How the Spanish National team has quietly revitalized offense throughout the NBA.
The biggest story in the NBA this season actually started with Rio. Not this ‘Rio, but Rio de Janeiro. The Spanish National Team opened the eyes of many coaches by bringing a seldom seen pick and roll nuance to the global Olympic stage. Now on any given night you can see “Spain” all over the NBA.
“Spain” starts with traditional pick and roll action -- a big coming to screen for a guard. The wrinkle that Spain is credited for popularizing involves a second guard setting a back screen for the big as he rolls to the basket.
Spain poses a litany of problems for opposing defenses. Do we switch? Do we help from the weak side? Do we hedge? Do we ice? Regardless, if the offense executes correctly, Spain can still reign.
Let’s examine the problem player by player.
THE BALL HANDLER. In order to stop the ball handler’s straight line drive, the tertiary defender (the person guarding the back screener or X2 in the diagrams below) must recognize the action early. At this point, the defender must communicate and position himself to cut off the driving lane before the ball handler penetrates too deep. If X2 employs this tactic, his fellow defenders need to react on a string, switching and/or helping accordingly. This can still be problematic when the chain reaction ends with a big closing out (or switching on) to a guard.
THE ROLLER. Assuming the roll man’s primary defender is obstructed by the back screen, the person in the best position to stop the roller is, again, the tertiary defender -- X2. Are you starting to see the conundrum? If X2 is out of position or otherwise occupied, many teams use weak side defenders to bump down on the roll man, often conceding open spot-up three point attempts one skip pass away. Maybe the best tactic is to keep the ball handler’s defender glued to the roll man after the initial screen. Even then, there is a great possibility that we end up with a guard having to defend a big in the post.
THE BACK SCREENER. The back screener is the player that is often the last defensive priority because he is not attacking downhill in the same way the ball handler and roller are. The back screener, however, might represent the biggest threat because, if things go as designed, he will shoot a three (and according to the most advanced of analytics, three points is more than two). Most often, bigs and weak-side defenders are left scrambling to close out to these open shooters.
If tasked with trying to stop the Spain Pick & Roll, this is what I would want my players to do...theoretically. And that’s an important caveat, as theoretical execution assumes perfect anticipation, recognition, and superior communication.
First, I would want X2 to recognize the action and call it out. Spain!! Then, he would need to quickly switch with the roll man’s defender before the first ball screen is set.
As the offense uses the first screen, X1 and X2 would switch with X2 stopping the ball as early as possible. X1 would be left to follow the roll man (and eventually be back screened). Still with me?
When back screened, we make the third switch of the sequence, allowing X1 to stay with the back screener as our big (X5) picks up the roll man.
Theoretically, this should bottle up penetration, thwart an easy dive to the basket, and prevent an open three from the top of the key-- all without having weak-side defenders help off their assignments. As we know, however, basketball is not a game played on paper or executed by robots...see Javale McGee. Properly executing this strategy requires a lot of moving parts to function synchronously with perfect technique.
As we enter the All-Star break you can be certain that coaches league-wide will be spending time incorporating variations of Spain into their offensive and defensive game plans. By the time we reach the playoffs you can expect the Spain Pick & Roll to be even more prevalent and potentially play a pivotal role in determining the outcomes of some series, like the Cavaliers' "Horns Rub" did last year.