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How teams are breaking the Pacers’ 2-3 zone

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And what can be done about it.

Indiana Pacers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last February, about a month before the NBA shutdown due to a global pandemic, another unexpected, albeit far from life-altering, happening occurred. Breaking from tradition while mired in a six-game losing streak, the Pacers dropped into a 3-2 zone against the Brooklyn Nets, marking a significant departure from the team’s long-held conservative defensive principles. Back then, with the weak-side help missing in action and the point of attack defense struggling to contain, the altered form of coverage was basically being used as an occasional curveball to protect against various vulnerabilities. Now, with Nate Bjorkgren changing defenses and changing defenses frequently in an effort to throw opponents off balance, the aim of switching between man and zone and sometimes mixing man with zone is for the whirling approach to be an attack mechanism. At the present moment, however, without a full training camp to prepare and in the absence of 2/5 of the starting lineup, the early returns haven’t exactly pointed toward the zone looks being consistently disruptive as much as sporadically haphazard, at least by comparison to the rest of the league.

In fact, according to Synergy, among the seven teams that have run zone at least five percent of the time, only the Sacramento Kings, who are currently sporting the NBA’s leakiest overall defense, have allowed more points per possession. On Wednesday, for example, Minnesota scored points on 10 of Indiana’s 17 zone possessions and exposed several soft spots that continue to recur with the 2-3.

Let’s take a closer look at those issues, while of course keeping in mind that basketball is dynamic, meaning that the rules of who should be doing what aren’t always as simple in real-time as they may seem in retrospect.

Ball in the high post

Typically, in 2-3 zone, the big sprints up from the middle to the play the ball in the high post. In this instance, maybe the Pacers just aren’t concerned by Jarred Vanderbilt’s shooting or playmaking, but this is a massive hole to be surrendering with Ricky Rubio cutting baseline.

That’s the first problem. Once Myles Turner steps up, however, watch what happens on the kick-out. In this scheme, Doug McDermott is responsible for the first wing pass. What gets confusing is how the Pacers routinely cover the corners. Rather than pushing McDermott down on the corner pass, Malcolm Brogdon just stands flat footed in the free throw line area. Meanwhile, Turner turns and points at Sabonis, like the opposite wing is supposed to chase out in that scenario. Huh?

This is puzzling stuff, especially when it seems like the easier rotation would be for Brogdon to bump McDermott with Justin moving up to play halfway between Anthony Edwards and Karl Anthony-Towns.

Granted, the geometry isn’t identical, here, and Miami’s 2-3 is known for jumping passing lanes to the corner, but look at how Jimmy Butler takes over at the wing for Tyler Herro by comparison to Brogdon.

Again, basketball is complex. McDermott is rushed to closeout, so maybe Brogdon is expecting the shot to go up off the first pass? Or, maybe this is just an isolated incident.

Bump Downs

Well...that would be a completely reasonable explanation if not for how often it is that the corner gets left open, especially on swing-swing reversals. Consider, for instance, that the Pacers basically have two options on this possession against Detroit. As the ball hops around the perimeter, eventually making it to the left wing, either Brogdon has to bump McDermott to the corner, as was illustrated in the prior section, like so...

Or, Myles Turner has to hightail it for the corner, which is what happened.

To be fair, this closeout wouldn’t have been as long, if Turner had recognized that he didn’t need to stay attached to Isaiah Stewart with Sabonis standing right there.

That said, is this really what the Pacers want? Myles, or whichever big is playing middle, leaving the paint to lumber out to shooters?

Baseline Plays

Whatever the case, that wing rotation routinely gets botched. Consider this inbounds play against Minnesota, for instance. To recap, Brogdon’s job is to take the initial wing pass until Lamb can bump him down. But Lamb is already there, ready to relieve him. In that event, Brogdon should be concerning himself with locating the inbounds passer and covering the corner — not doubling the ball. And yet, because two players are defending one, all it takes is a quick touch pass out of the post to generate another open shot.

Per Synergy, the Pacers rank 25th in defending baseline out of bounds plays, which they guard almost exclusively with 2-3 zone. To that point, teams don’t exactly seem surprised by the change in coverage anymore, and at times, it can almost appear like the Pacers are using the zone as an opportunity to steal rest. Credit Jaden McDaniels for the cut assist that sucked in Sabonis and opened up the corner, but defending cuts typically falls under the purview of the defender playing middle.

