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How to fix the Pacers’ transition defense

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And why simplicity might be the answer to a complex problem.

2021 Play-In Tournament - Indiana Pacers v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

From non-stop injuries pressing unfamiliar lineups into service to whirling through hyper-aggressive and under-baked coverages on auto-pilot, what happened to the Pacers this past season on defense, in which ratcheting up the pace became a necessary means to outrun the struggle to make stops, was the product of a confluence of factors — not the least of which included the vicious circle which appeared to exist between frustration over constantly shape-shifting schemes and waning effort. After all, when the Pacers surrendered 154 points on the road to the Washington Wizards on May 3, they didn’t just seem confused by their own misguided attempts at confusion; they also looked dazed, dusted in the open floor, with one problem arguably begetting the other and vice versa.

“We’ve got to lay this out in a way that makes sense to these guys,” Rick Carlisle said during his introductory press conference while addressing a question about what he learned from his first two stops in Indiana that could perhaps help the current team return to being a consistent contender. “I’ve to got to sell the team on making sacrifices and having each other’s backs and doing the hard things — the basic things: Transition defense and running back every time; it’s the beginning of your defense.”

Following the All-Star break, the Pacers allowed 14.2 fast-break points per 100 possessions — good for 29th in the league. Breaking their transition defense down further, however, Indiana actually ranked 11th over that span of time in limiting the frequency of opponents’ possessions that started with a transition play (14.0 percent), according to Cleaning the Glass. Taken together, what those two numbers suggest is that the core concern isn’t so much restricting transition opportunities and forcing opponents to play in the half-court, as it is correcting some of the recurrent bad habits and breakdowns that contributed to why teams scored with such high-efficiency in those situations over the back-end of the season, particularly as it pertains to possessions featuring an opponent live-ball rebound leading to a transition play (24th).

In that regard, while there’s certainly no hiding from the reality that players could at times be seen trotting instead of sprinting, the issues in transition were oftentimes comparable to what went wrong with Indiana’s various zone coverages: Like standing (very literally) in a specific spot on the floor without rehearsed understanding of individual rules and responsibilities, getting back — while obviously important — isn’t necessarily going to stop opposing teams from converting easy scores, unless all five players on the floor are committed and in-sync.

With that in mind, to determine what needs to happen for transition defense not to be as much of an issue next season, let’s take a closer look at what caused some of the most common cracks over the back-end of 2020-21.

Go for a run

In addition to differentiating between jogging and running, the way in which players go about running also matters. For instance, take a look at what happens, here, when Caris LeVert backpedals as Mason Plumlee dribbles toward him. Granted, the forward-facing position allows him to keep eyes on the ball as he retreats, but his chances of staying in front of Jerami Grant are slim because he didn’t use a cross-over step to turn and sprint.

Unfortunately, a similar problem also ensued against the Nets, when he should’ve been the first player back and instead ended up getting burned by Nicolas Claxton.

To be fair, it’s tough to know from a conditioning standpoint how much should reasonably be expected from someone who underwent surgery midseason to treat cancer. After all, there are also possessions where it appears as though he is either working out his legs or just doesn’t quite seem ready to move laterally. Still, while judgment on this particular matter should probably be reserved until next season, what his back-pedaling goes to show, especially with regard to the rest of the team, is that slight changes in body positioning and minimizing unnecessary movements/decisions can make a big difference.

Think back to the final regular season game against the Wizards, for example. Granted, Domantas Sabonis is talented enough at generating second-chance opportunities to be sent to the glass, but he has to know when to abort the mission. Here, although perhaps a reasonable gamble with the game tied, look at what happens when Sabonis makes the choice to spar with Daniel Gafford for the rebound. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, he’s out of position on Russell Westbrook’s drive in transition with under 30 seconds to play.

Now, compare Malcolm Brogdon’s retreat to that which was shown earlier of LeVert. On the one hand, at least he’s giving himself a chance to get ahead of the ball by sprinting rather than back-pedaling; however, because he has his back turned, he also has no idea where the ball is, which is why he has to keep looking over his shoulder, appearing almost as if to star in the climatic chase scene of a horror film with Westbrook in pursuit.

In the end, not only does Brogdon get twisted all around en route to the basket as the triple-double machine purposefully maneuvers from behind his blind spot, but he also never manages to influence the ball in any sort of meaningful way, although he **technically** stays in front of it for the full-length of the floor.

Turns out, not having eyes on the ball is also damaging... well, always... but especially when opponents throw cross-court passes. Checkout this possession against Oklahoma City. See how the floor flips, catching the transition defense off guard, when the ball-handler kicks the ball ahead on the diagonal to the wing?

Under those circumstances, with Oshae Brissett trailing behind out of frame, there isn’t much Kelan Martin can do, while attempting to stay lower than the lowest man, to contest that shot unless Brogdon somehow hits the nitrous button and communicates for him to take first-pass.

That’s why, given how thorny defending diagonal passes can already be, it’s important not to create the perfect environment for them to be thrown. Here, for example, Brissett is putting the Pacers at further disadvantage by running straight down the lane with his back to the ball, when Amida Brimah is already in lock-step with the first big back. As a result, Cassius Stanley is forced to defend 2-on-1, which leads to a wide open three.

Likewise, watch what happens to Sabonis when, after Goga Bitadze calls for Malcolm Brogdon to cover Bam Adebayo streaking down the floor, he prioritizes defending his match-up with his back turned to Kendrick Nunn instead of staying vigilant of the potential flight of the ball.

