The decision by the Indiana Pacers to let go of Nate McMillan was met with its fair share of criticism. McMillan had revived the franchise sputtering at the end of Frank Vogel's tenure, bridged the gap to the post-Paul George era without missing the playoffs and was a reliable voice and presence in their locker room. In the midst of the social justice movement taking centerstage on a political level, replacing a successful black head coach would always be met with some skepticism.
Despite the track record of success for McMillan, his offenses were always ill-fitting. He ran everything through the elbows, jammed two big men on the floor at a time and designed an offense dead-last in 3-point attempts a season ago. That the Pacers still went 45-28, without Victor Oladipo for much of the year and despite their dearth of mid-range attempts, speaks positively of both McMillan's defensive focus and the overall talent on this club.
To replace McMillan, the Pacers turned to Nate Bjorkgren, a lauded tactician who spent time around the best offensive minds, such as Nick Nurse. His championship pedigree is impressive, though his mission from Day One was clear: modernize this offense and embrace the deep ball.
Bjorkgren hasn't coached a regular season game yet, but the paradigm shift is already underway. As an X's and O's scout, heavy attention needs to be paid to that aspect of game preparation early in a coach's tenure. While players are always what leads to wins and losses, the early-season games show the progressive unraveling of the playbook, and nearly every staff starts with the tenets that are most important. By diving into Bjorkgren's playbook now, we can glean the principles, teaching points and emphases he likely holds most dear.
Bjorkgren's first major emphasis has been on the abundance of early offensive patterns dictating what they do. Very rarely do they walk it up and enter into an elbow-based set, ramming dribble handoffs from there to a corner. Instead, the floor is spread, with Domantas Sabonis and TJ Warren at the 4 and 5 stopping outside the 3-point line. The rim is wide open.
Most prevalent of their early offense sets thus far has been the Double Drag series, where two ball screens are set by Sabonis and Warren in staggered fashion. The idea is to rub defenders off Malcolm Brogdon or Victor Oladipo, where they can raise into a shot or reject screens to have a clear path at the rim.
As a current wrinkle, Bjorkgren is emphasizing the screeners not rolling or popping, but setting more screens once the ball handler clears them. The set turns into a wheel of sorts, a rotating battering ram of staggers for shooters and other guards to jolt off:
Myles Turner only played in one preseason game; we still don't have a clear answer for how much he and Sabonis will share the floor. In the moments they do, this is a great set to inculcate both: they can really leverage their size as screeners to get everyone else open while keeping the rim unoccupied.
If a ball screen isn't the desired entry into getting staggers, the Pacers can run into an Away set, a simple stagger with the same reads. It's been an area Doug McDermott has made a killing on in the past, and was particularly potent coming from the left offensive corner to the middle last year. It's nice to see Bjorkgren keep this concept in, and cater some of the playcalling to his specialty players like Dougie McBuckets.
Both sets are shooter-oriented and predicated on utilizing the bigs as screeners-only. Without much argument, the team's best player right now is Domantas Sabonis, coming off a terrific preseason putting up 20 points and 11 rebounds in only 26 minutes a night. Utilizing early offensive threats where Sabonis is only a screener doesn't do much to play through the team's top threat.
Enter the Delay stuff, the 5-out offense pretty much every team runs these days. Hit the trailing 5-man atop the key and let open reads ensue: backdoors, handoffs, hit-and-ballscreens, double flares, pure chaos.
Sabonis averaged 5 assists a game last year; he can definitely facilitate and make great reads in these scenarios. More importantly, the plethora of cuts and movement around him is perfect to thwart teams that pressure or switch. Delay is effective when run at pace, which is something the aptly-named Pacers have emphasized:
The meat-and-potatoes of their preseason attack came from these three formations: staggers, double ball screens and whirling cuts and handoffs around Sabonis. Bjorkgren will continue to add wrinkles and make the playbook more complex, but that takes time -- especially with only two months between end of last season and the start of this one.
For now, the pieces fit well within this system. If they go big, they can use double drags with Turner and Sabonis to spring guys open. If the go smaller, more Delay and ball actions are on the docket. They're simple while accomplishing the main task: open the lane for drives.
