In my first thread of this series, we had a great discussion I thought on the Pacers style of defense at the point of attack. Today, in this the second part of a long series examining our overall team defensive scheme, personnel, effort, and basketball theory, I want to discuss the myriad of details that go into playing man to man defense in the wing areas of the floor. This particular thread will primarily be examining wing defense on the ball side of the floor, and/or when guarding the ball. I will hit helpside responsibilities and techniques in a later thread. While it may be briefly mentioned, I also intend to discuss screen/roll defense in a separate upcoming "defending the ballscreen" article Ill write at a later part of this series.
In my view, playing high quality wing defense is vital to having a championship level squad. I also believe that there are more decisions to be made by the staff on how to properly play defense in this area of the floor than in any other. In this thread I'll try to go over the myriad of options and styles of play available to us, examine what we currently do and what we may want to do better.
Among all the key decisions a team has to decide how it wants to play are:
1. How hard do you deny a wing entry pass, especially at the beginning of a possession?
2. How do you play a wing man individually once he has caught the ball on the side of the floor? Play him straight, shade him baseline, or shade him middle?
3. How much help do you want your wings to provide on a straight drive to the basket from the top? Do you want to stay at home or do you want to "defend the split"?
4. Do we want them to stay at home when they feed the ball inside, or do we want them to "dig" into the post?
Let's try to take these one by one:
A. WING DENIAL OF THE ENTRY PASS
This is a really big decision actually, and it gets harder to make the higher the level of play you are talking about. At the youth or high school level, most of the time I believe it is the proper thing to do to really deny this pass hard, and make it hard for your opponent to start their offense. When you pair that with pressure defense at the point of attack, you can really make it difficult for your opponent.
On the other hand, players at this level will almost always be good enough to get open along the wing areas anyway, due to their superior skill level, and the pace of the game. With that being said, is it worth the physical effort it takes for your defense over 82 games to make a conscience effort to make this a key central point to your team? I would say that it is worth the effort, but I would couch that by saying it takes a really athletic and highly conditioned and focused athlete to be able to do it consistently. I can only remember in my era of being a Pacer fan Derrick McKey doing this consistently, and often Ron Artest when focused would do it to. These type players are hard to come by.
My preference for this team would be to make this a real focus for our bench players, particularly Brandon Rush. It is unrealistically to expect Dunleavy to be able to do this due to his lack of athleticism, and it's tough to ask Granger to do it due to foul trouble risk, the fatigue it would cause his offense, etc etc. (I would ask Granger to deny much harder on occasion however). But in Rush's case, I would demand that he develop this as part of his defensive repoitoire.....the ability to keep his man from catching the ball easily on the wing, especially when not having to fight thru a screen. I hear people say we need a big man coach constantly...I would much rather we had an individual DEFENSE coach, and I think Rush would be my first and main pupil!
But, due to our personnel, I think from a strategic standpoint that we have to assume teams will be able to catch the ball on the wings with minimal difficulty. I would make acquiring another player who can deny wing passes well a high priority though in the future, as the ease of where the opponent initiates their play is a major factor in how easy it is to score for them.
B. PLAYING THE WING MAN ONCE HE HAS CAUGHT THE BALL....HOW DO YOU PLAY THIS COMMON AND CRUCIAL SITUATION?
I admit it, this is one of my favorite discussion points in basketball in general, and in the NBA in particular.
Your choices are to either play the man in an exaggerated way to FORCE HIM BASELINE (toward the corner), play him in an exaggerated way to FORCE HIM TO THE MIDDLE (toward the lane), PLAY HIM STRAIGHT (play directly in front of him, and react to what he does offensively), or to ADJUST WHAT YOU DO BASED ON THE OPPONENT.
