We are starting a new section called "More of this, please" to highlight specific sets or individual plays that we think the Spurs should emphasize more. The objective is not to question Pop's play-calling; he can handle that aspect of his job quite well. But there are some variations of the sets the Spurs run on offense that are so effective that they should likely use them more. Here's one:
Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan 4/5 pick-and-roll
I love variations of pick-and-rolls. When you put an opposing player in a position he is not used to dealing with - like a big man defending the pick-and-roll ball handler - you get an edge. Of course, to properly execute this play, you need to a big man that can handle the ball and pass like a guard. That description fits Boris Diaw, doesn't it?
It ends up being so, so pretty and yet it seems like a false start. Parker enters the ball to the big at the elbow, like he would in a Horns set or the Spurs motion weak set, and cuts to the weak side corner. But Duncan is not on the opposite elbow and Parker is jogging to the corner instead of rushing to set a screen for Leonard to come out as a shooter. Duncan looks like he is about to set a screen for Leonard to loop outside, which would potentially kick-start a high pick-and-roll action with Diaw as the screener. Instead, Leonard ignores the screen and makes a baseline cut to the opposite corner.
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After that, it looked like there were two options: the Spurs were going to segue into a give-and-go two-man game with Parker and Duncan - which has worked wonderfully in the past - or there was going to be a hand-off to Green for a quick three. But Parker stays in the corner and Green only moves to the wing to make room for Leonard on the opposite corner. Then Duncan unexpectedly and very quickly sets a screen for Diaw and dives to the basket for an easy layup. With a perfectly spaced floor and such quick execution, the Wolves simply have no chance of stopping it.
It really does seem like this was the play the Spurs were calling and not a last resort improvisation. The movement from Parker and Leonard seem to indicate that the play wasn't for them. There was no floppy screen to free Leonard on the opposite side and Danny Green only moved to the wing to clear out the corner. By the look of things, this was a very much intentional 4/5 pick-and-roll play.
Can the Spurs run it more?
Sure, but only when Diaw is in there. A handful of teams have run the play in the past, most notably the Hawks with Josh Smith and Al Horford. The Lakers have also used Pau Gasol on occasion as ball-handler and Odom before him. What the play needs is a big that has the ball-handling ability and passing prowess to pull off the lob pass or put the ball on the floor for either a hand off or a drive if the play goes awry. A mid-range jumper is also needed to avoid the defense from playing off the ball-handler. Diaw is a perfect fit.
Perfect spacing is an absolute requirement. In this play, the Spurs get away with running it with Leonard and Parker in the corners because the coordination of movement is perfect. Leonard cutting occupies his defender while Parker makes his way to the corner slowly, getting there as the play is unfolding. With clever movement off the ball, the Spurs should make enough room down the middle for the two bigs to work.
Should it become a staple of the offense?
As long as the floor is properly spaced, this play is exceptionally difficult to stop. But the element of surprise is extremely important because if the defense is expecting the play, they will send help, play off the ball-handler to avoid the close shot or switch on the pick. So running it too often would be bad idea.
Yet it offers enough variations that the Spurs could probably get away with it to create some easy looks when Parker sits, or in lineups that don't include any of the Big Three. While this play requires Diaw, the screener could be anyone. So running some Diaw/Ayres pick-and-rolls could be worth a try when the back-up guards are struggling to create easy buckets.
When a team has a multi-talented player such as Diaw, they should look to use that versatility to maximum effect. And by having him act as a ball-handler on pick-and-rolls occasionally, the Spurs would be doing just that. All while picking up some easy buckets in the process.