Reversing Indiana's Learned Helplessness on Offense

The biggest thing to remember about preseason games are they are just structured practices that teams charge money to watch. There is nothing to be learned from the outcome. There are on occasion, however, a few takeaways. In Pacers first game, there were two that I saw: Paul George’s aggressiveness and George Hill’s steadiness.

Paul George missed more shots than he made, but the intriguing part was that he took a bunch. Last season as a rookie, he attempted 11.2 shots per 36 minutes. Last night, Paul took 13 shots in just 25 minutes (an 18.7-shot-per-36-minutes rate). Moreover, he got to the line 10 times, which is equivalent to 14.4 free throws per 36. Last season, Paul never got to the charity stripe, shooting only 2.9 freebies per 36 minutes. Even more damning, in total last year, the now-6’10″ wing shot more three-pointers (138) than free throws (101) last season. The only other two Pacers to display that level of passivity were Mike Dunleavy (with 254 threes vs. 125 free throws attempts) and James Posey (with a dumb-founding 212 threes vs. 15 free throws).

That other George, Mr. Hill (which is going to be confusing all year), shot like garbage (1-for-7) and only played 19 minutes off the bench. But there was just something about his presence on the court. I know I’m sounding like Joe Buck praising Derek Jeter’s intangibles here, but he was a nice steadying, cerebral influence while out there. One example was the hustle play he made under the hoop to retain a Pacers’ possession by throwing the ball off one of the Bulls’ player’s leg and out of bounds.

Another heady — and, to me, highly encouraging — move came on his lone bucket.

After an inbounds play late in the second quarter, Roy Hibbert had the ball and was retreating from the mid-post towards the perimeter during what was beginning to look like a broken possession. Then, Hill emerged out of nowhere under the hoop on the strong side and Roy hit him with a nice dump-down pass. Hill gathered and finished strong.

It wasn’t a play that will go down in Pacers’ lore, but it was the type of off-the-ball cut outside of the structured offense that good basketball players make. Last year, this team spent altogether too much time standing around during wasting possessions.

In this league, the defense generally knows what play you’re running. Basketball just isn’t that complex. There are only so many effective ways to exploit a defense when five players are playing against five other players, and — especially in a league in which you only have 24 seconds to put up a shot — you need to get make something happen quickly. Many times, that first option isn’t going to work. There of course should be a second and, perhaps, third option in the plans, but sometimes the best course is to just abandon the system and find a good shot by making a play.

If you’re Kobe Bryant, that might mean just holding the ball, staring down your defender and trying to beat him with an individual move as you jab step seven times. If you’re Dirk, that means diving to the top of the key, catching the ball, facing up and torture-chambering whoever is unfortunate enough to stand between you and two points.

But the Pacers don’t have anyone who can reliably succeed in that manner. (And they didn’t sign Jamal Crawford to help out in this respect.) So it becomes increasingly important that the entires team recognizes when the plan needs to be abandoned and a basketball play — not a called play — must be made. It’s nice when one guy can do it. It can be transformational when all five guys are looking to make something happen.

In such situations, guys like Brandon Rush tend to stand in the corner, hoping something good will come. But guys like George Hill cut to the hoop and gets a layup. That bucket is in and of itself helpful to winning — every point counts. The greater value of having guys like Hill on the team making plays like this consistently, however, is that it helps change the on-court culture.

There is no panic-striken look on people’s faces when a called play is thwarted. There is no “broken-play paralysis.” There is no hurried passes leading to a hot-potato situation. There increasingly, over time, becomes a new philosophy embedded in the offense. There becomes a responsibility to get a good shot even if things started off less than ideally.

A guy on the wing dribbled the ball off his foot and it took him 8 seconds to re-initiate any sort of offense? Tough. Get a good shot. A guy picked up his dribble in the corner and is being doubled so bad he can barely make a swing pass? Tough. Go get the ball and get a good shot. You got fouled while driving but the ref didn’t call it so you had to kick it out to the perimeter and reset the offense with only 6 seconds left on the shot clock? Life sucks — get a helmet. And then get a good shot.

Last season, no one in the offense appeared to feel responsible for whether or not the team got a good shot. Ever. There always seemed to be a built-in excuse for taking a rushed, off-balance jumper near the end of the shot clock. There always seemed to be a “well, what had happened was …” vibe in which it wasn’t “my fault” that possession was squandered. It just sorta, ya know, happened. Them the breaks. We tried though, coach. We really tried.

Do or do not. There is no try.

George Hill comes from a franchise where this never even had to be taught to him. He just absorbed it. Gregg Popovich, who is undoubtedly the best coach in the game now that Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan were gone, does not want to hear your excuses. Either do your damn job or come sit down next to me on the bench. Well, not actually next to me. Down at the other end of the bench. Cause I don’t want to even look at you until you learn to execute like a professional. If the offense doesn’t get a good shot, it is not everyone’s fault or the team’s fault or the coach’s fault; it’s your fault.

This Pacers roster has some individual offensive talent on it. Even without Hill and David West, that was the case. But the “offensive learned helplessness” of those on the team marred everything. George Hill brings a mentality that is the anti-thesis of helplessness under duress. He brings an expectation of responsibility.

That one broke play in the second quarter of a meaningless game doesn’t mean much. But what it may represent could. If it indeed represents evidence that adding professionals like Hill and West will promote a growing culture of responsibility from this offense then Indiana might very well be home to a professional team that can score effectively for the first time in years.

The success of the entire season will hinge on it.

Here’s some video evidence for those of you who are skeptical about how transformative off-the-ball movement can be for an offense. Cut to the hoop, kiddos. Good things happen.

Tags: George Hill Gregg Popovich Paul George San Antonio Spurs

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