Now, the common answer, as you no doubt are reading this nodding your head in the affirmative is to force him baseline. Indeed, as a high school coach who was trained in the ways of Coach Bob Knight, that is how I was taught and have taught others to play. "DON'T GET BEAT MIDDLE" and "KEEP THE BALL TO ONE SIDE" are 2 common phrases heard in practices all over the land. I would say that the vast majority of coaches play it that way at younger levels, and some do even at the pro level. By and large I think this is what the Pacers are trying to do too, but they don't do it well or consistently.
Some coaches don't emphasize forcing a player to any particular direction. They play it straight up, usually in a sagging non pressuring defensive posture. These are coaches who believe in the "pack line" style of defense I mentioned elsewhere. Play conservative, switch often against screens, "zone up", don't get beat, defend the 16'6 area and inward.....these are the beliefs of the "packline" guys. Some of the better teachers of this philosophy all descend from Wisconsin: Coach Dick Bennett, Coach Bo Ryan, Coach Mike Heineman, and others.
The Pacers have some, but not all, of these traits in their system. These coaches all emphasize sagging to the middle, and showing help early. But the Pacers don't switch much (which is correct in my view) nor do they willingly give up outside shots like these guys recommend to do. (although it looks like we do sometimes). These guys teach your defense to be more stationary, while the Pacers defense most of the time overreacts to drives, an exact opposite thing.
Some coaches believe you should make this decision of where to force the ball from the wing depending on your opponent, and his strengths and weaknesses. I think this is more rare than you think, as most coaches want to be loyal to their "system". For the most part I agree, although scouting well can give you some obvious tendencies. I think teams DO GET TOO MARRIED to their philosophy at times, cutting their nose off to spite their faces. For instance, if you are playing Detroit, assume Teyshaun Prince has the basketball on the wing. Prince only can go left, everyone knows this I believe by now. Yet, if your team has a defensive philosophy that says that you need to FORCE HIM LEFT based on where he is on the floor, I think you are asking for trouble.
This is one thing I believe we need to do better. Scout better, take advantage of the opponents weaknesses, and adjust our defensive plans slightly to take them into account.
But now, I want to talk about the concept of FORCING TEAMS TO THE MIDDLE INSTEAD OF THE BASELINE. This is almost never seen at the high school level, but does it make sense at the pro level to do this, since it seems so counter to what most of us have been taught?
I've come full circle in this personally. I think this is primarily EXACTLY what the Pacers should do on EVERY DRIVE SITUATION FROM THE WING AREAS. This would be a pretty dramatic difference for this coaching staff, but we have people in our organization who believe in this theory. In fact, he runs our team: President Larry Bird.
Bird's old Celtic teams forced teams toward the middle of the floor. In Red Auerbach's viewpoint, forcing players to the middle MEANT THE HELPERS WERE CLOSER, AND THEREFORE HAD TO MOVE LESS TO GET THERE!
Watch old Celtic tapes, and see if you don't see guys like Bird, Dennis Johnson, and Kevin McHale forcing the ball to the middle. It didn't always work, (nothing always works of course) just watch the old tape on NBA classic sometime of Magic Johnson hitting his famous hook shot in the finals over McHale. McHale actually turns after a second in order to make sure Magic drives to the middle, expecting help from his teammates! He didn't get enough obviously, but that was the Celtic philosophy, handed down from one generation to the next. And it wasn't just in that one particular play, that was the defensive philosophy of the Celtics for many many years.
By being closer in proximity to the driver, your help desnt have to move their feet as much, and your original defender gets help earlier before it is too late. This enables guys like Hibbert to be more effective, and it lets you play wings like Dunleavy so they don't get burned as often. It allows you from a help perspective to not have to help as far off of your man, thereby letting you recover more efficiently in theory.
I often wonder what Larry Bird is thinking when he watches us play defensively. My guess is that it is this difference he has in philosophy with Coach O'brien that galls him most of all. Go back and look at Indiana tapes from Bird and his coaching days, and tell you didn't see guys on the wings in those years forcing the ball to the middle....slow guys like Mullin, Reggie, Jackson, and Rose.
