With stops in Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and the G League, New Orleans Pelicans assistant Chris Finch has amassed an eclectic mixture of basketball knowledge from all over the globe, not the least of which, at least as it pertains to his head coaching candidacy with the Pacers, is the offensive brainpower he shared and gained as an assistant with the Nuggets before leaving for the Big Easy the following year.
In his lone season on Mike Malone’s staff in 2016-17, Finch was on hand for Denver’s mid-season transformation into the league’s most efficient offense beginning on December 15, when preternatural pass-bender Nikola Jokić was established not only as the team’s starting center, but also the playmaking focal point. Of course, without much to go off of in terms of in-game management and exposure, evaluating top lieutenants from other teams as an outsider can easily turn into an exercise in pure conjecture. However, in Finch’s case, it seems telling that many of the same big-centric, offensive concepts that were used to empower Jokić at the center of the wagon wheel in Denver also resurfaced a year later in New Orleans, where the 50-year-old offensive guru was hired away from Malone to help maximize the combination of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Either way, regardless of who, specifically, can be credited for drawing up those inverted schemes, there’s no denying that they transferred from one team to the next, with Finch as the only common denominator, in a way that could benefit the Pacers if also passed along to Domantas Sabonis.
Stretching the defense with playmaking
Before he ruptured his Achilles tendon in February of 2018, DeMarcus Cousins led the Pelicans in passes per game. By operating out on the perimeter as much as with his back to the basket, New Orleans forced opposing shot blockers outside the paint and still managed to space the floor, even on possessions when he wasn’t shooting.
For instance, take a look at this off-ball twirl (curl cut around a screen) play and notice the multitude of variations. Not unlike Jokić the season prior, Cousins is positioned at the elbow, with full visibility of the entire floor, as two or more guards/wings engaged in some sort of off-ball screening action in the opposite corner. What follows is a matter of limitless choice: If the player for whom the screen is set, wheels around the pick without receiving the ball, then the screener can pop open for three. If the defense anticipates the curl and tries to cheat the screen, well, then the cutter can scurry backdoor. Or, maybe, the two guards switch roles, and instead of setting a pindown, the bottom player slips a flare or simply darts into open space after feigning a pick.
Whatever the case, there’s a read for almost every coverage, and while it should be noted that Cousins made over two threes per game that season, it’s also easy to see how putting the ball in the hands of Sabonis that far from the basket (regardless of if he develops deeper range) could be used as an effective means to stretch the defense for other, better shooters as well as cutters and drivers.
Think of it this way: In the playoffs, playing five-out after forcing a switch with fixed spacing wasn’t enough to dissuade the Heat from loading up on penetration and communicating their unbelief that the Pacers could win on the back of their center shooting (or record-scratching out of) jump-shots.
Granted, Indiana ran a similar version of the aforementioned twirl play last season under Nate McMillan, but the difference is the role reversal. With Sabonis as the passer and the guards as screeners, Adebayo would have been actively occupied defending the ball 20 feet away from the rim instead of pinching in at the elbows and blocks.
Plus, if Miami had switched on off-ball screens against the Pacers like the Celtics did the year prior, there’s a counter. Here, rather than setting a screen, notice how Jamal Murray subtly fakes a down-screen at the same time as Darrell Arthur slides up the three-point line.
That does two things. For one, it shows how offensive spacing should constantly be alive and adjusting. After all, without a screen, there’s nothing to switch, but by lifting to the wing and creating an empty corner, there also isn’t a readily available help defender.
Plus, in addition to playing inside-out, with the bigs out on the perimeter and the guards scampering around the paint, both teams also occasionally pulled Freaky Fridays on pindowns and flex screens, with bigs curling around guards. Once again, with Jokić and Cousins acting as their team’s respective fulcrums with one player screening away for another, look at what develops.
As the film shows, that’s putting two defenders of different sizes in quite the pickle. Hold to protect against the pass, and the guard is shaking loose to shoot. Switch, and the big is liable to go to town on the rim. Admittedly, T.J. Warren (clearly) isn’t Anthony Davis, or even Mason Plumlee in terms of being a lob threat, but he’s quick enough to get around most power forwards fighting over on screens and his recent dabbling in the mid-post suggests that his ability to absorb contact and regain his balance would lend itself to exploiting mismatches.
At any rate, defenders are being put in positions to defend in ways they normally wouldn’t.
Something else both of those teams had in common? Cutting defenses to ribbons. Per Synergy, during Denver’s breakout season in 2016-17, the Nuggets were one of only four teams calling cuts on over nine percent of their possessions. A year later, when Finch moved to New Orleans, the Pelicans jumped from 25th in cut frequency to seventh, and here’s the thing: That’s only counting possessions where the cut directly led to points, free throws, or a turnover.
Whereas Jokić has the skills to conjure passing lanes from even the tightest of spaces, New Orleans routinely used cuts as a means to reshape the defense. In the first clip from this compilation, for example, notice how Dante Cunningham gets Doug McDermott to adhere to him like a magnet. Then, watch what happens next. Rather than standing still, Darius Miller moves into the void and makes himself visible to Cousins out of the double-team.
Again: Spacing is best when it’s continuous, rather than anchored — as was so often the case for the Pacers last season, especially around post-ups.
Bigs as ball-handlers
With the ability to dribble, pass, and shoot in mammoth-sized bodies, Anthony Davis and 2018 DeMarcus Cousins aren’t normal and, therefore, can’t be directly copied. Spoiler: The Pacers aren’t replicating a giant pick-and-roll with this type of vertical spacing.
That said, in the years since those all-big men alley-oops were a thing of beauty, more and more teams have started sprinkling in screening for bigs as ball-handlers as a way to force shot-blockers outside the paint. Tired of running into the brick wall that is a rim protector? Look at how a sneaky back-screen from Chris Paul manages to shoehorn Rudy Gobert and JaVale McGee into fighting over as the on-ball defender.
Or, how about this nifty 5-4 action from the Grizzlies.
To be fair, Jackson’s shooting helps open up Clarke’s dive to the basket, but a similar effect could be achieved against a switch with a quick slip from the screener. Greater variety of screening combinations alone wouldn’t have solved all of Indiana’s problems against the Heat, but part of the reason why they struggled to get to and capitalize against favorable switches was because of how much their offense relied on 1-5 ball-screen usage while lacking in other playmaking.
For the series, 41 of Malcolm Brogdon’s 108 pick-and-rolls were run at Bam Adebayo, and the only player who finished the first-round with a higher time of possession was Luka Doncic. Sure, some of that load was a product of Victor Oladipo’s limitations; however, if one of the few defenders in league capable of guarding all five positions was going to be involved to that extent in the pick-and-roll, imagine (again) how much more room there would have been in the paint if he had been defending Sabonis on-ball with the guards slipping to the rim ahead of the switch.
For all of these reasons, if the Pacers have designs on building a system with their All-Star center serving as the connective tissue, they might be hard pressed to find another name among their list of candidates with more experience incorporating playmaking bigs across franchises into inventive and efficient modern offense than Chris Finch.