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How Caris LeVert’s on-ball nature fits Victor Oladipo’s off-ball role

And why Nate Bjorkgren’s offense will allow the 26-year-old wing to play with the ball in his hands even when his motion is triggered away from it.

Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

On Saturday, a few short days before the Pacers acquired Caris LeVert from the Brooklyn Nets as part of a four-team deal that sent Victor Oladipo to the Houston Rockets, a milestone came and went without any fanfare. With just under eight minutes to play in the first quarter, Malcolm Brogdon caught the ball on the right wing and made a quick swing pass to his left to Victor Oladipo for three. While nothing fancy in terms of vision, strength, or difficulty, the plain jane pass resulting in a made basket marked the 23rd time in nine games that Indiana’s back-court duo had assisted each other, already matching last season’s total. Granted, piling up assists is easier when Oladipo is shooting 43 percent on catch-and-shoot threes as opposed to 27.5 percent in 2019-20, but that’s also sort of the point as to why his on-court partnership with Brogdon was functioning at a higher level.

Instead of operating as the lead guard for constant straight-on attacks, Oladipo was providing balance to the offense by operating off the ball, flying off of staggers, cutting across picks at the elbows, and engaging in sideline plays with Brogdon and Sabonis forming the other two points of a triangle. Altogether, nearly half of Oladipo’s possessions this season (45 percent) have resulted from spots-ups, cuts, screens, and hand-offs. By comparison, only 22 percent of Caris LeVert’s possessions in Brooklyn have come in the form of off-ball actions. To be fair, however, with Spencer Dinwiddie going down with a torn ACL and Kyrie Irving absent, LeVert has taken on increased responsibility, not only to produce as a starter, averaging 28.5 points and 5.3 assists while hitting 46 percent from the field in four games, but also to serve as an offensive focal point at a time when Kevin Durant was sidelined due to health and safety protocols.

Still, the high-volume scorer hasn’t breached 30 percent frequency on off-ball actions in any of his last three seasons, even after re-returning from significant injuries and playing second and third fiddle to Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell. So, for a shifty, slinky player who is most accustomed to decelerating in the lane and either shoveling shots to the rim or spoon-feeding rollers at the basket, how can an offense that called for Oladipo to exist mainly outside the action, thrive with LeVert wheeling at the heart of it?

Think of it this way: Sometimes, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

Reshaping Outcomes

For example, take a look at this action the Nets ran when LeVert poured in 43 points, six assists, and five rebounds against the Grizzlies. With player movement on both sides to occupy the attention of the defense, LeVert and Jeff Green both come off of separate pindown screens, with Jarrett Allen facilitating up top.

Oh hey, you know who else sets up in that same alignment? Yep, the Pacers. But, here’s the wrinkle: There’s a lot of wrinkles. One time down the floor, Oladipo might fake a screen and get the heck out of the way for Brogdon to double-back and attack with the defense spread thin; and on the next trip, Brogdon could very well be the decoy with Oladipo following the curve of the three-point line to grab the pitch and pivot for a straight-line drive.

Either way, given that what develops out of the dual-side pindowns is more a matter of concept than dogmatic choreography, what begins as an off-ball action can just as easily end with a cross-and-dice, off-the-dribble three, which LeVert sinks at a 35 percent clip on 3.5 attempts per game.

Or, how about get a load of this. With Memphis attempting to induce a backdoor cut, look at how he skips running off of the screens and instead sprints straight for Allen before hitting the brakes and using his body like a pogo-stick to put his defender on his back and elevate from the non-restricted area in the paint, where he takes over 30 percent of his shots and more total than anyone else in the league.

For better or worse, that herky-jerky tempo, with a knack for darting before and away from screens while stopping short of the rim, is quintessential LeVert. Among the 13 players with at least 45 field goal attempts in the non-restricted area in the paint, the 41 percent he’s shot on those ranks eleventh, ahead of only Andre Drummond and Marvin Bagley.

Rearranging deck chairs

As you may recall, the Pacers routinely use Doug McDermott as a back-screener, moving at a 45-degree angle from the corner to the opposite elbow, to generate post touches for Sabonis. Well, looky here! The Nets deploy a similar tactic, only instead of diving into a post-up, Green exits the play, with Allen providing LeVert with the grease he needs at the top of the key to serve up a hot plate of food at the rim, where 43 percent of the slippery playmaker’s assists are converted.

Again, this is technically a hand-off, but the functionality is the same as piloting the pick-and-roll. Plus, given that the Pacers have already re-purposed that same approach from McDermott to flow into Spain pick-and-roll, why not provide LeVert with an outlet to cook?

After all, in balancing his scoring with playmaking in a lead role for the Bubble Nets, LeVert’s assist percentage jumped from 24.2 percent during the 2019-20 regular season to 47.5 percent in the playoffs. To that point, the Pacers have only played two percent of their minutes this season without one of either Brogdon or Sabonis. LeVert doesn’t often locate the corners, but if he can keep the offense moving in Indiana like he did in Brooklyn, with slick kick-outs to the wing and last-second wraparounds and dump-off passes through tight spaces, then perhaps Nate Bjorkgren can better avoid overworking his top-two players in a staggered rotation than what was possible with Oladipo’s muddled handle and decision-making.

Magic, reimagined

That said, even when he isn’t finishing plays in the form of off-ball actions with on-ball activity, the threat of him attacking the paint can still open driving lanes for Brogdon. Take this possession from the bubble, for instance. After receiving a down screen from Allen, notice how Joe Harris dribbles toward the sideline as though he is about to engage with LeVert in some sort of pistol action before abruptly veering downhill for two.

Why does that matter? Well, as Kawhi demonstrates, the fake hand-off worked as a clever ruse to use LA’s switches against them. In addition to the Trojan Horse aspect, however, hitting the pause button has become one of Brogdon’s favorite tricks.

Unlike his spot-up shooting and accuracy off screens, LeVert has scored efficiently on hand-offs (1.35 points per possession), which as was previously stated, behave in many cases like pick-and-rolls, though they’ve only been called on 5.9 percent of his possessions. Consequently, if he can establish himself as a credible decoy to explode and attack, then that sort of play acting will become all the more deceptive for Brogdon.

All of which is to say that LeVert isn’t without his flaws. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, he’s shot 49-of-163 (30 percent) on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, and he isn’t particularly apt to generate shots for himself as a cutter. However, while his ability to make defenses pay for taking extra steps toward the ball remains in question, he can certainly alternate running the show with Brogdon, thriving in ball-screens and dissecting double-drags. When he’s away from the ball, he may not be able to fly off of staggers into threes or recognize where to zip backdoor, but he can still operate in ways that shouldn’t disrupt his own rhythm or that of the team’s concepts. So long as he isn’t stalling out possessions and the offense maintains a certain degree of flow, off-ball actions that trigger movement don’t have to preclude him from on-ball playmaking, even while playing with Brogdon and Sabonis — and especially as the season wears on.