Last fall I did a series on how the returning players could improve their games as individuals, and withing the new schemes of our freshly hired head coach, Jim O'Brien. This year I want to bring that series back, focusing on our main core of players we expect to see major minutes from this season. I'm starting this in depth review with our new point guard, T.J. Ford.
Most of us know the basic scouting report on Ford. He is small, extremely quick, and very athletic. Offensively he is an adept ballhandler who isnt bothered by ball pressure, but whose lack of height occasionally presents him problems when being trapped. He isn't a great perimeter shooter, but is a fairly intelligent judge of when to take perimeter shots for himself, within the context of the game plan and situation. Defensively he has the ability to pressure the ball better than anyone we've had at that position since Travis Best, but he can be exploited by bigger more physical guards who can post him up.
What I want to do with this thread, and with the ones that follow in this series, is examine the nuances of his game and style within our team concept, and try and find the little discussed pros and cons that havent been discussed or noticed yet. While no one can really see how he will play and fit in until we actually see him on the floor, I think there are good discussion points and questions that can be had about our individual players over the course of the next few weeks. With that in mind, I wanted to discuss TJ and his game in depth.
One of the things I like about Ford the best is his ability to run an offense to either side of the floor, without having to turn his back to the defender in order to protect the basketball. When you really think about it, we havent had a point guard who truly consistently had this ability for an extremely long time. Mark Jackson sometimes liked to turn his back and look over his shoulder against big time pressure, Travis Best dribbled too much with no purpose and was too "left hand" oriented, and Jamal Tinsley even while having adept handles lacked the consistentcy in effort and judgment and athleticism to be able to truly be able to do this.
What this means to me from a coaching perspective is that I dont have to worry about teams pressuring TJ up the floor.....it will be too dangerous for them to do so with his blow by speed with the basketball. It also means that I as a coach can communicate with my point guard easier during the flow of the game, as Ford has the ability to handle the ball and listen at the same time. TJ Ford will control where the ball goes to initiate offesne, and the defense will react to him, not the other way around.
This ability to truly be a premier ballhandler and threat to drive with a purpose will enable the Pacers to more effectively play a true 1 guard front offense. The Pacers personnel dictates this anyway, as neither Granger or Dunleavy are at their most effective handling the ball on the high perimeter, above the key on either side. Instead the can concentrate on staying in the wing areas, trusting Ford will not be forced to pick up his dribble early and out of passing position.
Coach O'Brien is a somewhat "unconventional" coach when it comes to offensive philosophy, but now he has been given a point guard who fits in better to a more traditional personnel grouping and style. How the more traditional Pacers personnel as a whole fits in with the different philosophy of our staff bears watching as the season goes along.
Another thing that interests me about TJ Ford is how our offensive wings have to space the floor with him in the game a bit differently. TJ's skills change the "geometry" of the game somewhat. Because Ford can beat his man off the dribble in the center of the floor much easier than our past players, he will be a couple of steps into the paint further than our wings are accumstomed to. Early on, you may see some awkward plays as Ford drives in so deep that our wings are open for spot up 3 opportunities, but are BEHIND the ball and sight line of Ford, thereby being unable to be seen by our dimunitive point guard.
I want to see how our wings and coaching staff handle this situation, because it is going to happen. Will Granger and Dunleavy be asked to "spot up" lower on the floor to make it easier for Ford to find them, or will Ford be coached to not drive the ball as deep as he seems to want to do? I don't really think Ford is that adept at a little 10 foot "floater", instead he tends to get deeper than that into the paint. How will the Pacers spacing adjust?
His ability and willingness to drive the ball deeper into the paint should result in less passes to the wing perimeter areas, and more dump offs to our bigs for dunks, or to the deep corners for three point shots. In your minds eye, think of Shawn Marion drifting to the corners for three point attempts off Steve Nash penetration, vs Reggie Miller spotting up on the wing getting a pass from Mark Jackson, who would pull up much shorter and earlier than TJ Ford will likely do. Either TJ or the rest of the team will need to adjust....I wonder which it will be?
I want to see what happens with Ford when teams are faced with the choice of helping cut off his drives by coming off of Dunleavy, Granger, and Rush, or with letting Ford attempt to finish shots in the paint himself. If I'm coaching against Indiana, I think Im trying to make Ford a finisher in traffic instead of being a passer.
The high and flat "ballscreen" is one of the most commonly used offensive weapons used in basketball these days. However, some coaches are starting to talk about re-thinking this trend of the last few years, as they are finding that to bring a screen to a point guard/ballhandler who doesnt need it is a waste of time, and only brings more traffic in the area of the ballhandler. I think if I'm Jim O'Brien that I do NOT want to use Ford in this high ballscreen area much, instead I want my players to give TJ space and time to beat his man without the benefit of a screen. Others think the Pacers should run a high ballscreen with TJ Ford almost every trip, as he is so adept at going in either direction they believe it will be harder to guard than just leaving Ford "solo" up top with the ball.
This will be interesting to me, particularly at the end of quarters and in big moments. I dont think I personally would hardly ever ballscreen for Ford, but I want to know what the prevailing opinion is on this board. To me, if Im coaching against Indiana and the Pacers try this manuever with Ford and someone else, I think Im instructing my defender to go "under" the ballscreen, and make Ford have to make the wide open jump shot from near the top of the circle. If the Pacers are smart, they are having TJ work on this shot a bunch in the offseason.
Defensively, I want to see how much the Pacers choose to push Ford into picking up the opponent earlier in the possession. I would do that almost each possession all season long, but it is a long year and that type of defensive pressure can take a toll on your own defender over the course of time. Will the Pacers conserve Ford by limiting his pressuring, will they ask him to do it but limit his overall minutes to about 28 or so per night, or will they play a more traditional, "softer and conservative" defense?
I want to see if Fords ability to stay in front of his man helps our wing defenders deny better the first pass of the opponents offense. I want to see if Dunleavy and particularly Granger become better defenders because of TJ's effect, or if they stay mediocre or worse.
I want to see how the Pacers counteract a team who chooses to post up Ford alot on the low block. Do they leave Ford ot fend for himself? Do they "dig" from the ball side, or do they choose to let Ford stay behind his man and then run an exotic doubleteam? We know for a fact some teams will post up TJ, how will we react to it?
I could go on and on about the need for a point guard on a winning team to become a leader, to be vocal, to set the tone, to be a coach on the floor, etc etc. TJ seems to have these qualities, and compared to what we've had in the past anything he does in these areas will be a giant improvement. But Ford has been traded twice already at a young age, and he does have injury concerns along with being somewhat of a malcontent in Toronto. It is not a given that, if Ford struggles early and is outplayed by Jarrett Jack and loses minutes to him, that Ford will be a happy camper in Indianapolis. How will Jim O'Brien and Ford interact when TJ struggles, or is injured, or the team is on a 4 game skid, or whatever maladies come up in a long NBA season?
These are just some of the questions/concerns I have about TJ Ford, but admittedly I havent broken down any film or anything like that like I have in the past at times. Looking at Ford with a critical eye, we know he isnt a perfect player, because no one is. What do you feel he needs to improve on to become one of the top 8-10 point guards in the league, and what does TJ need to provide for us to help us win as many games as possible? Where does he need to improve, and what does the staff need to adjust to help play at maximum efficiency? How do we get the most out of TJ Ford?
As always, the above is just my opinion.