And why less basketball, in the right context, can be more.
Appearing on The Woj Pod with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski at the end of August, Malcolm Brogdon replied with a singular, and perhaps pointed, word when asked what the Pacers need most from Rick Carlisle headed into next season.
“Structure,” he answered.
“His teams thrived because he provided enough structure,” Brogdon continued while expanding on what he expects to gain from his new coach. “Teams that have too much structure become robots. Teams that have no structure play too loose and they’re too reckless and too up-and-down. Teams that have the right amount of structure have that sort of foundation they need, that sort of motion offense that they can always rely on and fall back on, but they also have the confidence and freedom to play their game.”
Reading between the lines, there’s a lot to unpack from that response, which appears to be looking backward as well as forward. First off, after Victor Oladipo was traded and before Caris LeVert was cleared, recall that the Pacers hit a skid midway through last season, wherein several of their plays started to grow stale and predictable just as teams were starting to duck under. At the time, rather than searching for unscripted ways to loosen the defense with randomness, they instead became overly mechanical, all too often pressing the same buttons within the same actions.
Once LeVert made his debut against the Phoenix Suns on March 13, the Pacers dialed up the pace, posting the second-fastest offense at 10.4 seconds after securing a defensive rebound; however, while the herky-jerky nature of the slippery playmaker’s game certainly put a new spin on some of the same plays, the attempts to outrun their struggles to make stops only seemed to exacerbate the latter problem, as quick misses at one end of the floor had a tendency to result in quick makes at the other.
From regimented to slapdash, the challenge for Carlisle, as Brogdon laid out, is to find the happy middle between the two.
For that, a look back at the Summer League Pacers, who took plenty of cues from last season’s Mavericks, should provide some clarity on how to find the Goldilocks zone as it pertains to structure.
For two seasons now, with the exception of some of what Doug McDermott offered as an intuitive, off-ball mover, the Pacers have grappled with staying active around post-ups.
“I love to pass first,” Domantas Sabonis said in his exit interview while discussing the value of being surrounded by cutters. “If I can get my guys open and get them easy points, I enjoy that more than scoring.”
Under McMillan, when they weren’t standing and watching, the post feeder always received a screen from the next closest perimeter player.
Last season, after a few games of errantly attempting to draw fouls against more imposing defenders with static spacing, one of three things would normally happen.
- The post feeder would set a top-pin for Myles Turner to orbit into a three.
- Turner, in demonstrating the area of his game in which he arguably displayed the most growth, would cut at a 45-degree angle from the wing to the basket.
- Or, the Pacers would run this punch set, with a shooter receiving a subsequent screen from the post feeder to fly toward the ball after setting a back-screen.
Overall, with teams consistently throwing more types of defense at Sabonis, including soft traps and late-double teams, the Pacers responded with more types of play-calls, but there wasn’t always room for variety within those variations. After a while, defenders started squeezing Turner at the elbow, and if spammed too often, were also prepared to anticipate the back-pick that allowed him to shake loose down the lane.
By comparison, the Summer League Pacers more often had the rope to be deceptive, especially out of the high-post, in putting concepts before precision.
Generally speaking, with a slot-to-slot pass initiating a pass to the elbow and triggering improvised screening with one player cutting to the hoop and the other staying on the perimeter and going to the ball in the opposite direction, there’s more gray area. Rather than dictating who goes first or who screens for whom, the goal, as demonstrated by Dwight Powell and the Mavericks, is to be dynamic, creating outcomes ranging from keepers and hand-backs to pitches and backdoor cuts, even at the risk of messiness.
In the end, especially if the five-man makes a predetermined read, what develops may not be as clean or look as pretty as when last season’s plays went off without a hitch, but being attuned and responding to the defense, as opposed to following the same choreography and eventually allowing the defense to catch up, will be tougher to guard.
Oh, and there’s another benefit: With Sabonis lifted from the low block to the elbow, he can continue spacing the floor with playmaking while also having more opportunities to face-up and attack on-ball.
Stack the deck
With regard to guard reads, one small thing that stood out during summer league action was the intentionally ambiguous way in which stacked screens were deployed.
Looking back at last season, the Pacers typically masked stacked actions with Iverson cuts, which made the back-screen portion of the three-man pick-and-rolls tougher to sniff out.
On the one hand, as McDermott demonstrates above, the design of the play made for a clever disguise, especially when slipping the back-screen. On the other, however, given that the big from the right elbow was exclusively responsible for stepping out and setting the initial ball-screen at a sideline-facing angle, the direction in which the ball-handler was going to dribble off of the pick (left!) didn’t exactly leave much to the imagination.
That’s fine, when the defense allows the ball-handler to reject the screen.
Not so great, though, when the ball-handler is already someone who teams are automatically going to duck under against and the on-ball defender knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that the ball-handler is driving left. In that case, with Derrick Rose sliding under, look at how Julius Randle doesn’t have to show and can avoid the backscreen, with R.J. Barrett staying home.
Granted, the Pacers eventually got to a post-up for Sabonis, but because the stacked screens were effectively neutralized, he basically had to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Randle, an exercise which ended up wearing on him as the game drug on, in order to muscle his way to the rim.
Now, compare that to the stacked actions run by the Summer League Pacers. See how Isaiah Jackson is setting the ball-screen flat, facing the opposite baseline? Not only does that allow Chris Duarte to attack in either direction, it makes it more difficult to know when and from where the screen is coming in order to duck under.
To be fair, if Duarte continues to demonstrate the ability to hit tough shots at the next level, he may not encounter that type of coverage; however, given that McConnell, Brogdon, and LeVert all did at various points last season, especially when only one downhill option was on the floor, there’s probably something to be said for potentially forcing the on-ball defender to take a longer and deeper route around the screen.
In that way, while more simple than what was enacted under Bjorkgren, the stacked screens aren’t camouflaged by whatever moving parts or false actions precede them, but rather with the added degree of difficulty in predicting which way the ball-handler is going to go.
Likewise, look back at Keifer Sykes and notice how the potential for him to set the back-screen or leak out in either direction adds yet another layer of randomness, as was the case when Tim Hardaway Jr. scrambled LA’s situations in the first-round of the playoffs.
All of which is to say that, while flat, Spain pick-and-rolls and Princeton, high-post split action shouldn’t necessarily be considered as revolutionary modes of offense, what both provide, especially when blended with other more nuanced play-calls as a safety net, circles back to what Brogdon initially described: “freedom” and “confidence” for the team’s best playmakers to “play their game,” while still staying under control.
To that point, as the Pacers found out during the middle portion of last season when they were no longer brand new to the rest of the league, perhaps less basketball, at least when replenished with additional players capable of playing off script, can be more.