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Hawks use Double Drag in lieu of Spain pick-and-roll

The two plays have many similarities

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In normal pick-and-roll, the objective is to give the two players involved as much space as possible with which to work. Leaving the paint open for the driving ball handler and rolling big man was paramount, to the point that we even saw the Houston Rockets instruct Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to stand a step or two behind the line to give James Harden and Chris Paul even more space to operate with Clint Capela in pick-and-roll.

Over the last several years, the Spain pick-and-roll (also called stack pick-and-roll) has spread through the NBA like wildfire. Named for the Spanish national team, the action eschews traditional pick-and-roll principles in order to sow more confusion and bring about more mistakes in communication and positioning within the defense.

Rather than space the floor to the largest extent possible, Spain pick-and-roll brings the team’s best shooter into the middle of the floor, where he sets a back screen and then pops to the perimeter. I’ve written extensively about Spain pick-and-roll in the past, including this article in which I break down the various components of the action, why it’s so difficult to defend, what defenses are doing about it, and how offenses are countering those defensive adjustments.

To this point, it’s not something we’ve seen the Atlanta Hawks run often. From memory, I can count on one hand the number of times Spain pick-and-roll has made it’s way to the court for Atlanta, even though they seem to have the perfect personnel for it – Trae Young handling the ball at the top, John Collins setting the ball screen and rolling to the rim, and Kevin Huerter setting the back screen on Collins’ man and popping to the perimeter.

Young’s ability to read the game in pick-and-roll and squeeze passes through tight coverage fits nicely in the more congested action. Collins’ leaping and finishing ability, especially if he gets a free run at the basket, puts immense strain on the defense under any circumstances. Huerter has proven himself to be a very good catch-and-shoot threat this season and is adept at shooting on the move. Should the defense crash in with a fourth defender, Young will find the open man, as he so often does in their normal pick-and-roll sets.

Instead of Spain action, double drag screens have been an overwhelmingly large part of the Atlanta offense this year. Rather than opening most possessions with a ball reversal and “One” screen across the top of the key, which can flow into any number of other actions, the Hawks have decided to keep the ball in Young’s hands in the early part of the offense.

Double drag screens, in which two players set staggered ball screens across the top of the key, allow Young to move toward his stronger right hand and have a lot of similarities to Spain pick-and-roll. One of the two screeners pops to the perimeter, while the other rolls to the basket, and it’s up to Young to make the right play, whether that be shooting himself, finding the roll man, finding the pop man, or hitting the opposite corner with the one-handed skip pass he loves so much.

Five of these six clips were from Friday’s game against Utah alone, while the final clip was from the Sacramento game on Wednesday. This isn’t just an action the Hawks run a few times a game; this is the core of their offense, especially when Young is on the floor. They get into some different things when Young is sitting and Lin is running the point guard spot, but if Young has the ball in his hands, Atlanta does everything in their power to keep it in his hands so that he can make a play for himself or one of his teammates.

The same principles that apply to Atlanta’s Double Drag offense would apply in Spain pick-and-roll, albeit with a slightly different setup. The difference with Spain pick-and-roll is that it’s imperative that the ball handler be able to turn the corner and get into the paint; that’s where the damage is truly done.

We see teams like Houston, Oklahoma City, Cleveland (last year), Utah, and Toronto (just to name a few) run a significant amount of Spain pick-and-roll because they all have (or had) ball handlers who were very good finishers at the rim. Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, and Kawhi Leonard (or Kyle Lowry) are all better and stronger finishers at the basket than Young. If Young isn’t able to turn the corner in the Spain action, then the Hawks will have a tough time creating an advantage.

In the Double Drag setup, this isn’t as much of a problem, because the popping big man is open earlier and Young can string the defense out toward the sideline to open up the pass back to the top of the key. As the year wears on, Atlanta may throw more Spain wrinkles into their offensive sets, especially in out-of-bounds or after-timeout situations, when they’re either able to set up what they want or can be reminded of the key aspects of the play by head coach Lloyd Pierce.

For now, Double Drag has been a perfect complement to Young’s skills as a shooter and passer, but they will have to add in wrinkles to their early offense in order to keep defenses on their toes at some point.