The evolution of the Spain pick-and-roll — the NBA’s trickiest action

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Russell Westbrook
OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Russell Westbrook /

Back screen pick-and-rolls, also known as Spain pick-and-rolls, have swept through the NBA like wildfire in the past few years. As teams have integrated the three-man action into their playbooks, defenses have become better at getting their switches down in order to guard all three options. Just like any set play, as defenses evolve to stop it, offenses have to evolve past them to keep the play viable or scrap it completely.

Spain pick-and-rolls add another offensive player to the action: after the standard high pick-and-roll, a shooter sets a back screen on the big man’s defender and then pops to the 3-point line.

Watch how the Cleveland Cavaliers run their Spain pick-and-roll set with LeBron James as the ball handler here:

Larry Nance Jr. steps into a ball screen from James with Nikola Jokic dropping deep to contain both James’ drive and Nance’s roll. However, Spain pick-and-roll throws another body in the mix: Jordan Clarkson sets another screen on Jokic, stopping his retreat and forcing him to decide between James and Nance further up the floor. Jokic jumps at James, which leaves Nance as the biggest threat to the Denver defense. Clarkson’s defender, Will Barton, drops off Clarkson to contest a potential lob to Nance, but that leaves Clarkson alone to pop to the 3-point line for a wide open shot.

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The defense has to move precisely in order to stick with all three offensive players. If too much attention is paid to the two off-ball players, the ball handler strolls in for an easy layup or short jumper. Notice how the Milwaukee Bucks are so preoccupied with Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic that they forget the most important part of playing defense — stopping the ball:

The secret behind the Spain pick-and-roll is it forces opponents to throw out their traditional pick-and-roll defensive tactics because dropping the big man deep will have him running smack into a screen and opening up a layup for the ball handler. Trapping out high on the floor leaves the shooter’s defender to deal with both the roll man and his original assignment, which is an impossible task. Sometimes defenses will bring in a fourth man to help, opening up a shooter on the perimeter:

Milwaukee tries to play a more traditional scheme in the above clip, where Giannis Antetokounmpo helps into the lane as the weak side defender to muck up the big man’s roll to the basket. However, unlike a traditional pick-and-roll, which usually has two shooters spacing the floor on the weak side — leaving one defender to deal with those two shooters — there’s only one in the Spain pick-and-roll, meaning that Mirotic was wide open when Antetokounmpo left him to help in the paint.

However, these examples are becoming fewer and farther between as teams learn the intricacies of the action and spend time in practice to scheme against it. Watch how the Orlando Magic (of all teams!) gets it exactly right against Indiana:

Orlando plays it absolutely perfectly, almost executing a short-lived zone against the Spain pick-and-roll. Elfrid Payton, originally defending Darren Collison on the ball, switches onto Myles Turner before switching again onto Bojan Bogdanovic. Evan Fournier, Bogdanovic’s original defender, switches out onto Collison, even though his man never set a ball screen for the Pacers’ point guard.

That switch is the hardest one for defenses to execute because, while Bogdanovic screens for Turner, Fournier has to ignore both players and move to the perimeter to take Collison. Turner screens Payton and rolls to the rim, but Vucevic is there waiting for him. Even though Bogdanovic set a back screen on Vucevic, he didn’t have any other responsibilities other than to stick with Turner, eliminating any confusion or decision making from Orlando’s center.

The Magic take away every option with the three main defenders and there’s no opening in the Spain pick-and-roll action. Of course, Indiana still scored on the secondary standard pick-and-roll action, because, well, this is still the Magic defense we’re talking about here.

In order to combat defenses catching up to the basic Spain pick-and-roll action, smart teams are throwing in dummy actions beforehand to throw the defense off. Just like how teams use a cross screen to disguise a down screen for a shooter in screen-the-screener action or how teams set a down screen for a big man to set a ball screen in thumb action, several teams are disguising their Spain pick-and-roll with initial action that puts the defense off-balance and creates difficulties in communication and positioning.

The Golden State Warriors, for example, run a weave before they get into their Spain pick-and-roll:

Stephen Curry hands the ball to Draymond Green to begin the weave action, which ends in Kevin Durant running the Spain pick-and-roll with JaVale McGee as the roll man and Curry as the shooter. Curry gets an open 3-pointer as a result, which rims out, but the Warriors will take that shot every time down if they can get it.

Inserting the weave in front of the main action makes it almost impossible for the Oklahoma City defense to take away all three options with the three defenders involved. In particular, the fact that Durant gets the hand off from Klay Thompson on the move before taking the ball screen from McGee means that Steven Adams has to play further out toward the 3-point line, ensuring Paul George has a beat or two to get through the screen and back in front of Durant. As a result, Adams has to let McGee roll past him while still staying briefly attached to Durant, which puts Westbrook in the untenable position of defending both the rolling McGee and the popping Curry. Terrance Ferguson does drop into the lane to help defend McGee since the pass from Durant to Thompson on the weak side is most difficult, but the Thunder’s communication has to be absolutely perfect for Westbrook to know Ferguson is coming and leave the lane to stay with Curry.

Oklahoma City inserts flex action in front of their Spain pick-and-roll. Watch how Adams sets the flex screen for George before the pair step into the Spain pick-and-roll with Westbrook:

As the ball kicks around the perimeter from Westbrook to Carmelo Anthony to Jerami Grant, George’s flex cut looks legitimate. If he’s open, Grant can throw it in, though he doesn’t look for George on this particular play. After Adams sets the screen for George, he steps up to the perimeter for a ball screen on Robert Covington, beginning the Spain pick-and-roll, which finishes with all four of Adams, George, Grant and Anthony open and the Sixers not knowing what hit them or how to defend it.

The Thunder ran the same play against Portland, to similar effect:

This time, Anthony set more of a down screen for Westbrook to come across to the middle of the floor to get the ball, which threw Damian Lillard out of position even further. As Lillard desperately tries to catch up and Jusuf Nurkic attempts to contain Westbrook until Lillard is back in the play, George hits the Bosnian big man with the back screen and Westbrook skies in for the layup.

Other teams are integrating the Spain pick-and-roll into other aspects of their offense. It doesn’t quite come off the way they’d like, but watch here how Utah goes into Spain out of their Thumb series:

Joe Ingles sets the down screen for Gobert as he would in the Jazz’s normal Thumb series, but instead of clearing out to a corner, Ingles turns around and takes his place as the back-screener and shooter in the Spain pick-and-roll. Utah doesn’t get what they want out of it, but there were openings available, even if Donovan Mitchell was unable to find them in this particular instance.

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NBA coaches are continuously playing this game of cat and mouse with each other, innovating to stay ahead of opposing defenses that are innovating to stay in front of them. As the Spain pick-and-roll has become more popular throughout the league and teams are committing time in practice and film study to stop it, teams that use pre-actions as disguises remain ahead of the curve and able to take advantage of the unique action’s ability to carve holes in even the best defenses.