This will be the first of 7 articles I am going to post concerning the Pacers current defensive system under Jim O'Brien. This series will encompass the keys to an overall defensive structure as I see them in a generic sense, then compare and contrast what we consider to be what the Pacers current staff has implemented here with our current roster.
First, a couple of comments.
Obviously, a team and its overall individual strengths and weaknesses have some effect on how well something you implement works. While I am completely aware of that and will no doubt mention our particular players within the scope of what I write, this will be more defensive theory than exact strategy.
My plan at this time (while it may change as I type these) is to give my thoughts on how a team in my opinion SHOULD build a team defense, and then I'll contrast that to what seems to be actually happening. The theory of these I hope will be to discuss the various choices coaches have to make when implementing a plan, and discuss whether the choices our Pacers have made need to be tweaked from a strategic point of view.
The long term view of this thread I hope will be to identify what our Pacers can do to become a better defensive team not from a personnel standpoint necessarily (although that is an obvious need) but from a "system" standpoint.
Hopefully, we can engineer some good discussion points, ask each other some good questions, and hopefully all learn from each other, even if disagreement may eventually still exist.
For my purposes, I'm breaking down this "manifesto of defense" into the following parts:
I. Where defense begins: Pressure at the point of attack
II. The intricate details of wing defense
III. Help side defense: a thorough examination
IV. Fighting over screens away from the ball
V. Defending the low post
VI. Defending the screen/roll
VII. "Spillover": How offensive strategy ties into defensive game planning
Depending on how this goes, I may add an part VIII: Defensive conclusions: A summary of what we have learned and what we think.
With all of that established, let me now begin.
Part I: Where defense begins: Pressure at the point of attack
In my judgment, the success of an overall man to man defensive strategy begins here, at the point of attack. It should be the responsibility of the point guard defender to pressure the ballhandler of the opponent. This ideally should occur right at the half court line, or if possible, a couple of steps before that.
We've discussed this before, but let's review some of the reasons why POINT GUARD PRESSURE is so critical in my judgment:
1. It takes future time off the shot clock for our opponents to use against us. This may keep them from making one extra pass per possession.
2, It limits the playbook options of the opposing coaching staff. They may have to limit their set play choices if their first pass to initiate their offense is forced to be a few seconds later than they plan.
3. Pressure on the ball can sometimes "steer" a ballhandler to a particular side or area of the court you may want them to go. In other words, point guard pressure can make the opponent be in a "reactive" state, instead of you being reactive.
4. Point of attack pressure can eliminate the chance for communication between the opposing coach and his point guard.
5. Point of attack pressure changes the geometry of the game, perhaps making the offensive wing players cut further up onto the floor to help alleviate the pressure and start their set plays slightly off from where they have practiced.
6. Point guard pressure can have a cumulative effect from a fatigue standpoint, hopefully causing mistakes and tired legs for later in the game.
7. Point af attack pressure can create occasional extra turnovers, leading to fast break transition opportunities.
8. Point of attack pressure sets a "tone" of a defensive mentality to your entire team, hopefully that effects the intensity of the rest of the players on the floor, and perhaps even the home arena.
9. Point of attack pressure causes your opponent to have to use valuable preparation time before the game planning to counter it, keeping them from using their time to learn to attack other weaknesses you may have.
There are probably a dozen other reason why point guard pressure at the point of attack is a highly effective and important defensive weapon.
Now, there are downsides to applying major man to man pressure that far from the court. The obvious one is that your point guard may get beat off the dribble immediately before a pass is even made, and your entire defense can be compromised if that happens for that possession. Others are that it is physically demanding, and likely will require your own team to need to substitute more at that position, requiring you to play your subs more minutes over the course of a season at this particular position. There is also a greater likelihood of your point guards picking up fouls 50 feet or more away from the basket.
As a coach, you have to weigh all the pros and cons of this as it relates to your own personnel. If you have a slower point guard, or one older, maybe you wouldn't pressure as much. If you have a quality starter but an extremely poor backup, maybe the risk of having to play this inferior player too many minutes isn't worth the advantage of having your starter pressure the ballhandler that hard. Or maybe you need your point guard to score a bunch of points for you, and this much intense defense limits his own offensive effectiveness.
