During training camp, when practices closed with players shooting five shots from each of five spots on the court and then ringing a bell as an incentive if they made at least 20 of 25, being able to knock down threes effectively and consistently was a clear point of emphasis. Now, however, with the Pacers ranking dead-last in 3-point percentage for the month of December and 28th overall, those celebratory chimes have seemingly been replaced by warning alarms.
Just take a look at the team’s five highest-volume shooters. For the season, among the 93 players who have attempted at least 140 threes, Malcolm Brogdon ranks 86th in the league, shooting 31 percent from deep overall and nearly as woefully off the catch (32%) as the dribble (29%). Justin Holiday, meanwhile, as the main source of movement shooting on the roster, is posting his worst mark since arriving in Indiana (34%). Chris Duarte and Myles Turner are each hovering around 30 percent for the month, with the latter misfiring on 36 of his last 51 attempts, and Caris LeVert has progressed to *gulp* 31 percent, only after sinking a team-best 20 triples over the last 11 games.
Taken altogether, it begs the question: Why, for reasons that don’t have to do with various theories about the new ball, officiating, or fans being back in arenas, have things been going so poorly for the Pacers from behind the arc this season and especially of late?
Location, location, location
First, at a granular level, consider that Duarte has been more efficient shooting from the left corner (50%) than the right (21%). Granted, it bears pointing out that the smooth-shooting rookie has yet to attempt more than 35 triples from either spot (more on this later!), but there’s also reason, beyond that of small sample size, to think he might be better optimized originating more of his plays from one side of the floor over the other.
For example, watch what developed during and after this possession in Toronto. While brief, notice how he attempts to negotiate custody of the left corner with Justin Holiday, before ultimately conceding the preferred location and making an exit along the baseline.
To his credit, he still knocks down the pull-up two, but the conversation he can be seen having with Holiday afterward seems to plainly suggest he’s more comfortable planting his left foot and squaring up to his right when moving toward the basket.
So what, right? That’s a play for a two, not a three. Well, now, look at the same 1-4 flat alignment against the Bulls. For whatever reason, the Pacers didn’t want to involve Nikola Vucevic’s drop coverage in the screening action and were instead hunting mismatches in the post with Turner, which Chicago was fronting. Unable to enter the ball against the switch, Duarte ends up needing to seek airspace in the corner.
The only problem is, like many right-handers, he generally prefers to escape to his left, whether jolting laterally or stepping backward, which is a tougher shot — requiring uphill motion — from the right corner. On the whole, swapping him to the other side of the floor, where he is a more accurate shooter and can either put the ball on the deck with his strong hand after exploding off screens and dribble hand-offs or more naturally create separation moving toward the baseline, seems like an obvious fix, but what’s best for him isn’t always necessarily best for the positioning of his teammates and opposing defenders.
More often than not, on pick-and-rolls with filled corners, Indiana’s preference is to tuck whichever big isn’t involved as the screener in the ball-side corner so as to limit the potential for taggers to roam. Given that LeVert has a predilection for rejecting picks and attacking to his left while scoring, Duarte is oftentimes charged with occupying attention in the right, weak-side corner when playing off-ball, like so:
In the long run, the 24-year-old needs to be able to knockdown open shots from wherever he is standing, but the more he faces harder closeouts and requires use of one dribble to keep a three a three, it seems as though there would be value in mixing in more possessions where he starts out ball-side in the left corner, even if the trade-off is shifting the stray center to the weak-side and requiring the worse of the two shooters to either cut or perhaps screen their own sagging defender.
That said, seeing as how Duarte has been significantly more accurate on his 94 catch-and-shoot threes (41 percent) than his 74 pull-ups (27 percent), just finding any mode, regardless of exact location, for him to more often get open spot-up looks and/or move away from the ball as a player-finisher rather than initiator would be a plus, especially since Justin’s legs are carrying the heaviest load running off screens on the roster, logging 35 percent of Indiana’s measly total of 127 such possessions.
Of course, what serves the team in the immediate may not be the same as what facilitates his development for the future. For example, consider what happened in Milwaukee. On the one hand, Duarte would likely benefit from continued reps against hedges to learn how to find balance when making the decision whether to pull from deep. On the other, however, he has a tendency to stay on ball too long, suggesting the team’s need for more paint touches out of the middle of the floor with him spaced to the **ahem** left corner.
As it pertains to movement shooting, Duarte could occasionally be seen squaring up to his left (hmm...suddenly reminded of the aforementioned play against Toronto) off a baseline stagger flowing out of flex action earlier in the season, but the second screener had a tendency to get whistled for moving while sliding into position and the team has since shifted to playing more out of random offense. For the season, Duarte has shot 4-of-20 overall off screens, including 0-of-10 from three, compared to 14-of-31 during his final season at Oregon.
To that point, though, as he demonstrated at college, shooting off screens can also mean being used a ton off of flares, rather than merely zooming around staggered picks. Turns out, Indiana’s current offense, particularly against zone, provides spots for him to function in much the same way, at least when the ball-handler manages to find him.
The choice is yours
Of course, take-this-shot-not-that-shot isn’t a phenomenon unique only to possessions involving Duarte. Sure, LeVert converts this hanging, baseline two, but look at Sabonis repeatedly motioning to no avail for the ball to go to Turner behind the corner pin-in.
Admittedly, over the four games since this loss, LeVert has averaged seven assists and demonstrated more of an overall appetite for moving the ball, albeit against some head-scratching coverage, but only 11 percent of his dimes on the season have been converted in the corners — where he has a tendency to overlook opportunities for kick-outs.
In that way, Indiana’s poor outside shooting isn’t always about the threes they miss, but rather what types of easier threes they occasionally cheat themselves out of. Just look at this possession against Miami’s zone. As should be desired, the ball gets to the paint, where multiple bodies converge on the team’s strongest source of gravity, but Lamb inexplicably passes up the open three on the draw and dish in order to get returned to sender.
Furthermore, if that group — including one guard who is no longer with the team — was going to bail out of this many rounds of drive-and-kick before ultimately throwing a grenade to a worse shooter, there needed to be more general decisiveness and willingness to fire off the initial screen, when Tyler Herro ducked under.
All of which is to say that, while the Pacers can’t completely control the results from the three-point line (It’s a make or miss league!), they can certainly have more of a hand in improving some of the process, whether repositioning Duarte and lessening some of Justin’s load as an off-ball mover or demonstrating better shot-selection and further emphasizing paint touches, especially until Brogdon returns as an additional driver and playmaker. In the meantime, however, on nights when the maths aren’t mathing, like when the Pacers misfired on 11 of their first 14 attempts against a hot-shooting Miami team, this stuff — where Duarte is in no man’s land after failing to run the seam at the same time as Lamb appears to be allergic to weak-side defense — can’t happen.
That’s why, for a team that currently ranks in the bottom five of both three-point percentage and defensive rating over games played in December, the more pressing question may not be about why they’re struggling behind the arc, but rather why the punctuated efforts to make up for those struggles defensively are so often misplaced.
After all, with the exception of some misses that may result in odd-man advantages in transition, shot-variance shouldn’t beget variance of execution, let alone engagement — at either end of the floor.