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How a specialized tweak could improve Goga Bitadze’s defense

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Maybe the best way for the rookie big man to defend the pick-and-roll is for him not to defend the pick-and-roll?

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It’s been a season of tinkering for the Pacers. With a Cory Joseph-shaped hole at the point of attack and in the absence of Thaddeus Young’s elasticity at the four position, Indiana has been forced to adjust on the fly to the notion that conservative defensive principles aren’t necessarily one-size fits all. And yet, by simplifying certain aspects of their coverage (i.e. not icing side pick-and-rolls) while still experimenting with others (i.e. 3-2 zone, switching with like-sized defenders), the Pacers have managed to stay firmly in the hunt as a top-10 defensive team because of their willingness to change along with their roster and the game — even to the point of testing out changes that may seem non-consequential to the game at hand.

Down 12 with 33 seconds to play in the third quarter against the Bucks, for instance, the Pacers did something they rarely do with a lineup that rarely plays: With Khris Middleton preparing to pick on rookie big man Goga Bitadze, who has a tendency to go wrong-footed in space and/or take up residence in no-man’s land, Jakarr Sampson jumped into the fray like a protective big brother, switching on Brook Lopez’s screen approach as if to say, “In order to get to Goga, you have to go through me.”

Of course, as the film reveals, Milwaukee took Sampson up on his (non-verbal) offer and ended up shedding Bitadze from his body guard by calling for Marvin Williams to set a subsequent screen. Nevertheless, the bones of what the Pacers tried on that defensive possession could still be applicable across different alignments — at least as it pertains to masking some of the 20-year-old center’s positioning flaws.

Akin at times to a traffic guard with big stop paddle energy, it isn’t uncommon for Bitadze to drop without actually delaying the ball or the roller.

Clearly this is Coby White’s fault for not heeding Goga’s directive, right?

Granted, it’s possible that some of the Georgian big man’s struggles defending the pick-and-roll will dissipate with age and experience as he adjusts to both the speed of the game and the system (He’s only 20 years old!), but he also needs to be less of a liability against those actions when pressed into service in the meantime.

For that, why not switch on the screen approach against traditional spread pick-and-roll actions from the slot in spots?

In that scenario, at least as it pertains to the aforementioned possession against the Bulls, Doug McDermott would switch onto the player setting the screen with Goga playing a sort of one-man zone in the paint, while staying cognizant of potential skip passes, and Edmond Sumner lifting to the wing, like so:

Ideally, Sumner and McDermott would be in reverse roles, here, so the former could guard the ball in the event of a subsequent switch on a flipped screen. However, to prevent the potential post mismatch, either Holiday or McDermott, depending on whether a switch was needed, would retreat to the unmanned corner on the roll with Bitadze returning to his original man, effectively trading assignments on the up-down.

To be fair, this image is obviously imperfect due to the fact that the Pacers were defending in a drop rather than executing the actual switch scheme (i.e. Sumner, for instance, would already be at the slot, and Bitadze would be coming out of the zone to kick-out McDermott with Holiday, hopefully, squaring up the ball-handler against the threat of a post-entry pass to the diving big man). Illustration issues aside, though, for a player who routinely sat in a zone or switched while playing for Mega Bemax and Budocnost, this type of coverage would arguably hit closer to home for Bitadze while also cutting him some breaks against the pick-and-roll as he works to improve his steadiness as a rim protector.

After all, just as tweaks were made to account for the fact that Malcolm Brogdon isn’t Cory Joseph, perhaps so too should be the case for Bitadze with regard to Myles Turner.