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On the Pacers’ offense and the impact of no longer being brand new

Oh, the difference scouting makes.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, with a little over six minutes left to play in the first quarter against the Boston Celtics, there was a moment for the Pacers on offense that illustrated both the limits and possibilities of relying on set plays. Presenting with the initial alignment that typically results with a corner pin-in screen for Doug McDermott, Indiana went through the usual steps — only with a twist. Rather than attempting to run his man through the pick that Daniel Theis saw coming, McDermott aborted the mission and wheeled around a pindown from Domantas Sabonis on the opposite side of the floor.

As can be seen in those side-by-side clips, that’s a freshly incorporated wrinkle, which at least for that possession, allowed the Pacers to flip the expectations of the defense to their advantage, but it also shines a light on why constant evolution on that end of the floor is necessary, especially while playing down two starters. At a certain point, arguably around the time when teams started ducking under on picks against Malcolm Brogdon with greater frequency and crowding Domantas Sabonis, the league caught up to what was “new” about the Pacers, forcing them to more often play out of pocket.

Take what happened on this possessions against the Denver Nuggets, for example. As was previously diagrammed in a preseason writing, the Pacers are running their double stagger set. You know this. I know this. And, apparently, so does Jamal Murray, who sniffs out the action and ultimately forces an offensive reset by shooting the gap between the two picks.

From there, the Pacers flowed into two-man game, which the Nuggets switched, ultimately resulting in a kick-out from Sabonis at the elbow to Doug McDermott for an errant three with the shot-clock running down. Granted, misses alone aren’t necessarily indicative of low-functioning offense; however, if the Pacers aren’t going to search for and make use of some of the escape hatches that inherently exist within their own plays, then some of the swirling motion they deploy just sort of becomes window dressing for last season’s one-and-done system, albeit making the defense work while also expending extra energy.

Look, here, for instance, at how the Raptors countered in near to the same scenario. Like Murray, George Hill shoots the gap on the second set of picks, but watch Kyle Lowry. Rather than rounding the curve of the three-point line with his defender beating him to his spot, as did Brogdon; the feisty Raptor cuts backdoor, with the ball instead entered to Marc Gasol as the second screener for the slick pass.

Sure, in the end, Gasol is still making a play from the elbow like Sabonis ultimately did, but there’s a definite distinction between forcing the defense to respond to a wrinkle within a set play and being relied on to create something out of nothing with the build-up essentially functioning as nothing more than added fluff. In the case of the latter, the defense is literally emboldened to cut corners, whereas with the former, Hill gets burned for doing so and perhaps is less sure of his coverage on the next possession.

There’s also room for ad-libs at the top of the same play. For example, in addition to ducking under on picks and neutralizing Spain actions, the Knicks were quick to jump off the ball with a “next” defender after a pass to take away any penetration coming off pindowns.

To be fair, there’s certainly incentive for Rose to aggressively help off of T.J. McConnell as a reluctant shooter, but this also surfaced to a lesser degree against the Sixers, when Ben Simmons prioritized swiping at McDermott, even if meant stunting away from Brogdon.

In both cases, the defense would be vulnerable to a pass back or backdoor cut, if only the passer were quicker to read and react. Again, allow the Raptors to demonstrate, and notice that while the coverage is arguably less congested for the cutter in terms of extra bodies, the boomerang pass is still there, available as a weapon to keep the defense off balance:

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t to say that the Pacers don’t make use of cuts; it’s more so that the cuts they make use of have a tendency to be over-rehearsed rather than intuitive. For example, over the early portion of the season, Myles Turner showed growth with regard to broadening his offensive profile by diving to the basket from slot, with Sabonis operating out of the low-block, rather than staying glued to the three-point line. The only problem is that 45-cut, which the Raptors also routinely looked for as a pressure reliever, has made it onto the scouting reports of opposing teams, where now defenders will look to squeeze him — or, whoever is cutting from that spot — at the elbows.

