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On Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo sharing point guard duties

And why the uncomfortable needs to become comfortable — for both of them.

Original images via (left to right): Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports; Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After signing a four-year, $85 million contract, Malcolm Brogdon is about to enter uncharted territory. In his introductory press conference with the Pacers, the 50-40-90 club member said he believed his best position was point guard, a mantle he rarely carried last season for the Bucks with most of the offense running through Eric Bledsoe and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. In total, Brogdon logged less than 250 minutes of action in 2018-19 without either of those two, or late-comer George Hill on the floor, meaning he has scant experience as a primary ball-handler in general, let alone against starters. And yet, to hear him describe his expected relationship with two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, it sounds as though he eventually pictures himself slotting into his more natural role as a spot-up option or secondary playmaker.

“He can have the ball in his hands as much as he wants,” Brogdon explained. “But when he doesn’t want the ball, he can trust that his point guard will make a decision and can step up for him.”

Darren Collison led the team in time of possession even before Oladipo’s season-ending injury, so there’s room for Brogdon to handle without taking away from Indiana’s franchise player. However, in order for the two combo guards to fit as snugly in practice as they appear on paper, internal development will arguably be required of both of them to get the most out of each other.

When Brogdon has the ball...

In no universe is Collison a better player than Brogdan. Not as a threat to penetrate. Not as an in-motion passer. And not as a defender. That said, a few subtle differences in their games could end up having a substantial impact on the run of a twin-towers offense, unless pro-active scheme changes are made.

Rather than shifting the defense, Collison operated within the defense’s constructs, pulling up for twos and aborting his dribble in search of optimum passing windows while manipulating pick-and-rolls with Myles Turner in a predominantly east-west orientation, as opposed to playing downhill. Bordering on too careful, his decision-making oftentimes showed noticeable signs of lag, and awkwardness had a tendency to ensue when he set his mind on attacking a switch. It was time for both sides to move on, but there might be something to be said for his willingness to shoot off-the-dribble.

On well over twice the volume, Collison shot 42.7 percent on pull-up jump shots last season to Brogdon’s 29.4 percent, and he shot 53 percent on step-backs of all varieties (24-of-45), compared to just 2-of-9 (1-of-4 from three, yes FOUR) for his successor. Opportunity is obviously a factor here (after all, Brogdon missed 18 games, and he barely ran over half the volume of pick-and-rolls that Collison piloted last season with Indiana), but so is reluctance.

The Pacers jump-start a bunch of their actions with ball-screens (oftentimes, at or inside the arc), so Brogdon simply must get more comfortable pulling the trigger on this shot:

Otherwise, as the Hawks demonstrate above, the temptation will be there for his defender to sneak under the screen and prioritize him as a driver, which could ultimately end up having the adverse effect of congesting the lane and putting extra stress on Oladipo and/or Lamb at the nail.

On the flip side, because Brogdon was more likely to attack a closeout while waiting for the ball to come his way than he was to attempt a self-created jump-shot, his average of 10.1 drives per game ranked first in the league last season among guards with less than 3.5 minutes of possession time per game (min. 50 games played). To put that number into context, Collison averaged 7.5 drives per game, a mark which ranked dead last among the 26 players with at least five minutes of possession per game (again, min. 50 games played).

That’s a significant discrepancy which could open the Pacers up to more kick-out opportunities, swing-swing threes, and free throws, but driving and spacing typically go hand-in-hand and there’s a difference between Milwaukee’s five-out offense and that which had a tendency to recur last season when opponents cross-matched the Turner-Sabonis pairing:

Spreading Turner to the corner, rather than stashing him in the dunker’s spot in the absence of roll-replace tension, would make for a good start, as would grooming him in terms of where to stand and when, but it also might be worth it to use Brogdon as more of an off-ball initiator with Sabonis taking on increased responsibility as the starting lineup’s offensive fulcrum — especially until Oladipo is back back.

For instance, this arrangement would give the presidential guard room to attack downhill while also presenting the Pacers with plenty of options.

