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How Rick Carlisle’s playbook fits the Pacers

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And why his strength, whether incorporating Mavs actions, needs to be maximizing the Pacers as the Pacers.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Houston Rockets POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Four years ago, long before the Pacers moved on from one Nate only to hire and fire another, Doug McDermott finished the 2017-18 season playing for the Dallas Mavericks, where he converted a career-best 49 percent of his threes in 26 games following a midseason trade. Put into action, then, by the same man who recently signed a four-year contract to return to Indiana as head coach, the fourth-year sharpshooter, as he so often does, would explode from the left corner into a maze of picks, darting straight across the lane and feigning a flex screen before abruptly veering into a shot at the top of the key. Though the possession ended in a rare miss that, now, seems contrary to McDermott’s normal movement pattern, wherein he hugs the edge of the three-point line while rocketing around consecutive picks, the play executed was one that Rick Carlisle continued to make use of this past season, only with Tim Hardaway Jr. expressing the role and steps of off-ball mover.

Carlisle isn’t a system coach to the degree that the Indiana Mavericks should be expected to rise from the ashes of the Indiana Raptors, but that play still being in rotation suggests the possibility of carryover, at least where fit allows.

To that point, however, what worked in Dallas, where Luka Doncic, in what has now been reported as “simmering tension” with Carlisle, operated as the focal point, either forcing switches or drawing extra defenders in spread pick-and-roll while using his size, strength, and savvy to create separation and tinker with passing angles in a way few others can, obviously isn’t going to be completely transferable to a Pacers team whose best facilitator, in the absence of a clear top scoring option, is — at least as things stand now — a center. That said, assuming schemes built around skilled and unselfish ball movement are prioritized, there’s a number of concepts and actions from Carlisle’s time in Dallas, like the aforementioned flex set previously performed by McDermott, that seem feasible to resurface through the strengths of Indiana’s current core.

Shift plans

While there appears to be some gray over who exactly had final say over rotation decisions in Dallas, the Mavs, in addition to making the tweak to start 7-foot-4 center Boban Marjonovic against LA’s small-ball lineup in the playoffs, played over 40 percent of the team’s total minutes this past season with at least two of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Willie Cauley-Stein, or Marjonovic on the floor. For the Pacers, prior to when Myles Turner went down indefinitely with a toe injury in April, that number was nearly identical (38 percent), with Domantas Sabonis and Turner in action at the same time. Of course, none of the Pacers bigs are as accurate from long distance as Kleber (41 percent on 4.2 attempts per game) or sport the same range as Porzingis, who attempted nearly 80 more shots from outside 25 feet than Turner in four fewer games. And yet, while that extra acreage certainly matters in balancing the floor for those types of lineups, it isn’t as if the Mavs started every set with static, five-out spacing and no one standing/moving inside the arc, nor completely avoided posting switches — albeit somewhat feebly at the nail due to personnel differences.

To that point, if the Pacers want to stay the course as constructed, this Iverson action should look familiar. As was the case under Bjorkgren, the play begins with twos bigs setting picks at the elbows, leading to an overcut for a ball-screen. But, look at what develops next. With the defense shifted to one side of the floor, the guard receiving the pick immediately fires a boomerang pass back to the passer for a step-up screen that would effectively allow Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert to buddy up with Turner and Sabonis without invading each other’s space.

Though mainly used as a spot-up shooter, Porzingis was also incorporated into plays coming off screens and as a cutter that could be repurposed for Turner or Warren to catch the ball on the move with Sabonis either dealing from the elbow or wing.

In both cases, in the absence of Doncic’s gravity as a screener and passer, the play would arguably work best for the Pacers with a guard setting the pick, whether out of chin or flex, to make the action more difficult to switch as Sabonis facilitates up top, occupying the opposing five with playmaking. As an added wrinkle, though neither Turner nor Sabonis are exactly lob threats, Dallas occasionally runs an option out of chin for Dwight Powell to chase the cutter with a fake pindown, which could be nifty if able to be repurposed as a simple dive-and-seal for Sabonis.

Turn a negative into a positive

For that matter, Carlisle also knows how to work negative spacing to his team’s advantage. For example, Willie Cauley-Stein has attempted exactly 30 threes for his career; and yet, look at how that liability strangely becomes an asset in this situation by virtue of the play design.

With Luka dribbling off the step screen and flipping the ball back to Cauley-Stein, who then executes the hand-back, Tim Hardaway Jr. has ample space to shoot BECAUSE Jarrett Allen, in sagging off a non-shooter, is dropped deep into the paint.

Set off flares

To that point, like Terry Stotts, who worked as an assistant in Dallas when the Mavericks won the 2011 Championship, Carlisle makes ample use of flare screens — whether to generate shots or as decoys. In this case, with the slanted pick preceding a ball screen, both goals are accomplished, again, in part, because the screener is a non-shooter.

