With the Pacers announcing last Wednesday that the team has fired Nate Bjorkgren, the search for a new head coach begins now. According to Chris B. Haynes of Yahoo Sports, former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who was rumored to be a candidate for the Pacers even before Bjorkgren was formally dismissed, is expected to get a look for the gig. Known for implementing a deliberate, pick-and-roll heavy offense geared around the limitless range of Damian Lillard, what worked as a base in Portland, where defenders routinely got caught off guard by quick threes and pulled toward the logo, obviously isn’t going to be directly applicable for the Pacers. After all, as a tandem, Lillard and backcourt teammate C.J. McCollum attempted more pull-up threes per game last season (13.8) than Indiana did as team (9.0), which is to say nothing of Lillard’s shot-volume from between 30-34 feet — a massive tally (116) which eclipses that of the Pacers by well over three-fold (36).
That said, even if Indiana’s roster, as a whole, isn’t as adept at cracking open defenses with off-the-dribble threes in bulk, let alone drilling daggers from way downtown, a closer look at some of the sets and formations that Stotts incorporated around Dame’s stardom reveals much of his system, pairing intricacy with allowing his best players the agency to freewheel, still has the potential to provide a high offensive floor for a team without a clear No. 1 option.
To that point, given that the Pacers obviously don’t want to backslide on that end of the floor while searching for improvement on the other, it’s notable that several of the same plays featuring motion and cutting that were incorporated by Bjorkgren last season also made cameos in Portland.
Like looking in a mirror
For instance, remember the down screen, flip action that so often allowed T.J. McConnell to attack baseline? Well, what do you know, Lillard spearheaded the very same choreography against...wait for it....the Pacers.
Or, how about this punch screen-the-screener play that Bjorkgren, with Pascal Siakam as his muse, would call for Sabonis against single-coverage in the post? Turns out, Robert Covington and Carmelo Anthony sprinkled some of that seasoning for the Blazers, too, albeit with different reads.
Likewise, though not as prominent as Sabonis with Lillard, McCollum, and the three-point line acting as focal points, Jusuf Nurkic could at times be seen dealing from the elbows or up top out of delay with cutters using the threat of potential screens as decoys, a la Doug McDermott.
Another staple? Weaving into high ball screens, which the Pacers spammed perhaps more than any other action last season.
That said, it’s not all carryover from Bjorkgren’s playbook. Like McMillan, Stotts gives his players the freedom to make reads out of the pick-and-roll and around screens, but so too does he supplement those reads with prelude and more varied options, combining some of the strengths (or, at least minimizing the weaknesses) of both Nates, new and old.
A flair for flares
In that regard, arguably the most distinctive feature of Portland’s offense by comparison to that of the Pacers over the last few seasons is the prevalence of flare and pindown screens used in tandem to generate movement, at times dictating a slower pace but faster tempo.
Here, for example, is the basic set-up. On one side of the lane is a flare screen and on the other side is a pindown.
From there, with two players acting as screeners and the other three effectively playing a game of ring-around-the-rosy (Yes, this is more commonly referred to as circle action, wheel, or mover-blocker), a number of things can develop. In this example, McCollum immediately flies to the corner and receives a pass for three.
Of course, depending upon the outcome of McDermott’s free agency, this particular option could be difficult for the Pacers, who have the potential to be short on movement shooters aside from Justin Holiday, to execute. Still, the pindown portion creates plenty of catch-and-drive opportunities out of curls that would allow Caris Levert and/or T.J. Warren to shovel shots to the basket.
Plus, the screener can roll to the hoop after setting the pindown (i.e. Sabonis) or pop out to the outside (i.e. Warren/Turner) if the player coming off the screen draws extra attention. To that point, if defense jumps to the ball, the option is also there to throw a boomerang pass as a counter.
Back to the flare side, however, another wrinkle the Blazers incorporate is flipping the pick into either a ball screen or dribble hand-off that, again, produces a shoot or drive decision.
Something else to consider with this play formation, even in the absence of movement shooters? Look at how close Enes Kanter’s defender is guarding him, despite the fact that he only attempted 14 shots all season outside the paint.
Because Portland will routinely have the flare screener go set a subsequent ball screen in the middle of the floor, Kanter’s defender, in this case, Mitchell Robinson can’t sag off to protect the hoop. Granted, some of that is a product of the threat Dame poses to shoot in the blink of an eye, but reacting to the flare would also arguably make the big late to react in ball-screen coverage to a herky-jerky driver such as LeVert.
As a result, though he fails to convert at the rim, look at how open Anfernee Simons is on this lob play, albeit with Melo as the flare screener.
To be fair, outside of Cassius Stanley, the Pacers don’t exactly have a stable full of high-flyers; however, with Brogdon and Warren curling, cutting, and spotting up off of screens as as a side dish to potential pick-and-roll action between LeVert as the ball-handler and Sabonis as the closely guarded flare and ball screener, it becomes easier to envision how this particular aspect of Portland’s offense could still generate ample amounts of shots and continuous spacing in the absence of Portland’s personnel.
Around the horn(s)
Aside from wheel, another formation that shows up often while leafing through Portland’s playbook is horns. In addition to setting (ridiculously) high double ball screens at the top of the key for Lillard to dissect however he sees fit, the Blazers also run a variation, less dependent on infinite gravity, that would allow Sabonis to set the table from the high post, with LeVert and Brogdon diving interchangeably off a back-pick or slipped flare screen from the opposite elbow.