Speaking of Sabonis and the open lane, Bjorkgren has really tweaked how to put his big man in positions to score. It's come with the elimination of the post-up, something that, if you watched Sabonis play the last couple years, you'd never of thought would go hand-in-hand with him being at his best.
Last year, Indiana was a middle-of-the-road post-up team. They were 16th in frequency, and really didn't pound it inside as a part of their offense. But Sabonis was 12th in post-up frequency among all NBA players. It's been a staple of who he is, whether on designed post entries or him backing down his man after fake handoffs.
During the preseason, the entire Pacers team took three shots out of post-ups.
It's zapped, gone into thin air and removed from the playbook. In its place will be more threes and rim attacks, though that does little to clarify how Sabonis will be put in a position to succeed. What Bjorkgren is banking on is a development of Sabonis in the mold of Pascal Siakam: mismatch driver. Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows wrote a great piece on a pitch to the trailing Sabonis in semi-transition that mirrors much of what Siakam got in Toronto:
An important part of any playbook is teaching guys what to do when the play breaks down. What, philosophically, will the coach want from his team late-clock, and how do they buy into their roles?
Thus far, it seems simple: spread ball screen.
Sabonis will find the ball and set a pick, hoping the shooting and space around them leverage the big man up for a finish. He's a strong short roll playmaker, and pretty much everybody is a league-average shooter at worst around him. It's easy money... at least in theory. The Pacers are somehow 0-19 on late-clock field goal attempts in the preseason -- a baffling combination of bad luck and poor execution.
The Pacers shouldn't shy away from this strategy just yet. When playing through ball screens and handoffs, Sabonis is still really strong. It's a three-game sample and there's tons of time to layer the playbook more late-clock. But in the glimpses of spread pick-and-roll elsewhere (particularly from their sideline inbound actions), the spacing of the floor is beautiful.
From an aesthetic standpoint, walking into ball screens has never been seen as beautiful basketball. It's also not a recipe for success for the Pacers. Brogdon and Oladipo aren't elite ball screen creators; they're best-served using movement and leveraging each other to get into a quickly-occurring screen.
Bjorkgren has a set for that, leaning on an Open pick-and-roll with handoffs and a quick side-to-side before a middle ball screen. The eventual PNR handler starts in a corner, whizzing around off a down screen and a handoff before running his man into Sabonis.
Variety is the spice of life, so running too many ball screens doesn't take enough advantage of the strong shooters the Pacers possess. They've run some good off-ball action thus far, even though it's led to some heinous results and poor misses. Bjorkgren has been dialing up some baseline movement, similar to Floppy, for a single pin close to the baseline. It's decoyed with a little false movement through the lane from a cutter but has a solid design to it.
Beyond that, Pacers fans might recognize one familiar action: Horns Flex. When they do add more wrinkles to their playbook, expect them to come from a Horns formation, where a multitude of options exist and are easily-disguised. Right now, the basic one has been Flex, where the point guard (usually Brogdon) sets a Flex screen, the reverses course and sprints into a handoff. It's a play as old as time, but develops some movement as opposed to those stationary ball screen sets all day long:
Overall, Bjorkgren's playbook isn't overly complex, doesn't include much that's flashy and won't reinvent the wheel. In Indianapolis, it does feel like a breath of fresh air. The emphasis on the 3-point line is evident in not just their shooting emphasis but in how the playbook leverages 5-out spacing and stagger screens. There are ways to easily balance Oladipo and Brogdon as co-creators in the backcourt. As the Horns playbook deepens, guys like TJ Warren (great in isolations off misdirection) and Jeremy Lamb (smooth off handoffs) will have sets tailored for them to be in positions of success.
Most notably, though, is the absence of post-ups and the maneuvering of Sabonis to a true 5-out big man. The Pacers can thread the needle and buy themselves time to solve the Sabonis-Turner riddle up front without sacrificing spacing and modernity in the process. It may only be the basics right now, but Bjorkgren's playbook is shaping up to be just what the doctor ordered.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).