One of the reasons I thought Indiana would be much better defensively than it has turned out to be was what appeared to me ot be a huge upgrade defensively (at least from a physical standpoint) with the additions of T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack. I believed in the summer and pre-season (and actually, I still do) that this was an almost ideal tandem of players to play the point guard position from a defensive pressure at the point of attack standpoint. Knowing we were going to play these guys nearly equal minutes, knowing we now had the quickness necessary to apply pressure, and knowing we had other defensive personnel issues that point of attack pressure could help hide, I thought we might be seeing the best point guard defensive pressure we've seen in Indianapolis since Haywood Workman. I expected consistent and relentless attacking, hounding defense on our opponents as they brought the ball into the frontcourt.
The decision to not emphasize point of attack pressure and instead retreat to the three point line area is probably one of my biggest disappointments with this team and this coaching staff. I hated watching it, but I understood why the Pacers had to play this way with Tinsley playing this position....he neither had the desire or the physical quickness to pressure the ball without getting completely toasted often. Playing further back to keep his man in front of his was what he had to do. But this roster was ideally suited to not need to do that, but our staff has chosen to do that anyway.
It is these kind of discrepancies.....a difference in how our roster is put together and its strengths vs how our staff sees the game, that led me to write early in the fall that I didn't feel that Larry Bird and Jim O'Brien were on the same page as much as was commonly thought.
Some coaches really don't emphasize involving their point guards in help situations, as they want them to concentrate on pressure. However, obviously Coach O'Brien and his staff feel they want their point guard in more of a help position, even after just one pass early in the shot clock. This isn't a new thought....many coaches in many staffs at all levels believe that this is the way to play. In some coaching circles it is known as the "pack line" defensive philosophy....emphasizing help over pressure.
My big disagreement is that I think you could have meshed both philosophies a bit better. I think an athletic poijnt guard pressuring the ball is more important than being in an early help position near the top of the key. Even if you believed that having a guy near the top of the key early in a possession was more important than I do, you still with hard work can have your point guard pressure and then "dive" quickly back to a help area.....although, like I said I think that is somewhat silly personally.
The next time the Pacers play, watch how far up the floor our point guards are asked to pick up and engage the opponent's lead guard. Try and decide of you think that is the proper "pick up point" or not, based on what we are trying to do, or should be doing.
I want to be clear: our point guard defense and where we pick guys up is a coaching decision....it is not just a player being too lazy to get out there. Our coaches have clearly decided to back off inside the three point line, for whatever reason.
Now, to give the staff the benefit of the doubt, maybe they saw in practice or on film that our point guards are slower and weaker than I believe them to be. Clearly, Jarrett Jack particularly is getting beat off the dribble from the top some of the time anyway, although I would tell you that is more from recovering poorly from help position instead of just completely getting beat athletically.....Jarrett has poor balance I think particularly when coming up from a help position to a recovery position in a closeout situation.
But my major nag on this exact subject is that I do not believe this is a great analysis of our personnel. Instead, this is a philosophy believed in by Coach O'Brien that he would implement no matter who he had, as O'Brien is a zealot to his own scheme. (I wrote when he was hired that he suffered from true believerism). In other words, I don't think his defensive scheme would change in this regard even if he had a great pressure point guard like Rajon Rondo or someone else playing the position.
So, the questions are as follows:
1. Are we using our personnel in the correct way defensively at the point of attack?
2. Are we using them the way we are using them because it is an honest (but flawed in my judgment) decision based on what our staff sees as a weakness, or is it because they are married to a philosophy that doesnt fit our personnel?
3. What does Larry Bird truly believe as he watches us play every day in practice and every game?
4. Would picking up the pressure further up the floor, and with more intensity, help our Pacers as much as this writer believes it would?
Clearly, I have a pretty big problem with Coach O'Brien on this one issue....the lack of his emphasis on point of attack pressure. In the next post, which will be about wing defense, the debate is quite a bit murkier and harder to decide upon. I believe that will be a pretty interesting discussion.
But for now, the topic de jour of the day is pressure at the point of attack....and why we don't have any. Feel free to discuss, agree with me, or tell me why I'm wrong.
As always, the above is just my opinion.