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On the aggressive passiveness of the Pacers’ help defense

And the dynamic interplay between reads and scheme

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

All too often, reads are thought of as only happening on the offensive end of the floor, where pick-and-roll creators attune themselves to slight shifts in body weight and positioning; however, from judging how closely to guard the ball to determining how far to wander away from it, players also have to be instinctive decision-makers on defense. For the Pacers, who lack in both wing-sized wings and on-ball stoppers, this is especially true away from the ball, where containing penetration depends on more than just the defense at the point of the screen. Still, that word “instinctive” can be tricky, as what can appear like an innate urge to over-help or drop-in might actually be centered around a core concept or specific adjustment, requiring cooperation between that which is reflexive and practiced.

For example, look at this possession against the Sixers. See how Chris Duarte is standing at the center of the free throw line, pulled waayyyy over from his assignment, Georges Niang?

Here’s what happened as a result.

With James Harden simply making an easy pass ahead to the wing, it may seem as though Duarte is to blame for overestimating how far he could stray from his man while still staying within reach to closeout, but this wasn’t just a one-off.

Isaiah Jackson got burned in the same manner.

And so did Buddy Hield, albeit with an assist from Tyrese Haliburton.

As such, it seems safe to assume that the early nail presence wasn’t so much a risky miscalculation on the part of the players as a calculated game-plan intended to deter Harden from driving the switch, particularly with his strong hand. After all, look at how easily he moseys to the rim, here, when the help-and-recover man is stationed at the right wing, allowing him to dispense of Jalen Smith with his left.

Still, it begs the question: If the Pacers had to put a goalie at the nail in order to switch the five out to the ball against a team that made 19 threes, should they have been switching the five out to the ball against a team that made 19 threes? Alternatively, if the end result is going to be giving up a wide open three anyway, at what point is going with switch-to-blitz coverage (in which the switch is followed by a hard double or trap) more beneficial, at least from the perspective of maybe forcing a turnover, than playing passive help?

Remember, this didn’t just happen against Harden. It was also a thing against Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, among others. In essence, when the star sees a defender in the gap, all they have to do is make the advance pass for what is (generally) a very lightly contested shot.

Granted, the Pacers currently rank 14th in opponent above the break three-point frequency, which is more controllable than conversion rate, but teams are knocking down 39 percent of those attempts and the attempts aren’t all that is being conceded. When the ball is reversed, they have a tendency to get slammed by flare screens, either producing mismatches around the basket or resulting in shooters fading to the corner.

Meanwhile, they also pull-over from the strong-side nail against pick-and-roll actions, which can lead to surrendering the closeout, with the ball knifing effortlessly behind the help.

To be fair, there aren’t a lot of good answers for the Pacers, who currently rank 27th in defensive rating. They’ve struggled to rotate out of double-teams with precision, and even with the obstacle course of bodies, Harden — for instance — still finished with 29 points and 11 assists on 55 percent shooting, although only two of his baskets were scored in the restricted area. Needless to say, from the poor quality screen navigation to the need to cover for certain bigs defending in space, it’s reasonable to think that the strategy of impacting the ball away from the ball, with the help centered at the nail, is necessary. But, it’s also reasonable to ask how they can better alleviate the side effects of doing so.

Swap Recovery Paths

Two seasons ago, there wasn’t a lot that worked about the defense under Nate Bjorkgren, as it was too often wound too tight while simultaneously under-baked. Still, before Victor Oladipo got traded, there was one particular hack that enabled the team to be in two places at once, living at the nail while also running opponents off the three-point line.

Go back in time and look at what happened on this possession against the Knicks. When Malcolm Brogdon goes to help, look at who recovers to his spot on the floor. Hint: Not Malcolm Brogdon. Rather than staying on Reggie Bullock in the corner, Aaron Holiday moves with Elfrid Payton up to the left slot on the wing exchange.