Whichever of Oladipo or Lamb is on the floor would have to enter the ball to Sabonis at the elbow, but that off-ball corner screen with Turner trailing is key. On top of zhooshing up the eventual dribble hand-off with an additional obstacle to overcome, that pick sets up an array of possibilities. If Brogdon’s man top locks, he can scurry back door to the rim. If his defender trails, Turner can drift to the corner. Plus, pending the results of Turner’s well-publicized workouts with Kevin McHale, it also puts two defenders of different sizes in quite the pickle.

Even assuming that Brogdon’s man forces him over the screen and denies the hand-off, Sabonis will still have options. At that point, the lefty big man could either experiment more with his keeper with Turner spaced to the three-point line, or Brogdon could curl around Sabonis with Turner receiving the ball at the wing to set up the wrap pass for the high-IQ guard at the basket.

From there, if the play progresses as expected with Brogdon receiving the hand-off, Rudy Gay would be confronted with an agonizing decision with Oladipo’s closing speed standing on the wing in place of Pat Connaughton. If he stays home, he’ll just be passing the buck to DeMar DeRozan in relation to T.J. Warren, who shot over 40 percent from three last season.

The big question mark in this scenario is Sabonis. Having attempted fewer than 20 threes last season, Indiana’s sixth man of the year runner-up isn’t going to command anywhere near to the same degree of gravity as Brook Lopez. As such, his man (in this case, LaMarcus Aldrdige) would have more freedom to sag into the paint, thereby emboldening Gay to stay glued to Oladipo. All of which takes Brogdon full-circle back to needing to create space for himself to shoot off the dribble. Goga Bitadze could perhaps offer the Pacers an interesting alternative to Sabonis, given that he shot 40 percent from three on an average of 1.7 attempts across all games in all leagues with both KK Mega Bemax and Buducnost, but subbing him in would come at the cost of the latter’s more seasoned passing acumen.

Either way, implementing this sort of geometry across other actions would at least supply them with enough built-in wrinkles to make a traditional, inside-out offense more of a side dish than a entree, while also better equipping Brogdon to treat the Turner-Sabonis pairing more like weaponized shields than cumbersome road blocks.

When Oladipo has the ball...

Although Oladipo only appeared in 36 games last season, three clear subdivisions emerged from his second campaign with the Pacers: His first 16 games, wherein his usage rate was higher than any full season that Paul George played for Indiana; the immediate aftermath of his indefinite absence in late November, when he struggled to strike a balance between asserting himself and deferring to his teammates; and what followed thereafter, when he sustained his season-ending injury.

Occurring during the quasi-purgatory period spanning from mid-December through the night he ruptured his quad tendon on January 23, the skill Oladipo demonstrated when he effortlessly whipped this lefty pass to Bojan Bogdanovic in the weakside corner with his strong hand only barely grazing the side of the ball was a rare moment of “oh, that’s new” in a sea of otherwise...well...weird.

He wasn’t waiting until the 5:40 mark of the second quarter to make his presence felt, like he did against the Wizards on December 23rd when he didn’t attempt a single shot inside the restricted area. He wasn’t automatically responding to the turnstile of different looks he was being shown with pre-determined reads, as had been the case in the weeks prior. And he wasn’t exhibiting unsettling signs of lack of lift, like had been visible a few games earlier in Atlanta.

He was just playing, demonstrating one of the new tricks he had coyly teased at Media Day.

“It would be hard for me to tell you, but I can show you very well,” he said.

Exhibiting the ability to adeptly transition from dribbling to distributing in one fluid motion needs to happen with more regularity, because although Oladipo reduced his turnover rate when the defense commits (16.6 percent) in comparison to a year ago (21.7 percent), he could still stand to be more precise on cross-court kick-outs and hook passes.

Part of the problem is that he has a tendency to drop his head and get too deep when teams force him to drive into rotation.

Take a look at this running slip play from last season. Prior to Oladipos injury, Bojan Bogdanovic was oftentimes used as a ghost-screener for the high-octane guard to create a brief moment of hesitation that would typically lead to either an opening for a drive or a catch-and-shoot three.

In some cases, the Croatian sharpshooter would also receive a screen from Turner, which would force the opposing team’s center to have to keep an eye on Oladipo while also reacting to Bogdanovic, thereby opening a passing window for Indiana’s franchise player to find Collison in the corner.

