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Breaking down Atlanta’s surprisingly solid defense against Spain pick-and-roll

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The complex action hasn’t fooled the Hawks recently.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Spain pick-and-roll (also named stack pick-and-roll) has taken the NBA by storm in recent seasons due to the unorthodox defensive strategies that have to be in place to stop it. The action works best against teams who drop their big man into the paint in pick-and-roll defense, which allows the shooter to get a solid back screen on that big man in order to open lanes to the basket for the ball handler and rolling offensive big.

The Atlanta Hawks don’t run a ton of this particular play, opting instead for a Double Drag set that generates a lot of similar looks, but they’ve faced a fair amount of it from their opponents this season. Given that the Hawks start two big men in John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon (and bring Alex Len off the bench to play backup center), it’s not a surprise that teams try to stack up down the middle of the floor and try to confuse the young Hawks with a difficult action.

The results have been very positive for the Hawks against Spain pick-and-roll in the last few weeks, though it must be said that they’ve been a bit lucky in their willingness to sell out to protect the rim. They’ve ceded a handful of open corner three-pointers as a result, but they’ve generally done a good job of ensuring that those shooters are the worst on the opposing team, rather than helping off of a strong outside threat.

As the single weak-side defender, it is the job of Jeremy Lin (who is no longer on Atlanta’s roster) in the above clip to help down into the paint in pick-and-roll defense. When a team throws a Spain look at the Hawks, that role doesn’t change, as Lin crashes into the paint to deter Derrick Favors’ roll to the rim. Donovan Mitchell rises and finds Ricky Rubio in the corner, but the Hawks are happy to give up this shot to a relatively weak three-point shooter as opposed to a layup at the rim.

Elsewhere, every Hawk stays with their original matchup: DeAndre’ Bembry gets through the Favors screen to stick to Mitchell extremely well, while Dedmon feels the back screen from Joe Ingles and fights through to blanket Favors. Kent Bazemore jets through the thicket of bodies to give no room for Ingles to catch and shoot on the perimeter. All told, Lin’s help wasn’t even needed, though the Hawks’ scheme calls for him to be there anyway.

Not all possessions go that smoothly for the Hawks defensively, which is why they like to bring the fourth defender into the paint out of the weak-side corner to help cover up any holes that appear.

In this play, Mitchell is able to turn the corner in pick-and-roll after Rudy Gobert catches Bazemore with a better screen. The back screen from Ingles takes Dedmon out of the play, while Taurean Prince has to stick to Ingles like glue to avoid giving up an open 3 at the top of the key. This leaves Collins and Young as the last lines of defense; both of them rotate into the paint and force the kick-out pass to Rubio in the strong-side corner. In general, it’s inadvisable for Young to rotate out of the strong-side corner because it’s a much easier pass for Mitchell to make, but given the alternatives and Rubio’s shooting weaknesses, it was the correct choice.

As we saw in the first example, the back screen doesn’t always deter the big man from being able to protect the rim against the driving ball handler or rolling big man. Generally, larger centers have trouble with Spain action because they have to get through a screen and navigate a smaller area without running into an offensive player, but Dedmon is generally able to get through these screens with no issues. His ability to slip through is on full display when he pinned this Devin Booker layup attempt off the backboard and then off Booker’s head out of bounds:

When Atlanta is playing their slower-footed big men, they steer into the skid, rather than sit back and wait for opponents to attack. Whether it’s Len or Omari Spellman manning the middle for the Hawks, head coach Lloyd Pierce will have those guys play a bit further out on the perimeter. This sort of strategy is in line with how teams have been using their slower or less capable big men over the last few years; Denver is doing similar things with Nikola Jokic this season and the Cavaliers experimented with using Kevin Love in a trapping scheme over the last few years.

Against Spain, a hedging big man essentially eliminates the back screen and turns the play into a standard pick-and-roll, which can be advantageous for the defense:

In the first clip, Len is up at the level of the screen, which negates Kelly Oubre’s attempt to screen him and pop to the perimeter. Deandre Ayton rolls to the rim and Young helps out of the corner, as he’s supposed to. Len does a very good job staying between Devin Booker and Ayton to prevent the pocket pass, leaving Booker with the choice Atlanta wants: throwing a skip pass to Elie Okobo on the weak side.

The pass is slightly off target and Young is able to contest well on the missed jumper. In the second, Spellman and Bembry switch assignments when Serge Ibaka screens for Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell is nowhere near Spellman to set the back screen. Powell sees this and slips out toward the perimeter, leaving Lin behind, but Lowry doesn’t see him and instead misses the jumper over Spellman’s outstretched arm.

Given their defensive weaknesses and young roster, it wouldn’t have surprised anybody if the Hawks had trouble with the complications Spain pick-and-roll introduces. Instead, their communication and movement have been mostly very good. Defenders are helping in the right spots and staying home where necessary. Shooters are rarely open on the screen-and-pop from the paint and ball handlers aren’t getting free runs at the rim.

Nothing’s perfect and they’ve gotten somewhat lucky with the results of the shots they’ve given up thus far, but there’s little on the tape that shows overwhelming confusion on Atlanta’s part. At this point in their development cycle, that’s a win.