in transition, as well as in the half-court with an alacrity rarely seen. To onlookers, it seemed like a preordained playcall, because their movement was so decisive. Yet Stoudemire's screens were entirely improvisational; this was nothing more than a pickup game.

"Amar'e and I found a chemistry," Nash says. "You could see him setting the drag or coming around and setting high pick-and-roll. I'd manipulate the defense from there."

Months later, Nash and Stoudemire would take their show to the regular-season stage: A Phoenix offense predicated almost entirely on the high pick-and-roll would rank first overall in efficiency, scoring more points per 100 possessions than any team since the NBA began tracking in 1996-97.

Some 10 years later, a high school freshman popped in a DVD in the game room of his family's home in Norman, Oklahoma, to study. Though there was no facsimile of Amar'e Stoudemire at the YMCA in Norman, Trae Young would try to approximate those early pick-and-rolls with whichever big man was game for it. Once he arrived at Oklahoma to lead the Sooners, he enlisted center Jamuni McNeace as a roll man who could provide Young sufficient space to throw a lob for an alley-oop or slither into the lane for a floater.

One day in late 2017, during a Sooners' 10-game winning streak, Young received a lengthy text message. It was from Nash. In disbelief, Young showed it to teammate Kameron McGusty because he thought it might be fake.

It was real. Nash wrote to Young to let him know he was watching and to encourage him to stay true to his game.

What Nash didn't know -- nor the other "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns -- was that their open runs in September 2004 were laboratory work: research and development that would be produced by the entire NBA as a generic drug.

Unbeknownst to the Suns, Nash, Stoudemire and the other guys in that gym were launching a revolution in which the high pick-and-roll would evolve from novelty to staple to centerpiece. Along the way, it launched new offensive and defensive trends. It reassessed the value of many players. It changed the very look of the game. Like any powerful narcotic, the high-pick-and-roll is now a source of dependence, one the league can't live without.

THE NBA IS a living, breathing organism whose characters change perceptibly over time. Watch a game from the 1990s and the contours of the shooting strokes are no different. A live ball turnover that leads to a fast break then an emphatic slam still sends the crowd in the bowl and teammates on the bench into a frenzy. But when things slow down in the half court, the flow of the ball and spacing of the players can seem like a relic from a time capsule. In possession after possession, a big man roosts on the block with a big paw in the air awaiting an entry pass. Quite often, a defense will appear to be entirely indifferent to defending the floor beyond 19 feet.

Something else you'll see far less frequently in those 1990s contests: anything that looks remotely like today when the Atlanta Hawks' Young, Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic or Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard get a high screen 25 feet from the basket. Each uses the screen differently in service of different outcomes, but each received more than 2,800 screens above the 3-point line break this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

As is the case with regard to pace -- another defining trend of the era -- the Suns were revolutionaries, disruptors in the marketplace of NBA offense 16 years ago. Today, they'd be extreme traditionalists.