Assuming his adaptation into a multi-level scorer holds, the Pacers could replicate this sort of tension with Warren, but Oladipo’s passes to Brogdon are going to have to be on time and on target.

Granted, part of the reason why Collison has to bend down for this one is because Oladipo loses his footing, but those tiny slip-ups could end up having a big impact on Brogdon’s accuracy from three. If the former Rookie of the Year has to reach outside of his shooting pocket, or if the pass has to be lofted out to the perimeter, that will buy the low-man time to closeout. Per, Brogdon shot 45 percent on wide open threes in 2018-19, compared to just 31 percent when the nearest defender was less than six feet away.

That’s a sizable difference. He also never attempted a single tightly contested three last season, which suggests he’ll be more likely to drive or pass off a bad pass than he’ll be to shoot. This jibes with Nate McMillan’s quality over quantity ethos, but they’re going to have to speed up their pace of play in the half-court in order to have enough time to attack the closeout at the end of a lot of their actions. In the above example, it was already very late in the shot-clock (4-0 seconds) when Collison finally wound up for three.

Still, imagine what will be possible with Brogdon coming off of a stagger in semi-transition with Oladipo bringing the ball up the floor.

Look at Larry Nance Jr. eyes, here. He isn’t splitting the difference between Brogdon and the ball, he’s laser-focused on the screening action.

If that happens against the Pacers, Oladipo could use that split-second of inattention to hit the nitrous button (assuming he regains his explosiveness) and accelerate to the rim (presuming he keeps his dribble alive), or find the strong-side corner with a shorter, less dangerous pass.

That’s big, because it takes advantage of Oladipo’s extra-gear without need of a pick or risk of him getting tangled up in a web of bodies if the screener’s man jumps out above the level of screen, especially since Turner still has a tendency to wait a beat too long to slip to the rim.

Of course, this was an option with Bogdanovic too, but where Brogdon distinguishes himself is with his ability to flow directly into a pick-and-roll and find the screener, which was somewhat of a blind spot for the Croatian National Team star during his tenure with the Pacers.

On defense...

Brogdon defended Kawhi Leonard as well as anyone in the playoffs (16-of-45, 36 percent shooting), but keeping smaller guards in front of him wasn’t exactly part of his regular purview with the Bucks. According to Krishna Narsu’s data, Brogdon spent less than 40 percent of his defensive possessions against ones last season, compared to 62 percent for Bledsoe. Per the NBA’s match-up data, Darren Collison (86 possessions), Tomas Satoransky (65), Kemba Walker (36), Kyle Lowry (33), Kris Dunn (33), and Mike Conley (25) were the only starting points that he defended for at least 20 possessions. Among those names, only Satoransky and Dunn registered a field goal percentage below 50 percent with Brogdon as their nearest defender, and the group as a whole shot 26-of-51 (50.9 percent) on 278 possessions.

Those numbers should be taken somewhat with a grain of salt given that they’re determined by which offensive player the defender was assigned to for the majority of the possession and can obviously be helped or hindered by the strength of the surrounding defense, but there was definitely a recurrent theme of getting snagged by ball-screens and failing to contest from behind against Collison:

Albeit, mid-range shots and pull-up jumpers are a soft spot for drop coverage, but Brogdon loses ground or dies on the vine in rearview pursuit in almost all of those instances. From a defensive standpoint, that could end up having a considerable impact on how the Pacers handle end of game situations.

Leading the team in fourth quarter minutes per game each of the last two seasons, Cory Joseph finished out plenty of contests in spite of his shortcomings on offense because of his ability to bust up plays at the other end of the floor. Oladipo thrives buzzing around for steals, and Brogdon’s versatility will be a definite asset against the other team’s top-wing threat; however, unless a better option emerges to replace Joseph’s impact at the point of attack, it seems distinctly possible that Indiana’s two-time All-Star could end up chasing around point guards in those situations instead of roaming the entire floor.

As is, Brogdon makes the Pacers’ backcourt better. How much better, will depend on to what degree he and Victor Oladipo grow together.