In Defense of Frank Vogel


This is Brett Koremenos’ first contribution to 8p9s. He writes for Grantland and Hoopspeak, and is a skill development coach at Empower Basketball. Follow him on Twitter @BKoremenos if you want to become smarter about basketball.

While there are countless plays that helped decide Game 1, the debate will surround Frank Vogel’s decision to leave Roy Hibbert out on the last play of overtime, a choice that was second-guessed almost right as game-winning layup by LeBron James cleared the net.

Most of the criticism was based off a simple knee-jerk reaction from the result of the play — a James finish at the rim without Hibbert, the Pacers defensive anchor and paint-protector, anywhere to be found on the floor. Had Hibbert been on the court, or so the theory goes, he could have harassed James into altering his shot to the point of a miss, thus allowing Indiana to escape with a crucial Game 1 victory.

The reality of the situation is that not only would Hibbert’s presence be unlikely to change anything, it would have probably made Miami’s job of getting a clean look for a game-winning shot far easier. In order not to repeat myself in two different places, here is what I wrote on Grantland about how time, score and situation dictate strategy in the waning moments of close games.

With 2.2 seconds on the clock and Miami inbounding on the side, Hibbert’s value as a rim-protector was virtually useless. Nearly every time in that situation, the opponent’s play will call for some type of quick catch-and-shoot as any type of somewhat competent defense will deny the opportunity for a drive, and the scant time left on the clock makes any pass — other than the initial one from the inbounder — a dicey proposition.

Any good coach, which Vogel is, is going to realize that the opposing team is very likely to run several off-the-ball screening combinations before the ball is even inbounded. The best way to counter that from a defensive perspective is to switch everything, because switching defenses are typically only bested by teams isolating against mismatches or slipping their screens. There wasn’t enough time for Miami to do the former, and the latter can be stopped with a potent combination of execution and communication.

Now, with that in mind, let’s take a look at Miami’s final possession. We’ll break down exactly what actually did happen, while also projecting the challenges Indiana would have faced should Hibbert  have been on the floor.

Pic1

Here is the initial positioning before the play begins.

As the ball is being taken out on the side, David West (who plays a key role in the outcome) is guarding the inbounder, Shane Battier. Paul George is on James, Tyler Hansbrough covers Chris Bosh, Sam Young guards Ray Allen, and George Hill is checking Norris Cole. (Notice that Dwyane Wade, like Hibbert, isn’t on the court because he fouled out.)

Pic2

Allen starts everything off by moving to set a backscreen on Bosh to trigger a lob. Because Vogel has players on the floor that can easily switch everything, Hansbrough and Young thwart an action that would typically be quite difficult to defend. Had Hibbert been in the game, he would have had one of two choices: switch onto Allen or navigate a backscreen (remember that Roy is not the most nimble dude around) with little to no help from Young, who presumably would be very worried about the sweet-shooting Allen releasing from the screen and getting a wide-open shot.

This is exactly why Hibbert wasn’t in the game.

Erik Spoelstra knew that Hibbert would have a hard time getting through screens so he drew up a play with a first option that involved both his best shooter (Allen) screening for the player he presumed would be guarded by Hibbert (Bosh).

Pic3

After setting the screen, Allen loops around James toward the left corner as Bosh floats into the right short corner. Take note of West’s positioning on Battier. Instead of trying to make it incredibly difficult for Battier to target James, West is shading toward the cutting Allen, taking away a situation that not only has a much lower probability for producing a clean look, but allows for an infinitely easier entry pass into James.

This is also the point where the “Hibbert should be on the floor” group should remember that a scenario involving him switching onto Allen has him trailing Ray around the James brush screen at the elbow or forcing yet another switch (considerably upping the chances of a mistake) that would put Hibbert on James.

Pic4

The real problem on the play comes when the ball finds its way to James on the left elbow. George, an excellent defender in the midst of a rather pedestrian game, makes a colossal mistake. (I love George’s game as much as the next blogger, but a huge shot and clutch free throws masked a subpar performance overall.)

In an ideal setting, George would contest the James catch with a cushion and shift his feet to force James to drive right, toward the right short corner,  the more-crowded side of the floor. Such an approach would lessen LeBron’s chances of getting to the rim without running into a stack of bodies. What happened instead is what has played on highlights since the conclusion of last night’s game: George hugged up on James’ space, gave up a direct line drive to the rim, and James took it to convert a game-winning layup.

Those direct line drives are much more difficult on a backline player because they are both unexpected and happen much quicker than the rim attacks intentionally funnelled to someone like Hibbert throughout the flow of a game. So even if Hibbert was in Young’s spot — and there are few reasons listed above that suggest that he wouldn’t be, one of which being that Bosh had already won the game with a lob dunk — it’s unlikely he could have recovered quickly enough from the opposite lane-line to do anything but foul James. Given the distance and reaction time of the two players racing to the rim, that result likely would have been the best-case scenario and one that still would have given Miami a great chance to tie or win the game at the line.

The breakdowns on this play had nothing to do with who was on the floor, but how those players carried out their orders. Had West shaded toward James or had George avoided a fatal positioning gaffe on LeBron’s catch, the Pacers could have emerged with a win or at least forced Miami to beat them with a heavily contested jumper, something would completely eliminate the notion that this was a poor coaching decision.

By putting in a lineup that could reasonably switch anything that came its way, Vogel made the right call in the waning moments of Game 1. That’s all you can ask of a coach.

The Pacers should just hope that Vogel continues to do so for the rest of the series.

