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How experimental should the Pacers be on defense?

For a team that is willing to assign centers to guards and rifle through coverages, on why the Pacers should arguably push the envelope even further — at least in one regard.

Indiana Pacers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

With just over five minutes to play in a tied game against the Charlotte Hornets, Domantas Sabonis was once again tasked with straying from his comfort zone on defense, drawing rookie playmaker LaMelo Ball as his primary assignment. For the season, while being responsible for hedging side pick-and-rolls, defending at the line of the ball (even against non-shooting threats), and helping-and-flying as a center in a power forward’s role, Sabonis ranks second in the league in defensive player movement. To be fair, some of that exorbitant mileage is likely a product of playing big minutes, but it also speaks to the weight of the workload he’s being expected to carry on top of sourcing and facilitating offense, as he scurries around the perimeter, redirecting ball-handlers and checking perimeter-oriented threats, before boxing out and crashing the glass while Myles Turner locks down the paint and blocks every shot in sight. But still... even with all that added (and, quite frankly, somewhat questionable) expended energy, this was LaMelo Ball, a rangy strider and crafty ball-handler with the ability to dazzle as a playmaker.

So, what pray tell is going on here? After all, this is a dead-ball situation. It isn’t as if Sabonis just happened to get unfavorably cross-matched with the rookie combo guard in transition or ended up stranded on an island with him as a result of a switch. This is the intended match-up, and let’s just say, it didn’t exactly go to plan. All things considered, Sabonis did his part staying in front, here, but watch Turner. Granted, he’s arguably positioned too high up the floor, when he should’ve played the help to meet the pass-first guard at the rim, but he’s also ball-watching, like the rest of us, out of anticipation for the precariousness of the mismatch.

On the next trip down the floor, Sabonis is still matched with LaMelo, but a screen from Cody Zeller results in Turner switching out to the three-point line and no longer being in position to clean up perimeter mistakes. In this case, his own.

From there, the Hornets took a two-point lead and never again trailed by more than two en route to securing a narrow, 108-105, victory. All of which begs a lot of questions, including why James Borrego opted to substitute away from the three-guard lineup, featuring Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, and Ball joined by Gordon Hayward and Cody Zeller, that was giving the Pacers fits in the fourth quarter. In any case, from Indiana’s perspective, the coverage during that key, even if also very brief, stretch was puzzling. On the surface, the idea of switching everything and baiting Ball into shooting is fine, but neither Sabonis nor Turner have the versatility of Bam Adebayo or Draymond Green to defend all five positions when three of the positions are guards, and neither of them were exactly sagging off, either. In fact, although Ball did pull the trigger on an errant three right before he was subbed out, Turner, as you can see in the earlier clip, actually moved toward his retreat dribble, making it easier for the rookie guard to penetrate the paint.

Altogether, with the Hornets playing a range of small to small-ish lineups, the Pacers surrendered a mammoth 116 points per 100 possessions with Turner and Sabonis on the floor in the fourth quarter. So, what else could’ve been done to keep both 20-point scorers on the night, each making $18 million a piece, on the court at the same time without leaking points against a spaced offense?

Well, for one, they could’ve dropped back into a 2-3 zone. The Hornets scored on 7-of-11 zone trips before the Pacers abandoned the coverage completely in the fourth quarter, but most of those possessions came against hybrid lineups and were somewhat fluky (i.e. Malcolm Brogdon falling asleep on an inbounds pass. A long carom off a block from Myles Turner effectively landing in Terry Rozier’s lap for a corner three, etc.).

Still, given that the Hornets made 16 threes for the game, the coverage obviously wouldn’t have been without risk, especially with three guards on hand to puncture-and-kick. But, here’s the thing: Even without playing zone, the Pacers went on a 9-2 run in the middle of the fourth quarter that saw Charlotte go 1-of-6 from the field with two turnovers while playing big — just with Goga Bitadze and Sabonis on the floor instead of Turner and Sabonis. Don’t get it twisted. Goga has shown some subtle signs of improvement on defense from the standpoint of taking up space and blocking shots with his towering standing reach, but he clearly isn’t an upgrade over Turner’s legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year, so what was working then that wasn’t later?

Neither big was defending a guard, except to switch and switch back.

If they committed two players to the ball, Goga switched onto the slip (unlike the MIA low-man against the Clippers and Mavericks!) with Lamb gliding directly to the dunker’s spot.

And when Justin got snagged on a hand-off, Sabonis veered toward Hayward just long enough to protect against the cut, before recovering to his man.

All three possessions ended in contested stops and none involved purposefully stranding bigs on-ball without providing emergency assistance with clock-like rotations. Of course, that’s somewhat easier to accomplish when P.J. Washington or Miles Bridges is playing in place of a third guard, which wasn’t the case for Turner and Sabonis.

Still, look back at the original possession when Sabonis first matched up with LaMelo and imagine if he had been defending his own position instead. First of all, with Sabonis guarding Hayward in the corner, Justin would’ve been defending Ball with six seconds remaining on the shot-clock. Now, let’s say he got beat on the slot drive. Or, better yet, deliberately influenced LaMelo toward the same-side corner. In that event, Lamb could’ve switched onto the ball with Justin peeling to the corner following the blow-by, like so.

Even if Ball had still driven middle, however, it seems as though Turner would’ve been less fixated on the perimeter and pinching the drive lane at the nail, rather than providing a safety net near the basket, with Justin applying pressure on-ball as opposed to Sabonis.

Likewise, if this had been Justin, Indiana either could’ve switched and switched back, like Aaron and Sabonis did against Graham and Washington above. Or, why not just have Justin slide underneath the Zeller screen once he feels it on his body? If LaMelo pulls from deep, as a 28 percent marksman, that’s a win, right?

That said, the counterargument to all of this is that the Hornets would’ve just looked to use whoever Sabonis was guarding as the ball-handler (i.e. Hayward); but, as the intro to this writing goes to show, at least he’s somewhat accustomed to defending power fauxwards. Plus, given the team’s recurring struggles against bigger wings (see: OG Anunoby bulldozing his way to the basket for 30 points, Mikael Bridges erupting for a career-high 34 points, Harrison Barnes scoring 30 on 14 shots, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combining for 37 points on 62 percent shooting, despite facing a mix of traps, box-and-one, and triangle-and-two), maybe there’s something to finessing that peel switch technique like a size adjuster — at least until T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert return from injury.

Think of it this way: Not strong enough to stay in front of OG? Shade him toward Turner, even at the risk of conceding his strong hand, and take a chance on recovering to Yuta Watanabe, a low-volume three-point shooter, in the corner.

Or, how about here against Barnes. Ideally, these sort of drives would be influenced toward the corner-side, but if the ball-handler goes middle, Sabonis would step up, like Goga did in the earlier example against the screen slip, with the on-ball defender switching onto Richaun Holmes under the basket.

Granted, these peel switches are covering for giving up size against bigger forwards, but the same would apply for Sabonis against speedier wings, like Hayward, as well. In that respect, if the Pacers are going to be so adventurous as to treat Sabonis like Bam during a key stretch of a fourth quarter, why not also be experimental enough to fill the hole they have on the wing, whether that means switching between man and zone mid-possession against post-ups or peel switching on slot drives.

Sabonis is already responsible for running with and without the ball and being physical, whether crunching mismatches or crashing the glass, in addition to making reads and centering the offense. If he’s also going to be racking up miles on defense, flying, here, there and everywhere (for better or worse), then the Pacers need to help him do less on that end of the floor, even while asking him to do more.