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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.