As was explained in the prior piece on Stotts, connecting those two types of screens puts a lot of pressure on the defense, regardless of the caliber of shooter. After all, if the big defending the screener stays home in anticipation of the ball-screen, the player navigating around the flare could easily sneak behind to the rim.

On the flip side, if the big sags off to protect against the potential curl, then that poses the risk of allowing the ball-handler to step into a shot.

What’s more fun, though, is when it appears as though these screens exist entirely separate from the action, set solely for the purpose of baiting the defense into second-guessing if something is about to happen that never actually does.

Here, the intent is to flow into delay, with Kleber wheeling up top into a hand-off preceded by a pindown (i.e. Chicago), but notice how a flare screen is also incorporated for Luka, creating the initial illusion of Portland’s circle action, as Porzingis clears to the corner.

Or how about, here, when as Powell ghosts a ball screen and veers into a pindown (which, by the way, **many** hipsters are referring to as Garfunkel action), J.J. Redick effectively sandwiches Derrick Rose with a flare screen, causing a delayed response in pursuit of Tim Hardaway Jr, even though no one is positioned to fade off the pick.

Tag, you’re it

In the event Doug McDermott walks in free agency, it’s probably fair to question how some of this stuff would play in the absence of multiple movement shooters, with the exception of Justin Holiday. After all, Dallas even had Porzingis’ 7-foot-3 frame weaving around picks this past season. That said, another relevant aspect of Carlisle’s offense is the logistics of help defenders. Check out this variation of that Garfunkel play, for instance. Yes, J.J. Redick can shoot on the move, but when he gets covered, the fact that he vacated the corner to come to the ball means no one is available to tag Powell on the roll.

Likewise, look back at that chin action mentioned in a prior section. Because Tim Hardaway Jr. is selling the fake pindown, the result is the creation of a single-side, high bump with Powell moving in the opposite direction. That’s tough to cover!

Of course, this can also manifest in simpler ways, like cutting ball-side under the basket to either open space for the roller or manufacture an outlet in the dunker’s spot, as Myles did on improved instinct a few times last season.

Another way the Mavs generate single-side tags is by scurrying behind exit screens from the opposite side of the floor. In doing this, the corner pin-in’s purpose isn’t only to generate a shot; it removes a help defender. Here, Julius Randle is playing above his man to apply extra pressure against Luka, but if that’s LeVert, he’ll either be able to maintain his dribble or have the ability to hit one of three options: Warren curling around the screen or whichever of Sabonis or Brogdon the lone weak-side defender decides not to guard. Plus, if a switch occurs on the exit screen, Myles would have the option to slip.

In each case, for a player whose frequency as the roll-man dipped last season in the absence of multiple downhill running mates, strategically maneuvering weak-side tags would better position Sabonis to facilitate on the move from the middle of the floor while also allowing his teammates more opportunity to manipulate ball screens.

In a zone

Speaking of which... remember when the Pacers couldn’t score in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia’s 2-3 zone with Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle purposefully beckoning the ball to the middle of the floor and into their sprawling tentacles with slanted stances?

This was mentioned at the time, but rather than screening the outside of the zone with Simmons jumping the pick, a good way to counter that particular coverage would’ve been to carve out a hole for the ball handler to drive down the middle like... wait, for it... the Mavericks did against the Pacers, as well as several other teams.

Think of it this way: Rather than practically icing the Sabonis screen at the top of the zone, Simmons would be crashing into a pick from the opposite side of the floor at a downward slant, prompting the back-line to contest and opening up the corners, as was the case in some of the latter clips resulting in lobs.

Plus, as it turns out, Dallas also occasionally uses this “X” set as quick-hitter to generate a three in semi-transition against man. On the year, albeit without LeVert on hand for much of the season to attack the gaps, the 0.979 points per possession that Indiana scored against zone, per Synergy, ranked 17th in the league.

Granted, this is too simple of action to spam every trip down the floor, but if the Pacers had been able to force even a few more quick decisions and rotations in that game, while circumventing Philadelphia’s wily length, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have been as tight and some of the late-misses from the perimeter would’ve been makes.

In any case, the overarching takeaway from all of these sections is that, although the offense, in spite of reported clashes over play-calls and reads, revolved around Luka’s unique talents, the surrounding nuance, whether weaponizing negative space or shifting help defenders, at least made sense and/or morphed to whatever personnel happened to be on the floor, as well as the coverage.

Moving forward, it remains to be seen if any of the aforementioned play-calls will carryover from Carlisle’s last stop in the same way that Hardaway could be seen running McDermott’s flex set still four years later, but at least there’s reason to think the above sentence will still apply — especially in the wake of this past season’s attempt to shoehorn the Pacers into being the Raptors regardless of who’s on the roster.