Before Jacque Vaughn led an injury-ravaged Nets team to an impressive 5-3 record in the Orlando bubble, and before Steve Nash was hired over him as head coach without any prior experience, the 45-year-old former player was at the helm of a budding Orlando Magic team, featuring a heavier, less refined version of Victor Oladipo. Tasked with making sense of an ill-fitting core full of unbridled athleticism but short on shooting, the Magic got outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions in the 765 minutes that Elfrid Payton and Oladipo were on the floor together prior to when Vaughn was dismissed in the wake of a listless 10-game losing streak.
“It’s not his fault at all, whatsoever, by any means,” Oladipo said in response to whether his coach deserved all the blame for the team’s disappointing 12-30 start. “It’s not one man’s fault. If anything, we’re the ones out there playing.”
Fast forward to now, however, and by putting Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen in position to grow together and play off of each other with greater opportunity and less depth, Vaughn has flipped the script on what never materialized with the Magic, spotlighting the potential of Brooklyn’s young pieces with a streamlined, egalitarian approach that could benefit not only who Oladipo has become, but also who the rest of the Pacers already are.
Find a new angle
Emphasizing spacing, quick decisions, and crisp ball movement, the Bubble Nets oftentimes preferred to keep the corner empty on spread pick-and-roll actions with a single shooter stationed high at the wing so as to put extra stress on a lone weak-side defender to help and recover.
Here, with Markelle Fultz staying glued to Harris at the three-point line, notice how Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot cuts opposite into open space as soon as his man slides over to tag Allen.
If that’s the Pacers, and Brogdon is playing off-ball at the slot in Harris’ role, his defender would likely be more apt to stray off of him to clog Oladipo’s driving lane. In that event, the 27-year-old point guard would get an easier catch-and-shoot three, which unlike Payton all those years ago, he knocked down at a 42 percent clip last season in spite of his overall depressed accuracy from deep (32 percent). If those shots are falling, or Doug McDermott is standing there in hybrid lineups, then T.J. Warren would have free reign to run the baseline with help pinching in on Sabonis.
Either way, rather than sticking with the traditional angle alignment with shooters stationed in both corners, the Pacers would be making strategic use of geometry to stretch the defense and better accentuating each other’s existing strengths.
One of the biggest developments for Brooklyn in the bubble was Allen’s addition of nascent playmaking to his rim finishing. With nearly twice as many elbow touches per game (6.8) as he was averaging prior to the hiatus (3.4), the shot-blocking big man was re-positioned by Vaughn to flip passes out of the high post, where Sabonis is already at home.
The only difference is, instead of running horns with two bigs, the Nets enter the ball to Allen with LeVert (typically) as a would-be Oladipo receiving a screen from the ball-handler at the opposite elbow to flow into a hand-off and make a play.
Here’s why that matters: If the defense anticipates the screen and switches, the offense doesn’t automatically grind to a halt and default into isolations, as was so often the case for the Pacers against the Heat. With a built-in wrinkle for the ball handler to dart to the rim, not only does the ball pop around the perimeter with greater purpose, but Sabonis would be empowered to do something slick with full visibility of the entire floor.
Adapting to a new skill, Allen averaged 4.2 assists on his increase of nearly 20 touches per game for the restart, compared to 1.6 on the season.
Mazes of picks
Almost a year ago, long before the NBA’s calendar got discombobulated by the suspension, Malcolm Brogdon was occasionally dabbling in the post, finding shooters on time and on target with his back to the basket.
After returning from India, however, the Pacers almost completely abandoned this look, with Brogdon only logging four total possessions of post-up derived offense for the season; in part, because the digger has to be fixated enough on the ball to get slammed by the screen. That said, you know what’s better than one off-ball screen? Three.
Take a look at this hedge maze of a set that the Nets ran in the bubble. With LeVert upping his volume of post touches from 0.6 prior to the hiatus to 3.8 during the restart, Harris weaves around a pick at the opposite block as well as both elbows.
Even if not Brogdon, imagine if Sabonis is turning the offense inside-out and an opposing four, at least in smaller lineups, has to chase T.J. Warren or Justin Holiday through an obstacle course of picks, with the latter spotting-up from deep and the former attacking the basket. Under Vaughn, and without the added ball-dominance of Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn ranked 6th in player movement compared to 18th prior to the hiatus and 16th for the Small-Ball Pacers.
Just like it’s possible to get a lot of use out of screens by not using them, the same can be said for feigning dribble hand-offs. On this possession, after receiving a down screen from Allen, Harris dribbles toward the sideline as though he is about to engage with LeVert in some sort of pistol action before he abruptly veers downhill for two.
What makes that sequence work isn’t a sudden jolt of acceleration; it’s the brief pause — a skill which Malcolm Brogdon has shown he has in his arsenal, at least in small doses.
This is one of my favorite things from Hornets-Pacers the other night:— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) February 27, 2020
Fake pistol action. Defense is expecting Brogdon to flip the ball to Warren, who would then come off a screen from Sabonis. Instead, he attacks with a keeper, drawing the opposite corner defender. pic.twitter.com/8fDvzYhopF
Take a closer look at where Kawhi was when Harris hesitated. Rather than trying to funnel the sharpshooter into Ivica Zubac, who also ends up thrown off balance by the abrupt script change, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is jumping out against LeVert only to find a Trojan Horse. D-oh!
If Oladipo can regain some of his burst, then the threat of his ability to go from a dead-stop into a full speed hand-off would make incorporating that sort of play acting all the more versatile and deceptive. Plus, much like the rest of Vaughn’s offense, the beauty of that action is that it can also be run more than one way. Incorporating elements of triangle and Blind Pig, Allen doesn’t always screen for Harris. Sometimes, Harris replaces Allen, which once again allows the shot-blocking big man to flash to the elbow, where he threads the ball to Tyler Johnson cutting toward the rim.
And yet, while the notion of working the high post with a playmaking big man and setting up hand-offs and pick-and-rolls that distract from the ball-handler with motion and multiple options seems as though it could be a fit for a team in the absence of a clear top option with a not-quite-himself — or maybe even traded — Oladipo, it sounds like the plan is for Vaughn to work as Steve Nash’s assistant in Brooklyn.
“That’s never an easy discussion. It’s never easy to tell somebody that, ‘Hey, look, you came out second in this regard.’” Nets general manager Sean Marks said at Nash’s introductory press conference, via Nets Daily. “But it’s a credit to JV as a man and who he is and wanting to continue to stay here and be a part of something and continue to build. He knows what’s at stake here, and he also knows he’s valued by Steve, and Steve and JV have had multiple conversations.”
Still, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Vaughn is among the long list of assistants from around the league that the Pacers have requested to speak to regarding their head coaching vacancy. Assuming that permission is granted, then perhaps what is typically perceived as a retread could instead be a resurgence for both sides.