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Why are the Pacers putting Domantas Sabonis in the corner?

And what’s the balance between interchangeability and role optimization?

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Through two preseason games, the Pacers have played a more egalitarian brand of offense, flowing from simple actions into quick reads with the aim being to maintain continuous spacing and locate the open man. With an emphasis on interchangeability and greater diversity of play, nearly everyone on the roster is treated as if they can dribble, pass, and shoot, allowing for lower initial wait times in terms of who is responsible for doing what. The only problem is, while there are certainly benefits to playing more swiftly at the onset of plays or in semi-transition, there are only so many players (let alone healthy players) who can effectively do all of those things at once, which has occasionally led to some questionable and, at times, clunky moments in terms of role optimization and shot distribution.

Just take a look at these clips.

Here, for example, notice how Justin Holiday gets shoehorned into taking a self-created three, of which he made a grand total of five last season, while T.J. McConnnell is standing in the corner.

Or, how about this baseline out-of-bounds possession? Like the Mavericks and Summer League Pacers before them, the Actual Pacers are running this screen-the-screener set with the intention of generating a clean catch in the corner. And yet, for some reason, Chris Duarte is standing out of bounds so that McConnell can look off a potential shot and reverse the ball.

As Luka demonstrates in the second clip shown above, if those roles were reversed, what ended up being a pull-up two from Torrey Craig could’ve been an open three from Duarte, especially with his ability to step-back moving to his left.

Likewise, the same applies to these high-post split actions. Surrounding the team’s best standstill facilitator with cutters operating in random is a good thing, but why not involve McConnell as one of those moving parts instead of stashing him, yet again, in the corner?

To be fair, what happens at the other end of the floor appears to be somewhat of a determining factor in sorting which players space where and what action gets cued.

For the most part, at least when they aren’t operating out of the elbows, the first big back either spreads to or immediately screens for the corner while the second oftentimes acts as a trailer, wheeling from side-to-side. Again, this has the potential to speed up the pace of the offense in the half-court and perhaps be less predictable, but it also results in questions like, “Why is Sabonis standing in the corner so that Oshae Brissett, who shot 41 percent on 3.6 catch-and-shoot threes per game last season, can handle in space?”

Put simply, what’s the upside to putting various players, including the team’s two-time All-Star, in position to execute what appear to be mismatched roles?

Flex Action

It isn’t all for naught. In fact, in some instances, just because Sabonis starts a possession in the corner doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to finish it there and vice versa. Here, for example, although all five players begin the possession outside the three-point line, notice how Brogdon screens for Sabonis and Turner screens for Brogdon.

In addition to involving all three players at once, that has the potential to create a size mismatch in the event of a switch while also generating a closer-range touch. Admittedly, in neither case did the action directly lead to a shot for Sabonis inside the restricted area, where he’s attempted only six shots in 1.5 games (more, please!), but his ability to keep the ball moving and back down his man still managed to lead to productive offense.

Euro Ball-Screens

As was referenced earlier, it’s interesting to watch how the offense develops depending upon which big is acting as the trailer and/or trigger man. When it’s Sabonis, they typically either launch into fake hand-offs that play to his slickness or connect pindowns to dribble hand-offs as a means to grease downhill momentum for others. In that way, it’s more about being a facilitator for a shorthanded roster, whereas with Turner, they’ll run empty ball-screens on the wing with Sabonis or another player cutting through to the opposite corner.

When executed as intended, that has more potential to be a scoring touch for the big because no one is available to tag on the weak-side. That said, there’s also a few other takeaways. For one, it’s harder to take extra steps away from Sabonis or whoever is standing in the corner when they aren’t just standing in the corner but rather relocating there.

Another element, though, is the option of the cut through itself. As can be seen in that compilation, as well as various other examples, some of the hand off variations haven’t sat quite as well when non-Sabonis bigs are handling east-west. Granted, considering that Turner made his desire to be more involved in the offense known at Media Day, some of this flip-flopped arrangement reads like an accommodation of his want for more touches. Nevertheless, it also seems like it would be possible to meet his understandable request, while also better playing to the strengths of both centers, just by having them swap places. For example, if Sabonis is doing the steering in that same action, he could keep his eyes up and find Turner, as shown below, on the move.

Or, in the event there’s nothing going on in the subsequent pick-and-roll, the ball-handler could potentially throw a dart to him in the corner to shoot or drive, feeding his increased aggressiveness and willingness to make the extra pass — provided they both clean up some of the turnovers and wild shots from the last game stemming from straight-on attacks.

Either way, treating the three-side like a masking action could also further involve whichever big is off-ball. For instance, if Sabonis is cutting from the wing, then he could hook back into a ball-screen with Turner completing the hand-off or vice versa.

Whatever the case, given that neither of them was contested on more than 25 percent of their three-point attempts last season, the point is to make it more difficult to help off for as long as possible.

O5 in the ball-side corner

Of course, in the right context, there can also be some perks to putting down roots in the corner as well. Think of it this way: Whether playing alongside Turner or rookie Isaiah Jackson, Sabonis was typically the player defended by Jarrett Allen on Friday night. For that reason, alignments with the lefty big man in the ball-side corner not only served the purpose of dragging Allen’s shot-blocking out of the paint but also targeting smaller defenders.

Look here, for example, and imagine that Lamb didn’t get flattened out by his defender dribbling off the pick. See how Allen is sliding back toward Sabonis? Now, notice how neither player on the weak-side has the positional size to defend Jackson’s quick ups.

Plus, watch Brogdon. If Allen had peeled off in front of Lamb, Sabonis could either attempt to knock down the shot himself or step-in and set a corner pin-in for Brogdon to slip behind him after dashing from one side of the baseline to the other.

Given the defensive match-ups, that alignment makes sense, right?

What’s harder to figure is stashing him in the weak-side corner, where his man can sag off as the tagger, when his subtle screening techniques instead could’ve been deployed in two-man game to avoid what ends up transpiring, here, by automatically re-screening the under.

All of which is to say that, with the benefit of rhythm and repetition, it’s possible that some of today’s pain, of which at least some can likely be attributed to injuries and the overall nature of preseason basketball, could end up being tomorrow’s gain. In that sense, if the bells continue to ring at practice, maybe some of the players who are better at passing and dribbling will improve as shooters and some of the shooters will get better at dribbling and passing? For now, though, with certain strengths marginalized and other weaknesses magnified, it doesn’t exactly seem ideal that Sabonis has attempted fewer shots in the restricted area per 36 minutes (4.5) than McConnell has launched from deep (6.5), especially since the actual machinations of the offense, aside from some of these clunky moments when the exact reason for why they’re playing off the action isn’t readily recognizable, already seems to provide a pathway for each of them — as well as the rest of the roster — to better do what they do best while still prioritizing unpredictability.