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How Steve Clifford could remake the Pacers on defense

Per report, the former Magic head coach is expected to interview for Indiana’s head coaching vacancy this week.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Toronto Raptors Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the Pacers set to begin head coaching interviews while at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this week, the team is reportedly targeting candidates who are experienced with experience after taking a risk on rookie head coach Nate Bjorkgren. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, in addition to former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, Brian Shaw, who is head coach of the G League Ignite team and worked as an assistant for the Pacers under Frank Vogel, is said to be in the mix, as is former Orlando Magic head coach Steve Clifford. For a team in search of making stops and returning to “hard hat” defensive principles in the wake of whirling between hyperaggressive coverages, Clifford is known as a defensive-mind tactician, with brainpower shared and gleaned from Tom Thibodeau and brothers Stan and Jeff Van Gundy in New York, Houston, and Orlando.

When the Pacers don’t have the ball

In eight seasons as a head coach, Clifford has put together four top-10 defenses in spite of absences to key players and prior to this season, when the injury-riddled roster shifted Orlando’s course at the trade deadline, abruptly veering toward a rebuild, his squads never ranked lower than fifth, per Synergy, in terms of the percentage of opponent possessions occurring in transition — where defense gets its start. That’s because, as opposed to the Pacers toward the back-end of this past season, when effort, at times, waned and slip-ups like this occurred, where Caris LeVert is marking his man in the open floor rather than playing lower than the ball and protecting the basket, limiting fast-break opportunities with sound fundamentals has generally been less negotiable over Clifford’s tenure.

Still, simply ingraining the difference between sprinting and lightly jogging (see: the Pacers against the Wizards) isn’t the only area where Clifford’s coaching tendencies stand in contrast to what was executed by the Pacers last season, particularly as the year wore on. For instance, rather than force-feeding the excesses of one-size-fits-all ball pressure to the rim in bulk while dabbling at the level and with late-switches, the Magic, for the most part, dropped their bigs back, shrinking the radius of players such as Nikola Vucevic, who like Domantas Sabonis, are more dependent on positioning to be a factor on defense and probably shouldn’t, you know, be topping the NBA in distance travelled on defense. The result? According to PBP stats, in the 6000+ minutes that Vucevic was on the floor for the Magic over the last three seasons under Clifford, only 29 percent of their opponent shots came at the rim — a far lower rate than the league-leading 35 percent the Pacers surrendered this season, despite benefiting from a more imposing rim protector.

Of course, with Indiana spending most of last season with few wing defenders to speak of, personnel differences certainly matter in this conversion, as most of the defenses built around Vucevic, at least when healthy and not gutted, were generally supplemented in the past by rangier options. That said, Orlando also did more schematically to repel the ball from the paint while limiting the All-Star big man’s responsibilities so he wouldn’t have to jump out too far.

Compare and contrast, for instance, the way both teams defended side pick-and-rolls. For the Pacers, depending upon who was involved, that coverage was fluid and occasionally miscommunicated, as it varied anywhere from squaring up to hedging and sometimes switching out, whereas the Magic preferred a more rigid, “no-middle” approach, almost universally pushing the ball-handler toward the sideline.

From there, they get selectively frisky, setting traps along the sideline and loading up on the strong-side so as to keep the ball as far away from the basket as possible.

As can be seen in the above compilation of clips, this type of coverage can be vulnerable to pick-and-pop bigs in the absence of off-ball stunts, but the trade-off is confining the two-man game to one-side of the floor and foregoing the need to challenge at the rim in favor of possibly allowing shots from so-so shooters — a potentially worthwhile gamble in the event the Pacers choose to move forward with Sabonis at solo five. Moreover, when the screener is someone the caliber of Karl Anthony Towns, who shot 41 percent on five catch-and-shoot threes per game last season, Orlando will pull a help defender over from the weak-side and zone up the remaining kick-out options so the big can stay home, like so:

In that regard — while three-point percentage isn’t as controllable as volume of attempts — rotations and closeouts, which, for Orlando, trend toward hitting the brakes without jumping out of control as opposed to last season’s emphasis on catapulting shooters off the line at the expense of overruns and defaulting to scramble mode, are key.

For a keener understanding of that distinction, consider how the Pacers approached defending Russell Westbrook in the play-in game. Beyond going overboard with overs (Clifford doesn’t do this!), the decision to close out hard to the triple-double machine in spot-up situations, as a 35-percent shooter outside the paint, was equally puzzling.

Um...what you doing, Doug?

Now, while admitting the difference in caliber of the two defenders, look at how Aaron Gordon finishes to Westbrook. In addition to being up on his top leg and squared without surrendering middle, note the degree of cushion, in acknowledgement of Westbrook’s quickness, so as to avoid getting blown by on the run while instead inducing a shot.

(Also, just as a quick aside, consider that Gordon is purposefully assigned to Westbrook — a cross-match that should perhaps be considered in spots next season, when T.J. Warren, who has a strong case for being the team’s best on-ball defender, returns to form. More and more, as the game continues to spread out, point of attack defense, although not pictured above, is becoming increasingly crucial to determining the effectiveness of positioning with regard to back-line defenders despite the fact that the latter oftentimes receives the blame for surrendering pull-up jumpers. If Clifford gets the nod as head coach, perhaps Warren will also in more of these types of situations. Ok, back to the long-winded diatribe about footwork and what-not.)