Meanwhile, if the “lob” isn’t open, Warren would simultaneously be exiting to the corner along the baseline, creating a window for Sabonis to either flow into a backdoor cut or dribble hand-off, as is shown in the final clip against Sacramento.
Overall, not everything Portland does on offense is directly transferable to the Pacers for Lillard-is-awesome reasons, but the way in which Lillard is awesome at least partially speaks to the willingness of Stotts to greenlight and embrace the abilities, no matter how audacious, of his top players as they came into their own — an attribute which, in balancing the pick-and-roll ballet against other forms of facilitation, will be necessary in divvying up the offensive pie next season, especially given that Nurkic was reportedly displeased with his place in the organization during exit interviews.
The other end of the floor is where more of the question marks exist, both for the Pacers, who spent much of the season trying to survive injuries while whirling through hyperaggressive coverages, as well as for the Blazers, whose roster brimming with one-way players lacked in scheme flexibility, oftentimes over-relying on Nurkic to plug holes while exhibiting bouts of lack of fight, particularly at the point of attack.
In the end, one year after finishing 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions, Portland regressed to 29th this season, as defensive-minded players such as Derrick Jones Jr. fell out of the rotation in favor of the increased emphasis on the three-point line and the necessity of outscoring opponents. To be fair, though, Portland’s defensive rating was only slightly less bad in the 1318 minutes that Derrick Jones Jr. was on the floor (116.3) compared to the 14 games in which he did not play (120.7), according to PBP stats.
“When you look at NBA staffs, the head coach has one thing usually he does really well and then you build out the rest of the staff that helps him,” Kevin Pritchard answered when asked if a defensive background would be a prerequisite for coaching candidates.
“Having a group of assistant coaches that have experience and success is critically important to have a great organization,” he added. “From one to four on the bench is super important.”
That said, prior to the start of this past season, Stotts invited former Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, who also once served as an assistant on staffs for the Pacers, Rockets, and Spurs, to work as a defensive consultant for a stretch spanning training camp and the first half of preseason. During exhibition play, while attempting to replicate elements of the overly rigid, trapping scheme that Boylen implemented in Chicago, Portland gave up over 120 points in three of four contests, while allowing opponents to shoot over 20 corner threes per game — the soft spot that comes along with putting two defenders on the ball.
Granted, preseason is preseason, but it’s notable that seeking outside advice didn’t seem to move the needle for a lineup that wasn’t exactly amenable to blitzing or switching, nor was it all that consistently effective, in contrast to the 2019-20 Pacers, with the more conservative coverages they had little choice but to play.
Lead the way
Of course, after dismissing Bjorkgren due more to issues related to managing and overseeing, Xs and Os are only part — and, maybe, a very small part — of the equation, especially when considering the indicated need for vocal leadership among players in the locker room as well as some of the rumors and reports that circulated with regard to the first-time head’ coach’s struggles delegating and working in collaboration with staff.
“I’m a big believer in participatory management,” Stotts said of his leadership style ahead of the start of this past season while speaking on a podcast with Oregon-based motivational speaker Greg Bell. “I do want to solicit opinions from my players, my coaches, my management, and things like that.”
Experienced with experience, Portland’s former head coach also unknowingly distinguished himself from what was reported of Bjorkgren’s supposed “fake positivity” while touching on the importance of building relationships.
“For me, in my position, having the trust of the players I think is paramount, and you do that by being the same person. They trust you for your knowledge and respect that you’re able to do the job, but also that you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
“...the success that you have is in direct relation to the players that you have and the staff that you have,” he later continued, in response to a question about the importance of integrity and humility. “It’s not a one-man job. I think it would be false modesty if you didn’t believe that it’s a team effort and that everybody’s in it together. I don’t think that’s being humble, I think that’s just understanding the dynamics of the profession that we’re in.”
Following Portland’s dismissal of Stotts, Lillard took to Instagram to pay his respects, thanking his long-time head coach for “an amazing 9 years” — which, perhaps tellingly with regard to forming bonds, is more than can be said for any of the players for the Pacers, at least publicly, in the wake of management’s decision to move on from Bjorkgren.
More from this series:
Mike D’Antoni interviewed with the Pacers during the prior coaching search and has once again been linked to the position via various reports, though he is said to be interested in Portland’s opening. From a year ago, on his inventive schemes and ability to empower playmakers.
After spotlighting the potential of Brooklyn’s young pieces, including now-Pacer Caris LeVert, in the bubble, Jacque Vaughn was mentioned in conjunction with Indiana’s head coaching vacancy following Nate McMillan’s dismissal last offseason. Written from the perspective of how Victor Oladipo could re-team with his former head coach, the same now applies to LeVert.
Dave Joerger, who is perhaps best known for dialing up the pace in Sacramento, was also said to have received consideration for the gig in Indiana prior to Nate Bjorkgren’s hiring. Whether playing faster under Bjorkgren was done in response to this past season’s defense and rebounding woes or rather was a contributing factor to the slippage in both areas, it remains to be seen if Joerger’s name will come up again this go-around — especially given some of his reported clashes with Buddy Hield and the front office in Sacramento as well as Marc Gasol in Memphis.