For those reasons, how the Pacers get back — particularly when their backs are turned — can be just as critical, for better or worse, as getting back.

Leak proof

For teams that emphasize pace and feel secure in securing rebounds, finessing contest-and-leaks can be an effective means of sprinting for easy scores.

Just ask Ish Smith.

And Jrue Holiday.

In both cases, while it would perhaps be preferable for LeVert to shorten up the length of his pose on the follow-through, the guard opposite of the shooter is responsible for being aware of and plugging those types of leaks — a tactic which, if it wasn’t already, should be at the top of the scouting report in games against Washington and Milwaukee.

Outnumbered

As a whole, transition defense is far less about scheme than individual habit and discipline, but that doesn’t mean who’s responsible for what should be left entirely to chance.

To that point, as was the case with the designated zone coverages, the working knowledge of defending out numbered situations, akin to a mini-zone, all too often seemed under-practiced. For example, take a look at this possession against the Charlotte Hornets. Beyond the fact that no one lifts to the top of the key as Edmond Sumner attacks at the other end, watch LeVert. The goal in transition is to defend the basket, not match-ups. And yet, he’s buddying up with Terry Rozier, which allows Bismack Biyombo to waltz merrily down the lane and results in Myles Turner being (understandably) furious.

In that scenario, with Turner putting pressure on the ball, LeVert needs to run the rest of the way to zone up in the paint first. Then, if Devonte Graham fires the ball to Rozier, he can take first pass, with Turner dropping back and covering middle on the flight of the ball.

This was also a problem against Phoenix, only in the reverse. Here, in defending the 3-on-2, LeVert races ahead to assume the proper lower position while forming an “I” shape with Brogdon, but then oddly releases out to his left and watches as Mikal Bridges launches a shot, rather than closing out to the corner, as his responsibility.

That said, while LeVert is perhaps the most common culprit in many of these situations; he certainly isn’t alone in botching outnumbered coverages.

After all, this is 2-on-2, with Jeremy Lamb in solid position, and Edmond Sumner is playing it as though he’s responsible for stunting to buy time, as Tyler Cook breezes behind him.

The same goes for Sabonis, here. Again, defending diagonal passes can be tricky in that they oftentimes create difficult 2-on-1 decisions on the weak-side. Generally speaking, however, the rule should be to force a long jumper instead of giving up a layup; but because Brissett is loading to the ball, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect Aaron Holiday to closeout to Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing from the opposite side of the floor.

On the other hand, the alternative is potentially creating a mismatch with Aaron against Clint Capela under the rim, but at least the contest from Sabonis would have a chance at working as a delay tactic. Either way, the fact that this thorny situation even exists highlights a talking point from the first section in that Brissett’s decision to challenge John Collins for an unlikely rebound slowed him down from getting back.

In that way, with LeVert also crashing from the baseline to provide a release on what becomes an off-balance layup from McDermott, what happens on one end of the floor is oftentimes directly intertwined with precipitating fast-breakable results on the other.

Take the scenic route

Even so, the inevitability of some prickly, split-second choices shouldn’t preclude execution of basic principles. And yet, here’s a compilation reel of opposing bigs running in a straight-line to the rim instead of being forced to take a wider route toward the blocks.

Admittedly, not all of those rumbling dashes down the lane ended up being unabated for the same reason, but consider what happened on this possession against the Wizards.

With LeVert on basket duty, Sabonis is assuming a shadow position to discourage dribble penetration from Bradley Beal and (potentially) Westbrook. Given the threat those two pose as scorers, Brissett has to hold Len up on the dive, rather than allowing the big man to slip behind Sabonis toll free.

Zone out

That said, bigs also have to be accounted for as trailers as well as runners, which requires communication as well as court awareness. First of all, amid the already existing chaos of transition defense, it isn’t necessarily uncommon for stretch-fives to walk into open pockets of space on the perimeter, especially when considering that the first big back is generally tasked with protecting the basket, while the second, as demonstrated by Sabonis in the prior section, loads to or shadows the ball. Nevertheless, as it applies to sharpshooters at the center position, it isn’t exactly ideal to be forced to come back out of the paint at a far distance, after over-helping on a drive.

In the same way, although not versus a big, it shouldn’t come to Kelan Martin having to pounce at the player with the ball at the last second, after Goga drifts off into space.

To that point, in summation of much of this writing, make note of everything Caris does on this possession. First, rather than balancing the floor, he nearly vacates what should be his designated position providing ball-side help to mark his check. Then, after he catches himself, he watches as Jerami Grant lines up a three from the corner, despite the fact that Brogdon was on hand to bump him down with at least the benefit of a side contest.

Looks familiar, right? Almost looks like some of the mistakes the Pacers made while playing 2-3 zone this past season. For that reason, with transition defense at times functioning like a mini-zone, what isn’t shown in these clips might be as telling as what is.

Think of it this way: In many of these games, the Pacers weren’t only alternating between man and zone and man mixed with zone, they were doing so with respect to makes and misses as well as in accordance with who was/wasn’t on the floor for the opposing team. That’s a lot to process, especially with poor execution operating hand-in-hand with limited practice time. That’s why, while there definitely needs to be an influx of accountability when it comes to players getting back and how they get back (see: everything that was written above), the simplest answer for improving the individual reads that have to be made in transition — where defense starts — might very well come from simplifying the rest of the defense and as Carlisle says, laying things out in “a way that makes sense to these guys.”

Overall, even though demonstrating effort in spite of frustration is ultimately up to the players, there might be something to be said for a new voice teaching them how to walk, even while also expecting that they consistently run.