In that way, reads aren’t only made on offense; they also occur on defense, where some of this past season’s auto-pilot rules arguably should’ve given way to drilling individualized closeouts and help decisions geared around the situation along with the personnel of the team as well as the opponent.

Granted, in the absence of other moves or internal development that would allow the Pacers to downsize (Brissett?) and more feasibly mix in other types of coverages, it’s probably fair to question the potential impact of shot variance along with the ceiling of allowing guards to step into shots in the playoffs when the ball isn’t trapped on one side of the floor; however, unless and until those other moves are made, Clifford’s more principled system offers a clearer pathway to playing to the current roster’s strengths, while also, perhaps, providing avenues to shore up weaknesses with potential changes.

When the Pacers have the ball

All of that being said, unless the goal is for time to become a flat circle, threading the needle between searching for improvement on one end of the floor without back-sliding in terms of imagination on the other has the potential to be delicate surgery.

“As I’m watching the playoffs, yes, you have to defend and you have to get stops, but this new age of basketball is high-level offensive talents and you have to make shots,” said Kevin Pritchard during his most recent presser. “To me, you have to be able to have that balance. You have to be able to do the things you do defensively, and quite frankly, we’ve had a great assistant coach that really spearheaded that for the last about 25 years and we missed that, but you can’t get away from the fact that this new NBA is a lot about putting the ball in the basket and it’s an offensive game.”

As it pertains to Clifford, assessing his ability to coach both ends of the floor as the inverse to Terry Stotts is somewhat difficult to parse. During his tenure in Orlando, his teams never even sniffed the top half of the league in points scored per 100 possessions, but they also never had perimeter creators on par with Malcolm Brogdon or Caris LeVert. Think of it this way: Who was Vucevic’s best teammate, available for consistent stretches, while coached by Clifford? Aaron Gordon? Evan Fournier? Sure, Markelle Fultz showed promise before tearing his ACL and Cole Anthony showed flashes as a rookie, but it isn’t as if there was a surplus of healthy, fully formed facilitators from the guard position on any of those rosters.

Even so, at least one of the false actions that Nate Bjorkgren occasionally called last season to get Sabonis a post touch against a switch made a cameo in Orlando — only with a twist.

In both cases, the play-call is to set up with and reject dummy UCLA action one side of the floor before rapidly firing the ball to the other; however, notice the way in which Vucevic, rather than receiving a back-pick to slide to the block, sets a pindown, as a rolling scorer when both defenders commit to Fournier coming off the screen.

For a player whose frequency as the roll-man dipped last season in the absence of multiple downhill running mates, that’s the difference between a face-up mid-range shot, which Sabonis still needs to hit with better accuracy, and being spoon fed on the move.

Another distinction between how the bigs of Orlando and Indiana are used is how often they spring each other free with down screens, whether to create daylight for ball-handlers with subsequent ball screens or to facilitate and launch into other actions from the elbow.

In that way, the bigs are constantly active, executing simple play-calls that can be expanded to include three-man actions that are more difficult to switch than standard pick-and-rolls.

On the catch, the passer is on the move, with the big looking to handback as a first option.

If that isn’t open, the offense flows into split-game with the passer screening away for the player standing in the strong-side corner, which can then be interpreted by the two guards as a quick basket cut or a pindown into a hand-off, depending upon the coverage. In this example, it becomes a combination of both, with Evan Fournier wheeling around a weak-side stagger.

To further build on the pindown into a hand-off portion, an additional player from the weak-side occasionally enters the fray as a back-screener to function as a stacked pick-and-roll.

In each case, rather than incorporating completely different formations, different aspects are being added to the same base to keep the defense off balance, providing a means to scale up as well as down, with regard to complexity and the make-up of the roster. After all, not everyone can thread passes from the center position, but with two bigs screening for each other, the temptation to jump the pick or switch with liked-sized defenders can also open up opportunities for improvised slips to the rim between players like Turner and Sabonis in the event of a miscommunication.

Or, what if Sabonis screens down for Warren and dives to the rim with Turner in the corner?

Don’t get it twisted, healthy offense obviously isn’t going to subsist on RAM actions and elbow-45 alone, but the fact that such a wide variety of permutations can be triggered by the same down screen is at least somewhat suggestive of Clifford’s ability to tinker with what he implements while, of course, running other sets and teaching his players to make reads out of flow. Plus, as would likely be the case with Stotts as it relates to defense, searching for additional help on the offensive end of the floor could also be an option.

“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,” Pritchard said while answering questions from the media in the wake of Bjorkgren’s dismissal.

“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.”

If nothing else, with Jeremy Lamb having played three seasons for Clifford in Charlotte, where Chad Buchanan also overlapped as assistant general manager, the Pacers, in desperate need of getting right what they got wrong with the last hire on matters that extend beyond Xs and Os, once again have the option to draw on the past shared experiences of those within their own organization during the interview process.

More from this series:

According to Woj, Terry Stotts is also expected to interview with the Pacers this week at the NBA Draft Combine. Based on his track record in Portland, on how the Blazers head coach could steady the locker-room as well as the floor of the offense.

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.