My analysis of the the Pacers overall team defensive scheme continues today with a discussion of the details and nuances of proper "help side defense". We've already had great discussions on the first three in this series, which were "defending the point of attack", "defending the wing" and "defending the low post".
There is a huge amount of detail work that goes into playing proper man to man defense on the weakside, away from the ball. Because of the particular rules implemented by the NBA, a professional coach has even more to worry about that his counterparts at other levels, because an NBA coach has to deal with the innane rule that is "defensive 3 seconds".
Among the many things to talk about concerning help side defense I will try and analyze today are:
1. The proper positioning of your helpers along the imaginary "help line" in the middle of the floor.
2. Getting proper help "depth"
3. The fundamentals for communication and recognition defensively in a help position.
4. The ability to recover from a help position to "close out" properly on shooters on the perimeter as the ball moves.
5. Defending "flash cuts" made in front of a help side defender.
All these things will not only tie in together, but will also be affected by the decisions made in the overall team scheme about how to play the myriad of situations that occur in a game, so keep that in mind as we go along. With that said, lets tackle these 4 important points, and the particulars that go along with all of them.
I. GETTING IN THE PROPER HELP POSITION...WHERE SHOULD YOU BE IN RELATION TO YOUR MAN AND TO THE LOCATION OF THE BALL?
At all levels of basketball, players should be taught that there is an imaginary line thru the middle of the floor, running from basket to basket. Some coaches may refer to this line as the "meridian line", most coaches I know would call it the "help line". Try and picture this in your own mind as we go along.
Where coaches properly believe a help side defender should be in relation to his own man and to the ball has evolved some over the years, and it is still a topic that breeds some disagreement on how it is properly taught.
Some coaches teach their away from the ball side defenders to be directly ON THE HELP LINE. It is most commonly taught this way these days at the high school level.
Other, more old fashioned coaches make this a bit more complicated and complex. In the Coach Knight system of defense, (which many of you may have learned thru your own high school coaches), there was a difference in where you were supposed to be based upon where the ball was located, and how far away your own man was from the ball. Depending on those factors, you may be asked to be "one step BALL SIDE", or "one step MAN SIDE". The overiding theme was that "the closer your man was to the ball, the closer you should be to your man."
This philosophy I do think was correct in the 70's and early 80's at levels below the NBA. But, the three point shot changed all of that, as did the improved athleticism and skill level of players today. Now, I believe that teams who sag that much at levels below the NBA often get burned by spot up shooters and skip passes too ften to win consistently at this day and age. In fact, I think it was the unwillingness to change from the "one step ball side" help philosophy that caused Coach Knight's success to wane as his career got longer from a defensive standpoint.
NBA coaches have a further wrinkle to navigate, which is in my view the dumbest rule in sports : "Defensive three seconds". This simply means that your defenders below the foul line by rule CANNOT be on their true proper position along the help line.....they instead by rule have to be either exaggerated TOWARD THE BALL, or exaggerated AWAY FROM THE BALL (on the other side of the lane from the ball handler).
Since the can't be INSIDE THE LANE more than 3 seconds at a time, this makes footwork imperative for a helper, as he needs to be able to slide his feet back and forth in and out of the lane area. Most NBA teams have their players slide from the middle of the lane back to the weakside and back again, or in extreme cases just have their helper immediately double the ballhandler in order to take the ball out of his hands.
The Pacers though have chosen to have their players OVERHELP, to the STRONG SIDE, nearer to the ball. The theory behind doing it this way instead is that by showing such a strong tendency to help and such a strong help presence, that the ballhandler won't try and drive at all. If he indeed were an NBA coach, this is probably a tactic that followers of Coach Knight would go with.
This might work if players at the NBA level werent just so damn good and athletic and proficient at making jump shots. What is killing us I think is that we help too much too early, and we are completely vulnerable to quick ball reversals and weakside screen action. The ball changes sides against us, and we cannot recover well enough to contest shots. Teams kill us from the perimeter, particularly those with outside shooting big men.