In response, the Pacers have incorporated some back-screen actions above the post-ups that have allowed Turner to shake loose down the lane (another Raptors favorite!), but those marching orders can also become predictable if spammed too often, especially since execution requires catching passes on the move through tight windows of space.

For that reason, sometimes, at least against double-teams, less basketball is more. When Sabonis doesn’t have a physical advantage, sure, split-cuts and set plays are necessary, but there also needs to be more of an emphasis on going off script around his playmaking. For example, if Murray is going to double from the weak-side, then why not have McDermott — as opposed to Turner, who normally dives — slice into the void and reshape the defense?

In that way, the cut isn’t for the purpose of leading to a direct score, but rather sucking in at least one defender, to create an odd-man advantage on the opposite side of the floor for an open three. Instead, the possession ends in a missed face-up shot, which, uh, Sabonis hasn’t exactly mastered yet, with mostly fixed spacing. And, here’s the thing: Per Synergy, the Pacers are scoring 1.221 points per possession on his passes out of the post, which ranks second among centers (minimum 30 possessions), trailing only Denver’s Nikola Jokic (1.327), albeit on roughly half the volume. As such, there is clearly value in turning the post into a vehicle for assists, especially in the absence of Warren and LeVert, but the other four players on the floor have to also assist him in doing so, including in ways that may not be dictated by the playbook.

To that point, however, some of this may naturally correct itself with the health of the roster. After all, some of the force-fed post-ups only exist as a direct product of teams either jumping screens or ducking under with few options to shoot or attack off the dribble.

On the season, the Pacers would rank dead-last in pull-up three attempts if not for Brogdon’s share of 3.7 per game, and teams have been more than willing to test his accuracy going left as a shooter.

Further compounding matters, at least from a spacing perspective, was Turner’s shooting slump over the end of February and beginning of March, in which the dominant shot-blocker shot 5-of-29 from deep. Dry spells happen, and he’s since drilled five of his last twelve attempts all while growing progressively more confident in his ability to put the ball on the floor, but there’s a difference between positioning and spacing, which can make some of his open misses from the perimeter sting a little more when two defenders commit to the roll on double-drags or actions gets neutralized by either scouted coverage, unders, or both, like so:

That said, if Warren and LeVert were available, the Pacers wouldn’t just be gaining scorers, they would be adding two players who can get to their spots and at least somewhat credibly shoot from behind picks (see: Bubble Warren) as well as off the dribble. In that event, maybe some of the unders become less enticing, and some of the surrounding off-ball misses less back-breaking, particularly with the option to space Brogdon and reduce some of his workload, along with that of Sabonis.

Even so, while clearly capable of manufacturing shots when possessions stagnate, LeVert’s catch-and-shoot J is iffy, and while the Pacers can certainly use him in off-ball actions that lead to on-ball outcomes, the main point about diversifying what buttons they press within their own sets and becoming more attune to opportunities for unscripted movements will likely still be pertinent to circumventing stiffer defenses, especially when he shares the floor with Brogdon and Sabonis and isn’t the primary playmaker.

Take this flex action, for instance. Once again borrowed from the Raptors, Indiana almost always runs this play with the sole intention of generating a three for Brogdon at the top of the key. That’s fine against most teams, but look at what happens against the holy terror that is the combination of Matisse Thybulle’s recovery skills paired with Joel Embiid’s paint presence. Yikes!

Now, re-imagine that same play with LeVert standing in place of Sumner. Rather than ghosting the screen and consistently painting by the same numbers, consider the benefits of taking a beat to actually make contact, as is demonstrated, here, by Toronto.

For one, not only would that be forcing the Sixers to negotiate — or, at least contemplate — switch or stays, the focus on remaining open to all of the moving parts as opposed to mechanically going through the motions has the potential, once again, to make the play less predictable later. Plus, LeVert would be activated as a target instead of simply transferring his shaky shooting from one corner to the other.

All of which is to say that the offense, in theory, has more options than last season, but only so much as the Pacers are willing to both explore and, in some cases, break from them.