Tags: 2013 Playoffs Pacers Vs. Heat

  • Avi Friedman

    I understand what you’re saying but can’t you just put Hibbert in and have him to start off covering the guy under the basket? Then if the Heat still run the back screen he can cover Bosh rolling to the basket.

    Or in the case that they might try putting Bosh in position to shoot some mid range shot, Bosh will have to start on the strong side. Then Hibbert can just stay on him long enough for them to inbound when he can leave Bosh to defend the paint and there’s hardly (if any) enough time for LeBron to pass it to Bosh. Bosh would end up tossing up a quick shot, which even if wide open, I’d take any day over LeBron driving to the basket.

    If Bosh somehow ends up on the weak-side like he did in the actual play then Roy can completely disregard him because even LeBron can’t force a pass to him with enough time to get a good shot off.

    Just having Hibbert in the game would probably result in a LeBron fade away because LeBron wouldn’t want to drive against the best rim protector in the NBA.

    In any case LeBron is so good at driving to the basket that I’d take a semi-open perimeter shot over any LeBron drive to the basket (even contested, he’s that good). PG screwed up this play pretty big time, but he’s been so used to having someone behind him all year so Roy’s gotta be in the game.

    Also Vogel has been preaching playing their style of play as in BIG and not putting in a small lineup all year. You gotta treat that like any other possession where you wouldn’t have a small ball lineup in…Love Vogel, he’s done wonders for this team but this was definitely a mistake. (IMO)

  • Realist

    Overall I am unsure about all this, but I can’t see why you shouldn’t just play your best guys. Why is the final two possessions so different to the rest of the game?

  • http://nikelebron.net/ Greg Huber

    Awesome breakdown! Now it really makes sense :) Thanks!

    • wesmont

      Great,great analysis.Educational,so much better than the tv blowhards just yakking nonsense.I had to read it a couple of times,but I understand the game better for having done so.

  • ZeRaul

    So, basically we lost the game because we played prevent defense in the last snap.

    • Richard Kim

      Yup except George ball hawked while playing prevent defense which is how you end up with a disaster like Game 1. He did some wonderful things but what was he thinking. . .

  • R. Howard

    Obviously you can defend any play at any time but Vogel screwed up by not having his best players on the court. He even said so after the game, so this explanation really doesn’t cut it. http://www.celticslife.com/2013/05/frank-vogel-i-would-say-well-probably.html

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  • NLP

    I would have big Roy in there and take my chances but I’m glad someone pointed out West’s role in letting this happen. Tyler was like glue to Ray if West shifts around and it forces James to get the ball out past the 3 point line then Paul would be in a better position and even if things played out the same James wouldn’t been able to get right to the rim had he been forced to catch the ball several more feed out rather than already inside the arc.

    You can’t predict an OT game but I wish Frank let Tyler go a while into the 4th when he was playing good with West on the bench with foul trouble. Goes back to David to start the 4th forced him to play all 12 of the 4th then with OT made it 17 straight and he looked gassed shooting 1-of-4 from the field and missed 4 of 6 FT down the stretch of the game. So that extended burn and the extra effort he gave to carry us early may have let to him making a mistake he wouldn’t normally make.

  • pooshoodog

    With DW out of the game it was beyond obvious that the inbounds pass was going to LeBron. Ice cold Ray Allen clearly played the role of decoy. (No way would Ray be trusted to chuck bricks in this situation.) The Heat smartly delayed James’ move to the ball, but this still should have been the clear intention of the play. James should have immediately been sandwiched with two defenders even if it meant leaving a perimeter shooter free. Does anyone really believe that ball would go to a wide open Norris Cole even if Battier had no clear pass to LeBron? Hibbert’s presence would have guarded against an alley-oop to the rim and given defenders the option to double team James. Bad strategy, worse rationalization.

  • pooshoodog

    BTW, distressing to see coaches substituting entirely different offensive and defensive units with every play in the final minute. This isn’t football. The last two minutes of this game took about 20 minutes of real time. There should be new rules to curtail this noxious practice.

  • Richard Kim

    Interestingly after the game Vogel said in postgame interviews that he rarely switches down in these situations and basically admitted that (i) if he could do it over he would have left Roy in and (ii) if he has to do it again, he would leave Roy in. So apparently this Brett guy is so sure Vogel made the right move that what Vogel thinks about the subject is irrelevant. This Brett guy certainly has a lot of confidence in his opinions. He is like a defense lawyer who falls in love with his arguments and insists his client must be innocent notwithstanding that his client tells him that he thinks he might have done it.

    2.2 seconds left in overtime, young team in the conference finals on the opponent’s floor. Playing the best executing team in the league with the best player in the world and you choose the scheme that is riskier unless you have really excellent execution, when the exact same scheme resulted in a failure of execution and a LeBron layup minutes earlier in real time? Vogel outsmarted himself and asked too much of his players when he didn’t really have to, and he knows it, and he won’t do it next time. Of course, I guess to Brett that makes Vogel a bad coach.

    • MaySenseBa

      Its like a lawyer going on and on about how innocent his client is when the client held a press conference in the other room confessing to the crime.

  • MaySenseBa

    All the backlash vs. Frank would not be there if CB made a jump shot from 15 feet after a Lebron pass. Pacers nation and all the fans would have lived with that.

    What we can’t live with is an uncontested lay up with 2.2 seconds remaining. When in fact the play before, Heat already previewed what they will do, LBJ to the basket…sometimes it pays to read and predict what the opponent will do, but sometimes, if you see them already do it and not prevent them from doing it again, that’s just dumb.

    • Anonymoose

      Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?

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