Forcing guys to drive towards the middle of the floor I think is the one defensive adjustment Bird himself would most like to implement or change about Jim O'Brien's coaching philosophy, and I bet they discuss it often. I bet it may even get mandated for next season if JOB stays in power....we will see if I am right.
III. DEFENDING THE SPLIT (THE POINT GUARD DRIVE)
This is another coaching decision to make and discuss. At most levels, you want your wings to be very cognizant of point guard drives, because you want them to help early and prevent the ball from getting into the paint. Defending a point guard drive is almost a death sentence to your defense, as we find out constantly in Indiana, as both TJ Ford and especially Jarrett Jack seem to get beaten like rented mules way too often.
There is no right answer, other than having your point guards just play defense better. But your choices are to have your wings primarily stay at home and continue to be in denial defense, letting your bigs handle the driver, or to have your wings "jump to the ball", and forcing a pass from the point guard driver to the now open wing player. If you do that, you have to practice "closing out" alot on open shooters by your wings, and you need really good athletes in order to get there.
O'Brien seems ot favor a third way, which is to have your wings "sink in" and help very early to try and prevent drives, forcing a pass back outside. But instead of teaching the wing to recover, he (it appears on film to me) to prefer his BIGS TO ROTATE OUTWARD, and his recovering wing to drop into help and try and guard the post. I think this is why you see Jeff Foster and Troy Murphy flailing our running to the perimeter in vain so much, and why he seems so reluctant to play Roy Hibbert, who may even be slower than those two guys.
This may be good on a chalkboard, but in practice it is just too complicated and difficult, in addition to us not even being close to having the personnel to make it work. I think this is why you hear comments about our guys "missing defensive rotations" and other such comments. This is ill advised defensive strategy, and it teaches unnatural movements that complicate the game too much.
Basketball is supposed to be simple, and JOB has complicated it way beyond the norm I believe, and did it in an unsound way. Since I believe Jim O'Brien to be a really really good basketball mind, I look forward to seeing his adjustments after another offseason of reflection about this subject. I think his solution was innovative and creative, but it hasn't worked, and I don't think it ever will.
IV. "DIGGING" FROM THE WING TO THE POST
This hasn't been a major problem in my view, but if the Pacers ever decide to play post defense differently (another future topic) we will have to discuss it. "Digging" means coming down to help on the low block, attempting to bother a posted up player with the basketball, while still maintaining an eye on the man you are responsible for. The Pacers don't due this much, and I think rightly so for the reason of personnel. Our slower wing guys have difficulty in recovery anyway, and it is easy to make a pass from the post right back to the man who fed it to you.
Again, my own coaching mentors favored this strategy, and at times I have taught it too.
If the Pacers decide to someday not fight/front the post as much (thereby eliminating the need for so much weakside help behind a posted up player) then we will have to discuss this again. I think our emphasis on fronting the low post has been somewhat effective in defending this area, but has left us weakened on the opposite side of the floor. We are realy bad at defending the skip pass, as again our weakside guys are often "flooding" the ball side area.
If we change our post defense, we will either need to "dig" from the wing or need to rotate a full double team man from the top and rotate around, like the typical NBA team does.
We have only one truly typical NBA post defender on our roster now who is both tall enough and strong enough to play behind a guy on the block (Hibbert), so I hope we can add a guy or two to that for next year via the draft. More on post defense in a later thread.
As you can see, there is a lot that goes into the thought process of how to play defense from the wing position.
I wouldn't be surprised if a creative idea is tried by Coach O'Brien fairly soon, which is to have his team play some 1-2-2 zone. Long term it isn't part of his core philosophy, but I bet he tries that before making the kind of fundamental changes in philosophy that he seems very reluctant to make at this time.
The next thread will cover the Pacers low post defensive philosophy, which was mentioned a little in this one.
I look forward to much good, hard core defensive discussion about our wing defense.
As always, the above is just my opinion.