New York Knicks
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The New York Knicks offense features the dynamic “Spain” pick and roll set and it should provide hope for the future.

Small Film Room

In recent years, dissecting the New York Knicks offense came with a price. That price—watching an uninspired offense based on an outdated triangle offense that was forced upon Derek Fisher and then later Jeff Hornacek. Even after Phil Jackson’s departure, Hornacek’s offense wasn’t anything to write home about.

Incoming head coach David Fizdale had a simple goal. Embrace the pace and space of the ever-changing NBA. One of the simplest ways to do this would be to integrate more pick and roll sets into the offense. Furthermore, integrating creative actions in the pick and roll is a sure way to start bringing the offense out of the early 2000s and into the present day.

Enter the “Spain” pick and roll. This set is designed to get shots at the rim or from the three-point line. It’s perfect for the analytical revolution going on in the NBA that is waging war on the mid-range shot. The most efficient shots come at the rim or behind the three-point line. As a result, teams like the Houston Rockets and the Brooklyn Nets are eliminating the mid-range jumper from their shot attempts.

The Knicks relied on the mid-range shot far too heavily in recent years. New York led the league in mid-range attempts per game last season per NBA.com. It’s not easy to flip a switch and take it out of your game, but adding more sets like the Spain pick and roll will help the Knicks take more efficient shots.

During the offseason, I discussed this set and went through different personnel groupings that may or may not work. I didn’t foresee Tim Hardaway Jr. handling the ball as much, but he’s played his way into that role. The Knicks are only running this set a handful of times which is the case for many teams in the NBA this year. Turn on any game this season and there’s a decent chance you see someone running Spain pick and roll.

It’s becoming much more prevalent, so let’s take a look another look at the play itself before diving into how the Knicks are running it.

Dissecting The Options

This play is simple, yet complex at the same time. It starts with a high screen and roll aimed at opening up a driving lane for the ballhandler and creating a roll opportunity for the diving roll man. The wrinkle in the play comes when a third player—usually a guard—sets a back screen on the roll man’s defender before popping out to the three-point line. This wrinkle takes a simple play like the pick and roll and turns it on its head.

Simple, yet complex. Coaches at every level of basketball employ the pick and roll. The same can be said for setting back screens for big men. But adding the two simple actions into one set becomes a nightmare for opposing defenses.

The first option in this set is for the ballhandler. When it’s run correctly, the ballhandler will take whatever the defense gives to him. The hope is that he can make it all the way to the rim for a layup—assuming the defense doesn’t go under the screen and acquiesce an open three.

As you can see in this next clip, the Nets put up little effort in stopping Harden. In fact, he never stops driving and finishes with ease at the rim. This is downright awful defense from the Nets, but the basic actions of the play are enough to confuse them.

The second option is for the roll man diving towards the rim. The execution on the back screen is crucial. The Nets are on the other side in the clip below as Spencer Dinwiddie comes off a decent Trevor Booker screen. But the best part of the play happens when Quincy Acy sets a beautiful back screen. As a result, Dinwiddie and Booker are in a two-on-one at the rim. Almost flawless execution on that play.

The second part of the clip features another great back screen—this time from Domantas Sabonis. Russell Westbrook has a huge avenue to deliver a bounce pass to a cutting Steven Adams. There’s no stopping that mammoth human being when he has that much momentum.

The pop-out three-point shot is the final option—and it could be the most devastating. If the defense communicates well enough and shuts down the first and second option successfully, there’s a good chance there is a three-point shooter sneaking at to the top of the key for a wide open look.

On the first play below, it’s as chaotic as it looks. The Nets are preoccupied with Harden and Nene while Eric Gordon leaks out to the three-point line. It doesn’t help that Joe Harris falls, but his own teammate, Brook Lopez, trips him in a desperate attempt to regain his position on Nene.

The second clip shows another instance in which the screen setting wasn’t as crisp as it could be, but the sheer confusion of the defense leads to a wide-open three for Doug McDermott. Marc Gasol and Vince Carter both sag with a foot into the paint to stop the penetration and make sure the roll man isn’t diving for a lob. Mike Conley tries to get back to his man and everyone forgets about McDermott. Ironically enough, David Fizdale, coach of the Grizzlies at the time, pops up off the bench to call a timeout after this play.

How The Knicks Are Adding A Spanish Flair

As stated earlier, the Knicks are only running this set a handful of times. But in the few times they have run this play, they’ve seen some success with it. Spain pick and roll will work almost every time when properly executed. That starts with excellent screens. There is perhaps no better screen setter on the Knicks than Enes Kanter right now.

In the play below, Kanter sets a solid screen to give THJ a driving lane and then Emmanuel Mudiay surprises a dropping Nikola Vucevic with the back screen. Spain pick and roll can be a solid counter against teams using drop coverages, much like this one, in pick and roll defense.

But even when the execution isn’t perfect, the Knicks are still benefiting from decent looks. On the first play below, Mitchell Robinson only manages to nudge Hardaway’s defender—the rookie still needs to work on setting screens. But that little nudge was just enough to send Hardaway downhill. Trey Burke makes every undersized guard proud with a physical screen, even if it’s not the prettiest screen ever.

On the second play, Kanter isn’t in position to make contact with Hardaway’s defender so he slips the screen and dives towards the rim. Mudiay attempts to set a screen, but rather than clearing space, the paint becomes packed with bodies. Despite the crowded key, Hardaway finishes the bucket anyway.

The clips below are examples of this set working despite the fact that the play didn’t go exactly to plan.

The final clip below is a case where the defense severely overplays the pick and roll action, leaving an open shooter at the three-point line. Trey Burke initiates his back screen a touch early, tipping off New Orleans to the play. Julius Randle chooses to protect the paint and he leaves Noah Vonleh wide open for a corner three. It’s always important for the players on the outside to stay engaged, like Vonleh does here.

What Does This Mean?

So what does this all mean? Well, this is just a fun set to watch and dissect if you’re an X’s and O’s nerd like myself. But if you’re wondering what this means for the Knicks, it means that the team is moving forward. Obviously, the Knicks are in limbo this season without Kristaps Porzingis. But Fizdale still needs to develop an offensive system that fits the personnel of the team while staying current with the current trends of the league.

Right now, the Knicks are too young and inexperienced to completely take the training wheels off of this offense. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of simplicity on the offensive end with a steady diet of dribble handoffs and double pin down screens for wings in the corner. It’s impossible to implement a sophisticated offense without taking some baby steps—especially with the current state of New York’s roster.

That being said, the Knicks are slowly implementing more complexity into the offense. Spain pick and roll is a perfect example of the direction David Fizdale ultimately wants to take this offense. This relatively new set is only one small part of the offense. But the successful implementation of this play should be a sign of better things to come.