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Pacers offer early glimpse at Nate Bjorkgren’s playbook

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On the anatomy of a training camp set (yes, you read that right) and what can be discerned from it.

Iowa Energy v Rio Grande Valley Vipers Photo by Jason Bradwell/NBAE via Getty Images

Though it’s a few months later than usual, coming in early-December instead of late-September, tantalizing-training-camp-video season is here just the same. With ball movement aplenty and nary a missed shot, the latest 56-second offering from Pacers Sports and Entertainment has it all, from the continued use of (mostly small) hybrid lineups to Domantas Sabonis knocking down a three while playing alongside another big that isn’t Myles Turner.

Cutting further through the noise and clutter, however, is an early glimpse at Nate Bjorkgren’s playbook. For the first 20 seconds, as the ball hops around the perimeter with all the crisp speed of a flat stone skipping across the surface of water, two evenly dispersed units are shown orchestrating the same set, which just so happens to be an old favorite of the double-big Pelicans and offensive guru Chris Finch, who — as you may recall — the Pacers interviewed for their coaching vacancy.

With Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins operating like rotating shields, the play is designed to use the four and five-men as double screeners (twice!) to generate open looks for multiple ball-handlers.

Let’s break it down.

Step 1: First, Davis and Cousins set a stagger for Jrue Holiday to come get the ball from Rajon Rondo at the top of the key.

Despite the funky camera angle, and the fact that the action is developing on the opposite side of the floor, that’s also what’s happening, here, when T.J. McConnell makes a brief cameo to fire the ball to Edmond Sumner on the move.

Step 2: From there, Davis and Cousins shift to the area of floor where middle pindowns are typically set to chase the first stagger with a second. This time, freeing Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore to receive a pass from Holiday.

Again, this exact same choreography is performed by the Pacers, as Doug McDermott and Myles Turner shift closer to the baseline to set a second set of consecutive picks, with Kelan Martin cutting to the wing in the role of Moore.

Step 3: After that, Bjorkgren puts a twist on a classic. For the Pelicans, Moore drives and kicks off the catch to Holiday, who then misfires on a pull-up, mid-range jump-shot. However, if Davis were more comfortable moving to a spot to spot-up, the option would be there for him to simply back-pedal out to the three-point line, as does McDermott.

Side-by-side, the plays are identical, with the exception of Bjorkgren’s emphasis on finding the deep corner in lieu of possibly flowing into side pick-and-roll.

It’s that departure that makes the clip most interesting. For one, given that Bjorkgren has said that he hasn’t designated starters yet, it seems notable that most of the footage coming out of practice typically involves balanced lineups; in this case, with Turner and Sabonis anchoring separate units alongside a mobile shooter at the four or occasionally Goga Bitadze. That alone shouldn’t be taken to mean that the Pacers will be starting with, or leaning mostly on, a smaller attack, but it does seem to reinforce the idea that the team is preparing for a wide-range of playing combinations, including plenty in which their two bigs, making roughly $18 million apiece, are staggered.

Additionally, look back at how Oklahoma City’s defense is scrambling to guard everyone on that possession. When Andre Roberson goes under on the second pick of the first stagger, Steven Adams stunts toward the ball and then jumps back to Cousins. On the second stagger, Adams fully switches to Moore with Paul George veering in front of Boogie. If any one thing goes awry in that sequence, Cousins could get an easy dunk diving in front of a smaller wing or pop out to three against a lumbering five.

That’s a lot of chaos to keep track of, not counting the fact that the Pacers ranked among the bottom third of the league in corner three frequency last season. To that point, for a team that has long struggled to create offense against switching defenses, there’s upwards of five swaps that have to be made to cover that action in addition to a potentially long contest. Remember: Over the last two postseasons, with Boston switching off-ball screens and Miami clamping down on driving lanes, McDermott has gone 2-of-17 from three with only three (total!) attempts coming from the corners.

Granted, this play provides no guarantee of made shots, but at least it offers a more multi-faceted means for generating attempts with other reads and counters already baked-in.

Plus, if nothing else, there’s an easter egg (staggered staggers!) to keep an eye out for during the preseason slate beginning on Saturday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.