So, in this little scenario defensively we've got some team defensive scheme major issues, in my opinion. Add that to poor athleticism, and you've got major defensive problems. It is hard to tell what is the biggest error here though...is it the lack of wing defenders that caused the staff to create this overhelping game plan? Or is it the slowness of our bigs athletically that caused the staff to believe they needed to be closer to the ball to ever be able to help to start with?
II. GETTING PROPER HELP "DEPTH" ALONG THE HELP LINE
Now, keep in mind from the "wing defense" thread that the Pacers are also trying to force a ballhandler to drive baseline, instead of funneling them toward the middle of the floor. This means that our helpers are being forced to not only moved further LATERALLY that most teams, but also LOWER ON THE FLOOR than most, meaning our helpers are asked to cover more ground than most systems. This is only a couple of feet further over, and a couple of feet further down, but that extra distance is a problem if you are a slower player anyway to begin with.....it can be the difference between a contested jump shot or a wide open one as the ball is moved from side to side against us.
The Pacers bigs especially are forced to cheat some here, often "sinking" further down near the rim than they should in order to be where the coaches want them to be against a wing player driving toward the low block. In other words, the Pacers help DEPTH is probably a bigger problem than how far OVER they are being asked to be.
Let me explain my theory on defensive depth.
Most coaches teach players to be in a help position, along the help line, IN A STRAIGHT LINE (I call this the sight line) WITH THEIR OWN MAN AND THE BALL. In fact, many coaches (including myself) want their help defenders to use "pointers" to identify the ball and their man. In other words, I want my helpers to be pointing a finger at both the ball and their own man while in a defensive stance position, kind of like "six shooters" in the old wild west. I still believe in the pointers, and believe it is a great communicative tool for your teammates to be sure you know where the ball and your man both are.
BUT THERE HAS BEEN AN EVOLUTION IN MY OPINION ON DEPTH OF HELP, AND I TOTALLY HAVE BOUGHT IN PERSONALLY. This may seem like a small and minute point, and maybe among anybody but basketball purists and junkies, it is....but that is what I am and that's what many of you are, so let me explain what I now believe: I now teach my helpers to be ONE STEP ABOVE THE "SIGHT LINE" , instead of right along side it. Why you ask?
Doing it this way enables you to not have to do what is called "helping upward" which is to come from a low position on the floor to a higher one up the lane. This almost always leads to a drive/dish/dunk scenario, so we want to avoid helping upward at all costs. By already BEING UP, we make that happen, instead forcing the ballhandler to have to pull up earlier for a much harder pull up jumper attempt, or to be able to sink back down to defend our own man if need be.. Being in this "ONE STEP ABOVE THE SIGHT LINE" position also helps us defend against the "flash cut", which I will discuss further down the page.
To summarize this exact "depth" discussion, the Pacers in my judgment fall way too deep near the rim, forcing them to have to cover way too much ground. Our Pacers sink deeper than most teams due to the fact that our wings channel drivers that way, which is in my opinion the exact wrong thing to be doing. Our system isn't covering up weaknesses defensively, it is in fact creating new ones!
My solution is as radical in some ways as Jim O'Briens extra sinking though. Helping above the "sight line" is a fairly new idea in the evolution of basketball, and it is designed to be aggressive, proactive, and to help prevent flash cuts and ball reversals. The leading practioners that I know of doing this at the college level are coaches Chris Lowery of Southern Illinois, and Matt Painter of Purdue. In fact, it was a Purdue staffer a few years ago who introduced me to this defensive concept. By the way, Purdue leads the nation in defensive field goal pct. defense.
III. DEFENSIVE COMMUNICATION FUNDAMENTALS
Ahhh...one of my favorite topics, and fundamentals to teach and explain!
You know, the ability to communicate defensively with your teammates is as much a skill as being able to move your feet, or block shots, or jump. It is in the area of communication that the foundation of a team defense is built.
