David West’s game is so simple. When trying to score, he just tries to advance straight ahead into as much ground as the defender will appease. Then, when the bulldozing proves to be more trouble than it offers reward, he shoots the ball.
This year, a similar approach has emerged with his outlet passing.
Knowing how dangerous Lance Stephenson and Paul George can be on the break, he now also tries to advance the entire offense. Rarely does he hold the ball long after grabbing an errant shot from the opponent. He instead secures the possession quickly with his impeccable hands, scans the back court instantaneously and gets the ball to whoever is furthest ahead in open space.
The Pacers are by no means a fast-break team. But they do like to run when they can.
They have to, really.
The team’s half-court offense has improved — quantitively and qualitatively — since its early-season struggles, but long scoring droughts are still commonplace. If the execution falls off just a little bit or players happen to miss a few makable shots, the offensive efficiency can fall off a cliff. Getting easy points in transition from good finishers is the easiest solution.
West seems to know that, and has found a way to inject a little life into the attack.
It’s just one of the many ways that he has subtly molded this team into an elite squad since his arrival. Now, Stephenson and George get up the court quickly whenever they see a rebound heading into West’s large mitts. He has conditioned them into creeping an extra ten feet up the court after a miss — and at times just completely leaking out.
According to MySynergySports.com, the Pacers have made 420 field goals this season in transition, where they average 1.14 points per possession. Compared to half-court sets, this is a windfall. On plays that end in post-ups and spot-ups they score just 0.87 and 0.94 points per possession, respectively. When a possession ends with an isolation play, it gets really gross: 0.68.
This isn’t some Indiana phenomenon. Almost all teams score very well in transition. The reasons are obvious: the numbers’ advantage, NBA athletes are uber talented in space, it’s hard to guard players racing to the rim at full speed.
While the video below highlights just how often West has sparked a break that led directly to points, this also isn’t all because of his outlet passing. Another key reason: Stephenson, George and George Hill have all become keen at getting the ball and running out.
George is a remarkable rebounder, and he sometimes steals lightly contested boards from other teammates just so he can grab the rock and burst forward. It’s like he figures he can save a precious few seconds if he cuts out the middleman who has to relay the ball to a ball-handler. He does it well, wasting no time dancing around after he gets the ball. He even usually readies himself to take off dribbling by jumping at the proper angle and turning up court in the air. It is a small detail, but it’s similar to coming of a high screen already squared up to shoot. If you start the positioning work before you even secure the ball, your momentum is optimal to start the next task. This in turn builds muscle memory, and after a while it just becomes how you play.
Stephenson does the same thing. It almost looks like he hits the nitro button as he is descending from his jump to get the defensive board. I swear I’ve seen his legs start spinning mid-air, Road Runner style, before he hits the ground running.
Another reason the Pacers have become lethal while running selectively is because all three of Hill, George and Stephenson are adept at bringing the ball up. It really makes no difference who has it. So as soon as it looks obvious that Indiana is about to get the possession, one of them inevitably tries to get up the court. It has lead to a ton of uncontested layups on the other end.
Still, it has been evident that West’s tendency to aggressively feed them the ball up court has encouraged the wings to incorporate this mentality into their approach no matter who gets the board. It’s almost the inverse of the axiom that guards need to reward bigs who run the court; West has rewarded his guards for leaking out enough times that it has just become instinctual behavior for all the starting wings.
And one of the key reasons this team has weathered the loss of Danny Granger so well is because it has learned to turne its defense into more of an point-producing weapon. That may sound contradictory, but it isn’t.
Now, instead of always forcing the other team to miss and then walking it up just to run a stagnant set, Indiana capitalizes on these misses. It seizes the opportunity to turn stops into points.
This is key because the Pacers don’t force many turnovers. They rank 26th in the NBA in defensive turnover rate (the percentage of possessions on which they force a turnover). But they are — by a staggering degree — the best defense in the league when it comes to making the other team miss. (Their .453 eFG% allowed is way better than the number-two Thunder’s .469 and the league-average .496.)
So to get the easy points that other teams (like the Heat, Grizzlies, Clippers) get by grabbing live-ball turnovers and going the other way, the Pacers need to turn some misses into points.
I asked West about his outlet passing after the Pacers lost to the Knicks in their third-to-last regular season game. He didn’t address the question directly in depth, instead mainly expressing his frustration that the Pacers seemed to forget their identity in the game, but part of that came from the lack of running. He was disappointed that they didn’t get into transition more. “We didn’t take advantage of enough opportunities to get up the floor to get some easy strikes,” said West.
Easy strikes: It might be the most David West phrase there is. Casual punishment is what he delivers all game long.
But easy strike is also an apt term for the full-court, frozen-rope inbounds pass he delivered to Gerald Green to close the third quarter in Indiana’s Game 2 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
With just 1.2 seconds left in the period and fresh off a made bucket by Atlanta, West looked off his nearby teammates, instead motioning for somebody to run a fly route. Green sprung into action and beat every Hawk down the court. West, standing directly beneath the basket — a place where, starting in the third grade, every coach tells you not to stand when inbounding since you’ll probably hit the backboard — threw a submarine rocket over the top. It was an easy catch for the purported human being (but actual cyborg) and an even easier finish.
Green did what he does best, Atlanta fell behind by another two points, and Hawks’ coach Larry Drew probably began to plot the murder of every player on his team.
Of course, this play is lightning in a bottle. There is no repeatability in trying to score off a dunk in one second after inbounding from under your own basket. This happens once, twice in a career — if you’re lucky.
But West’s touchdown pass to Green didn’t shock me when it happened. It was just an ideal culmination of the concerted effort West has made for months to fire the ball up the court. He has been doing it more and more since the All-Star break, and it might be no coincidence that this is right when the Pacers offense started to dial in.
See, Stephenson and George are both 22-year-olds. When the half-court sets fall off the rails, they can become infested by the recent failings. They start to over-think things. George constantly tells himself that the past is over and that all that matters is the next play. But that is a hard thing to do psychologically. Everyone gets caught up in the moment. And when you really need a basket, you often start pressing, which only makes it harder to get one. Anyone who has ever had a rough day on the golf course — meaning anyone who has every played golf — should understand.
On the other hand, when these two youngsters are able to get out in transition and make plays in space, they don’t have to tell themselves anything. They don’t even have to think anything. They just go blank. They just do.
And oh how do they do.
So by getting them the ball in a place where their brains shut off and their instincts take over, David West is making his teammates better. By leading them with passes into open space, he is both literally and figuratively putting his teammates in a position to succeed.
He is leading by leading.