Also, why is McDermott purposefully turning a blind eye to the area of the floor that he is supposed to be covering?

And why is that positioning, backwards facing from the wing and the corner, seemingly the norm?

For the sake of comparison, look at CJ McCollum on this possession from Indiana’s game against Portland. See how his stance is a refraction of that of McDermott, allowing him to maintain sight lines with the ball as well as the players in his area of the floor?

Much better, right?

Later, in the same quarter, Brogdon called out the cut for his teammates, only to get caught sleeping, when Malik Beasley flipped his expectations against him with a drift to the corner.

Put simply, whether because of head-scratching stances or relaxed alertness, bad things tend to happen when teams cut from the slot against Indiana’s zone.

Trapping the post

But wait, those weren’t the only miscues on baseline plays from that game. Forget for a second that McDermott can’t see the ball (hey, at least he’s facing his side of the floor!) and focus on the short corner. Normally, when the ball gets passed into the post, the nearest forward will double with the ball-side guard denying the pass to the wing. But... this is Ricky Rubio, so is attempting to force the ball out of the post really necessary, especially since a miscommunication ultimately results in Brogdon and Justin both backing off anyway?

Plus, because Justin is so concerned with smashing down from the wing at the same time as Brogdon is very literally defending his spot on the floor, Karl Anthony Towns ends up knifing to the rim completely unabated.

For that reason, if trapping the short corner is going to be an unflinching rule of the scheme —which it appears to be, given that it’s happening against smaller guards — the surrounding positioning has to be better. Here, for example, with McDermott and Turner doubling Jrue Holiday, the other three players are essentially in no-man’s land, starting with Brogdon, who isn’t matched up or denying the outlet pass.

Meanwhile, McConnell is way too high to dart to the corner in the event of a cross-court pass, and Sabonis, as a result, is caught in purgatory, glued to the block, rather than protecting against Giannis flashing down from the high post. In both cases, forcing the ball away from the rim with one-size-fits-all trapping resulted in an easier shot at the rim for the opposing team’s best player, in part, because all too often the Pacers defend their zones without also defending on a string.

For this sort of change-up to be an effective strategy against more imposing big men, when trapping is actually necessary, the way in which the Pacers move in tandem with each other has to improve — particularly for a team that currently ranks 30th defending post-ups including passes. Communication is critical to every defense, including zone.

Mystery-flavor possessions

Speaking of which...because the Pacers change defenses so frequently, morphing not only between man and zone but also mixtures of man and zone; occasionally, it seems as though not everyone is on the same page about what type of defense they are supposed to be running. Brogdon might be in a 2-3, while McDermott is befuddled as to why there isn’t another defender at the top of the box. Or, Goga might be in a drop at the same time as Lamb is motioning for him to be low box. In those instances, the inscrutable coverage can be somewhat reminiscent of Dum Dum mystery suckers, which are allegedly the overlap of normal flavors when one runs out and another is created.

This, for example, is the mystery sucker version of defense. Prior to this possession, the Pacers had been in 2-3 zone. Here, though, Sabonis is defending the high pick-and-roll and appears to be calling out match-ups after a make. Concurrently, Brogdon, Aaron, and Lamb still appear to be in some type of zone, albeit completely unaware of multiple cutters.

Shortly thereafter, the Pacers were in man, switching the Rubio-Towns pick-and-pop. Consequently, it isn’t entirely clear what type of coverage that was supposed to be, but it obviously didn’t take much to break it — which seems to be a recurrent theme. In most of these examples, the Pacers aren’t navigating flare screens and ball screens or reckoning with overloads. They’re getting beat as a result of awkward stances and positioning, odd rotations, or both. Granted, it’s only 30 games into the season, and workshopping multiple types of defense with a shorthanded roster is a significant change from last season, when zone was more of an aberration. Still, it’s also 30 games into the season, and not only are cuts too often back-breaking, but the middle defender is chasing out to the corner and opposing guards are being trapped along the baseline, even with Myles Turner there to protect.

When T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert are healthy, there will obviously be more lateral size in the gaps and maybe some of those aforementioned bump downs, resulting in open threes, will go off with fewer hitches, but the Pacers are still going to have to get better at defending players in zones rather than guarding areas without reacting to the flight of the ball or the placement of players — and that applies to both the present moment as well as the future.