You cannot tell on television, or even in the arena unless you are very closeby, how much true communication really goes on between teammates during games. I do know that talking defensively is a skill that must be constantly taught in every drill you do from training camp on, even if it isnt a particular defensive drill. One of the fascinating things about coaching kids I think is that while teachers have to constantly tell kids to be quiet all day during school, that when you want them to talk, they often won't!
I did believe that I detected thru last years draft threads of watching film of Georgetown that in my opinion Roy Hibbert was an excellent communicator along the backside of their defense. In fact, I thought it was one of Hibbert's big strengths. I hope and believe that in time he will be excellent at doing this at the professional level, once he gains more familiarity with what is occuring around him. I also believe that the Pacers ask their bigs to move too much, whch hinders the ability of a defensive "captain" from the interior being able to talk during a possession.
I mentioned previously the fundamental of "pointers" while in help side position. That is a great fundamental and teaching tool that I rarely see at the professional level, but I wish it were more prevalent. If I were on the Pacers staff, I would demand our players do that in order to help eliminate confusion on our rotations. While it may be limited in effectiveness, ever little improvement would help.
All great defensive teams communicate greatly, and it is something our Pacers have to be able to do better than I think they are doing now. Constant defensive chatter shows alertness, awareness, energy, intelligence, and desire, and it something that can show in the personality of your team. It is in an area of the floor that you really need leadership from your wings and your bigs, as your point guard often has his back to his teammates defensively.
For those of you who believe that a player such as Mike Dunleavy is a great "team defender" (which is often said on here), look for solid evidence in the next few games to see if you think you are right. I especially recommend you watch how poor he is (in my opinion) of communicating when he is being screened, or when he is in help position. My impression is that I think you will find that he is one of the quietest players in the league in this regard. Granted, I haven't focused in on Dunleavy as an individual yet this season from a defensive perspective, but see if I am right in thinking he has this one big particular weakness of being too quiet and uncommunicative defensively.
IV. CLOSING OUT ON SHOOTERS
This is another skill the Pacers struggle at, and it is going to be hard to solve because there are multiple reasons why: They rotate too far in help situations meaning they have additional ground to cover, they mostly lack athleticism, and they lack an awareness of who is supposed to rotate to whom in our complex system. All these problems just exascerbate themselves in a combination.
Teams can practice the athleticism part and awareness part. One on one or two on two closeout is a pretty common drill or group of drills taught at all levels of the game. One thing still evolving at the NBA level I think is to try and determine how far to try and "closeout" on someone....in other words, do you try to close out under control, at the expense of major giving up a jump shot attempt to prevent a shot fake and drive, or do you just fly at a player in order to make him at least dribble the ball, even though you'll be leaving him wide open after a shot fake?
The Pacers have a player in Troy Murphy that teams routinely just fly at, because they think if they can make him move off his 3 point shot he may get out of rhythm and miss.
One of the hardest things to do athletically in basketball is the abilty to close out "short and low", stop in front of a shooter in the initial stage of rising up for a jump shot, and THEN BEING ABLE TO RISE UP WITH HIM TO CONTEST THE SHOT. With effort, some players can elevate after closing out, but it takes them just a second to gather themselves to leap, meaning that they don't really bother the shot. This is such a gigantically effective talent to have that I love scouting for it and trying to develop it.
Derrick McKey had it along with great anticipation and length, which is why he was so awesome as an individual defender. I need some further study, but I believe that the single best player in basketball right now in doing this consistently is Trevor Ariza of the Lakers, which is why I want us to sign him this summer. Danny Granger can do it to but not if he has had to move too much distance....but in the lane area after his man just takes one or maybe two dribbles, he can retain his balance and lift quickly with an arm up too.
It takes alot of balance and strength in the balls of your feet to be able to do that, and it is a great skill to have as a defender. Most players close out and are left on the ground as the shooter rises over them uncontested, or fly at them so out of control that they can't even stop.
V. DEFENDING THE FLASH CUT INSIDE THE LANE AT THE HIGH POST
This may drive me more nuts watching a Pacers game than anything else.