Most teams have mastered the art of scrambling with X-outs (i.e. swapping paths of recovery) on the weakside, when a help defender gets hung up tagging or sinking. Back then, the Pacers used that same principle, just on the side of the floor with the ball. What this accomplishes is twofold. For one, by rotating up to the wing, Aaron is buying time for Brogdon to release from his stunt and scamper to the corner. The other key, though, is that he’s unexpectedly walling off the nearest, most obvious pass. In the end, rather than sprinting out from the nail merely to contest a three, Brogdon prevents a three-point attempt in what becomes the precursor for two rounds of drive-and-kick ultimately resulting in a mid-range shot with less than five seconds on the shot-clock.

That’s a win for the Pacers, especially by comparison to some of the current attempts to bluff from the corner, where the ball either doesn’t get funneled back to the middle of the floor or two defenders end up converging at the wing.

Jump-switching with a next defender

Of course, on the off chance that the recovery angle is imperfect, that method has the potential to be vulnerable to skip passes and basket cuts. Plus, it’s only feasible if the ball is moving toward the full-side of the floor, where two shooters are stationed. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone to swap paths with the help-and-recover defender.

On top of that, another consideration for the Pacers should be how loaded the roster is with centers and guards and not much in-between. Here, for example, the Pacers are playing one of their four-guard lineups with T.J. McConnell, Andrew Nembhard, Chris Duarte, and Bennedict Mathurin anchored by Goga Bitadze. Other than Bitadze, Mathurin is the tallest player in the group, standing at 6-foot-6. As such, look at what happens when Duarte gets clipped by the screen. Admittedly, he could be more timely running the seam on the late-switch after chasing over, but how much disruption can reasonably be expected of him against a lob threat?

Instead, focus on McConnell, who is already in help position, attempting to muck up the driving angle into the paint. Now, imagine if he had fully committed to the ball-handler as the “next” defender with Duarte peeling off to the nearest perimeter player.

In preventing the need for the late-switch, that type of pick-and-roll coverage would allow Bitadze to stay matched up with the big setting the screen, thus taking away the mismatch. For a live-action example, watch Andrew Nembhard during preseason. When he sees that Terry Taylor is still chasing as the ball turns the corner, he makes the switch and Taylor replaces him on the wing, taking away the open gap.

That was a departure from earlier in that same game and hasn’t really re-emerged since, which suggests that jump-switching was a read from Nembhard. By comparison, watch Jalen Smith in the first half. With Duarte at a strength disadvantage against RJ Barrett, Jalen is building a wall at the nail; however, as has been the pattern for this team, he doesn’t switch and is arguably too overcommitted and too late to recover from the stunt.

In circling back to the original point, this is where there needs to be more of an intersection between how the players are responding on feel and what is being dictated by the scheme. Notably, Smith is helping from the strong-side nail in that situation even when Myles Turner is on the floor, available to absorb the ball in the paint. Acting then on the assumption that the early and oftentimes exaggerated nail presence isn’t just a means of compensating for Turner’s absence, Smith — like Nembhard — needs to trigger the length and stay of his help based on whether Duarte can get back in front of the ball.

All of which is to say that, if the Pacers are going to be THIS aggressive, they can’t also be THIS passive. And yet, those two words seem to be a common theme applying in several help-eliciting situations. That’s how they gave up a weak-side cut in Chicago, even while packing the paint with four defenders.

It’s how they can zone up from the bottom against isolations and still surrender a bank-shot.

And it’s why the low-man can function like an abstract concept, completely neglecting the rolling screener, even when both weak-side defenders are straddling the lane line.

In each of those situations, as is also far too often the case at the nail, the positioning is willing, but the reactiveness, both of and surrounding that positioning, is weak. From that standpoint, while this season may not be about optimizing winning in the playoffs, the current state of the help defense still needs work to be helpful, whether it be teaching reads, assessing the viability of four-guard lineups while avoiding switches, or simply building habits for the future.