The best coaches are the best thieves — every one of them is always stealing things from the others to implement with their teams. Anything novel won’t stay that way for long; if it works consistently, you can bet the rest of the league will have it in their playbooks by the next week, if not sooner. Perhaps the most famous version of this is Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll scheme from his days with the Phoenix Suns, which has become so ubiquitous in the NBA that it becomes an oddity when a team doesn’t have a healthy dose of it in their offense. It’s not always overarching concepts that dramatically shift the entire landscape of the league; sometimes it’s something as simple as an individual play or even one action a player takes within a larger set.
Spain pick-and-roll, also called “stack pick-and-roll” or “back screen pick-and-roll”, has its origins with the Spanish national team and overseas teams dating back more than 15 years, though it’s just recently made its way to the NBA over the last few years. It’s something that most teams now run with some level of consistency, but with that has come the natural evolution of a widely-popular action — defenses are catching up and devising their own schemes to stop it. Whether it’s fully switching both screens or switching one and getting through the other, defenses have mostly adjusted to the action in its base form. As expected in the cyclical nature of the league, offenses have become more complex in order to stay one step ahead of defenses, which is where Portland’s “Horns Spain” set comes into the picture.
What makes Spain pick-and-roll so much more lethal than a lot of actions that spread like wildfire through the NBA is that it’s almost impossible to guard with normal pick-and-roll defense. Whatever base scheme a team employs to stop two-man pick-and-roll falls apart when a third player is added to the fray. With experience, coaches and players are able to adjust on the fly to Spain pick-and-roll action to make one-time changes to their scheme, but when those actions come within the flow of the offense, it becomes almost impossible to guard.
In the above clip, the Trail Blazers run the Spain pick-and-roll out of Horns, throwing a whole lot of disguising action at the Indiana Pacers before eventually settling into exactly what they want to run all along. The play starts out in Horns, where the ball is in the middle of the floor, two players are at the elbows, and two are in the corners. CJ McCollum brings the ball up and enters it to Jake Layman at the right elbow, at which point Damian Lillard cuts in from the left corner toward the middle of the paint. McCollum exits stage left, replacing Lillard in that corner of the floor to help spread the defense out. Layman hits Jusuf Nurkic on the opposite elbow before cutting to the rim behind a back screen from Lillard, who jets up to the top of the key to receive the handoff and begin the Spain action. From there, Lillard tries to turn the corner on the handoff while Nurkic rolls to the rim and Layman sets the back screen on Nurkic’s man and pops to the perimeter.
This particular instance of Horns Spain doesn’t quite come off the way the Trail Blazers and head coach Terry Stotts intended, but the action is still a wonderful way to keep the defense off guard and guessing at what comes next. The initial ball and man movement is intended to throw the Pacers off, though it must be said that they do a great job sticking with their various assignments and not getting lost with the feints and dekes Portland threw at them. Against lesser defensive teams or with slight tweaks to personnel and timing, Horns Spain could work wonders for the Trail Blazers.