Our inability to defend a flash cut is part scheme, part lack of talent, part lack of communication, part lack of effort.
Scheme wise, I have already established our helpers are slightly too low on the floor, sunk in toward the rim too far by about two steps, where I have said we should be one step exaggerated the other direction.
Sinking this far is to supposedly help stop penetration off the dribble, but what it mostly does is let is get penetrated even worse, via the pass to the lane or high post!
More than anything, this is how teams can kill us. Move the ball to a side, cause our defense to overreact and overshift, flash a guy high or mid post and feed him the ball, and let him either score (Amare Stodamire, Dwight Howard, and others) or reverse the ball to open shooters on the opposite side. This is how well organized teams like Orlando, San Antonio, Denver, or Utah make us look silly.
In defensive basketball, a penetrating pass is about the most damaging thing that can happen to you in the halfcourt. In my view, you have to do almost anything you can to prevent it from happening. I'm sure Jim O'Brien feels that way too, but his own beliefs are causing him trouble here, and I don't think he has emphasized stopping it enough.
In basketball, there is a drill common to most of you called "4 on 4 shell drill" where you work on help side defense and shifting. Allowing a high post flash cut to be successful is an absolute no-no in this drill, and in how most coaches put together their team defense.
The lack of talent comes in here, due to our lack of athelticism in being able to quickly move in short slides into a denial position. I believe Roy Hibbert COULD defend the flash cut if he was in the proper position, and I know for a fact that Jeff Foster can.....but Rasho Nesterovic and Troy Murphy have no chance no matter where you put them, especially if they are out of position anyway.
In fact, Ill go ahead and tell you that this is Troy Murphy's single biggest defensive weakness among many. He may be the worst in the league at defending and denying a pass to a flashing player right in front of him. As he is often out of position anyway in the JOB scheme, he actually ends up accidentally in the RIGHT position to be able to defend this cut. Yet still he just passively stands there, his man catches it in front of him, and usually drives right past him to score or dish to a wide open scorer. Our bigs try to defend their men too often only after they have caught the ball on them, but they need to try to prevent their man from getting the ball in the first place in this high post area! I can't tell you how many times a game I scream at Murphy sometimes for letting flashers go in front of him.
What SHOULD happen with a good team is this: the offense starts to send a "flasher", so our backline defenders starts yelling this out so his teammates are aware. The player responsible for the "flasher" should then deny him hard on the low side, physically meeting him inside the lane area, slowing him down and playing tough and physical, slowing the timing of the cut if nothing else. The coach then applauds from the sideline.
What DOES happen with our team is this: the offense sends a flasher, and no one says a word. The player responsible sees his man flashing but is too far away and too slow to react to prevent him from getting the ball. It becomes an easy pass to make and to catch. Our slow arriving defense finally gets there, but is beaten by a superior offensive player for an easy jumper, a shot fake drive and dunk, or most often a skip pass to the opposite side for a wide open three point shot or uncontested jumper. Our coach then rubs his jaw and squints, or stares passively while drinking bottled watter on one knee.
So, where are we at?
You know can see my beliefs that the Pacers defensive issues are deep, real, and interrrelated. This isn't going to be able to fixed over night, but maybe you can see some tweaks we could make that would make things better perhaps.
Lastly, I want to say that I do not want this to turn into one big Jim O'Brien bash fest. I may be criticizing his defensive schemes pretty harshly, but his offensive innovations have been very effective, some of our players are showing drastic improvements as individuals, and our team plays harder and with more purpose than most. Someday I may write a thread praising how we are playing offense even.....but these threads are deisgned to closely examine our teams porous defense, and try to figure out the root causes and cures.
Maybe we can even see some slight adjustments the staff will make when they have a breather here in February, and maybe these "defense examination" threads can identify what some of the little adjustments might become.
Part 5 of this series will involve defending the screen/roll, which I will try and post sometime late next week.
Comments and good discussions are hopefully to come.
As always, the above was just my opinion.