Indiana’s Awful Offense: Imprecise Execution, Poor Spacing

(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports) /
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As we move towards the playoffs, we will continue to detail the many woes that plague the Pacers’ Awful Offense. From turnovers and poor rebounding to bad screens and too much isolation, we’ll try to explain it all. This is the latest break down.

(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports) /

Poor screening fits into the broad category of bad execution, but since The Struggle began, the Pacers have been continually failing to time their picks and movement properly. In the NBA, with just 24 seconds to score, just be a little slow, be a little late, just once, and it can make all the difference. 

If you don’t cut at the right time, flare exactly when you should, or deliver the pass the instant a player gets open, an otherwise well-drawn play can be wasted. In the same vein, NBA offenses are so complex and defenses so smart, even standing in the wrong spot on the court can make all the difference. Spacing is a major element of properly turning a well-drawn-up play into points.

Here are two examples of a good Frank Vogel design not working because the players don’t execute.

It starts as many Pacers sets do: with George Hill passing to David West above the top of the key. He swings it to Paul George on the right wing and cuts down to the right block. This puts all five Pacers on the strong side, as George hands the ball to the nearby Lance Stephenson and cuts hard and makes a hard, looping cut to the hoop.

It’s a wonderful little set. West’s man has followed him to the right block, Roy Hibbert’s defender is hugging him on the right elbow, and Hill’s guy is stuck to him in the corner. If Hibbert’s back pick works on PG’s defender and Roy’s man doesn’t sag to far, it’s an easy alley oop toss from Lance to Paul for a dunk.

It all works wonderfully here — except Stephenson doesn’t deliver. He’s a little late, and the brief window for the pass closes before he can act.

PG No Lob
PG No Lob /

So instead of a freeing your best player from the world’s best player and getting him a highlight-reel dunk that would blow the roof off a Fieldhouse featuring a crowd rooting against their most hated rival, you get a Paul George isolation that yields a half-hearted drive and a flimsy finger roll fling at the rim.

Wasted opportunity.

Here is the exact same play against the Wizards.

This time, it looks like it could work again. PG gets free on the pick, and you can tell Lance is looking for the lob. He nearly throws it.

But West didn’t do his job. He is too late clearing the paint and never fully gets outside on the block. This leaves his man, Drew Gooden, still under the rim. Gooden isn’t quite in the passing lane, and with a good enough pass, I think George skies up and throws down the alley oop (perhaps plus the foul), but it’s certainly understandable why Lance takes the cautious approach.

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Because, ultimately, the play is a quick hitter so if (and when, in both these cases) they don’t get the lob, there is still time left for a second action. And with Roy open, they do manage to get the ball over the weakside where George can work in relative isolation. But, like against the Heat, PG isn’t able to gain any advantage and forces an off-balance look at the rim after an ineffective drive.

The first time, Lance blew it. Here it was West. Simple little things, but they combined to keep 4 points off the board.

Stuff like what we see on this play against the Bulls doesn’t help either.

Admittedly, calling out this one might be a bit harsh. The offense begins (or doesn’t, more accurately) with a failed pick-and-roll, and then Hill remains far outside the arc. The set needs a restart.

It’s hard to tell if what occurs next is a called action or if both big men just have the same idea. Regardless, both come up to set a ball screen. Which is unfortunate. Because as Hill tries to turn the corner, he’s greeted by both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. He has nowhere to go, and both of Indiana’s bigs are in no position to do anything if he gave either the ball.

Hill PnR 2
Hill PnR 2 /

Whether you want to classify this as “poor execution” or just unfortunate circumstances, it’s still a bad possession.

And we have a similar problem of “two guys, one spot” here that is undeniably one of the them messing up the play.

Just look to the right block as the set begins. Hill is looking for a wing to pop up off a Mahinmi pick to receive a swing pass. Too bad both Paul George and Evan Turner are trying to do the same thing. One guy is in the wrong place. This can’t be by design, and PG recognizes the error and relocates to the other side.

It isn’t a total disaster. Turner gets the ball, and is able to penetrate to the free-throw line, but now people are in odd spots and everyone is just freelancing. Hill makes a good cut and Turner gets him the ball.

Unfortunately, the pass is a bit inaccurate, and there are a lot of Raptors in the area, so by the time Hill catches and refocuses, he’s greeted by another defender. He rightly finds George in the corner, but the pass is wildly inaccurate, hitting PG near the left knee rather than in a shooting pocket. George can’t catch and shoot. So he fakes, dribbles left and drives — only to be cut off and pitch to Hill in the corner. But his pass is even worse. Hill has no room or time to take the shot. However, the clock is nearly expired so he forces up a highly contested look after gathering himself.

There is some stuff to like here.

After the original snafu with Turner and George on the same side, the Pacers do a good job trying to salvage the possession. And just by being good at this sport, they nearly create two separate good looks. But outside of the planned set, everything is improvisation, and it just isn’t crisp enough with the sloppy passing.

That’s the lesson: NBA offense is hard and takes near-constant precision. Defenses are that good. People who spend the whole game staring at the guy with the ball may not notice, but all this off-ball action is the difference between creating open shots or hoisting contested looks. And there has never been player — not Jordan or Bird or Durant or Kobe — who is consistently efficient shooting with a defender draped all over him.

Here is an example of someone not understanding the action and mucking everything up with their presence.

Why Lance?

Hill brings the ball up on the left side of the court and, immediately, Indiana changes sides through two swing passes. Again, this is a common way that Indiana begins its sets since Vogel rarely cares which of his perimeter guys has the ball and the action is an easy way to get the defense reacting to the ball moving across the court. Roy gets good position in the pinch post, and Lance dumps it in.

Everything is going great.

Better still, on the weak side, Hill and West set up a double screen so that Paul George can curl into the lane and, hopefully, lose his man. Now, West makes little effort to set a good screen (which we’ve learned is no surprise) and George’s defender stays close by, but PG still has his natural athleticism to rely on. The cut is a big threat to Detroit’s interior defense. Roy sees as much and makes a pass to the cutting George.

Too bad Lance didn’t know what was going on. If he had, he wouldn’t have tried to make the same cut and brought his man into the lane to clog things up. So instead of George catching a pass with one man to beat at the rim, the ball is poked away. A part of you has to like the fact that Stephenson is trying to make a move towards open space, but he really should have just stayed put in this instance. This isn’t pick-up basketball.

It may sound strange to those accustomed to playing/watching lower-level offense try to beat less-complex defense, but just standing still in the proper area really is a skill at the NBA level — and the one Lance should have employed here.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin: poor spacing.