New schemes, faster play and directional defense: What to expect from the new-look Pacers

The goal in the preseason, according to Sabonis: “Everybody come out COVID free."

Two months after the NBA concluded its restart in Florida, a new season begins this weekend. The Pacers departed Friday on a four-day, two-game road trip to Cleveland for games that will be played without fans.

When the Pacers take the floor Saturday evening for their first of three tune-up games, expect to see a group you’re familiar with play differently. Although the top 13 players returned, the coaching staff was replaced … and so, too, was the system. It’s been overhauled, both on offense and defense.

Nate Bjorkgren, 45, was the selection made by team president Kevin Pritchard. He’s a longtime coach who has devoted his entire adult life to the game he loves. He came to the Pacers after two seasons as Nick Nurse’s top assistant in Toronto.

In Game 1, he’ll be paying close attention to their defensive execution. It’s been a major emphasis in camp, spending an estimated 95 percent of their first few practices on that side of the floor.

It’s also the first time since 1997 that Dan Burke is not on staff. He joined the 76ers after the coaching change and not being asked back. He was the defensive mastermind for more than a decade and through several previous coaching changes.

“It’s definitely more aggressive than what I’m used to and I think it’s even more aggressive than what Toronto did,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “Toronto was fairly aggressive team around the perimeter, especially with their guards. We’re going to pressure the ball, we’re going to be aggressive.”

While we expect the starters to be the same as last season (when healthy), Bjorkgren hasn’t publicly named them and instead entered camp with an open mind. No longer should you expect to watch a vanilla team; he’s not afraid to mix things up like a DQ blizzard.

“I won’t be afraid to sub early and often, and get to some groups that we want to get to,” Bjorkgren said. “You’ll see us play big, you’ll see us play small, you’ll see us play really small. … We’re gonna grow through this together.”

There has been some early coachspeak from Bjorkgren. Health is mostly good, but there are a few injuries worth discussing (and I’ll get to it below). He said camp was the “perfect length,” even though it was several weeks shorter than usual. But the biggest takeaway is how much the players believe in him already.

“Through every coach, it’s energy and positivity so that really helps us out there on the court,” said guard Aaron Holiday.

Because of continuity amongst the players, they can mostly pick up where they left off last season. Therefore, implementing what Bjorkgren is trying to accomplish is the focus leading up to opening night on Dec. 23. A big phrase often repeated in camp is directional defense.

“I think if we can get very sound and lock in on what he wants us to do defensively as a group, that’s where we’re really going to make our mark and be really, really good,” Brogdon said. “That will translate in way more 3s and translate into the offensive system he’s trying to put in as well. All three preseason games are about incorporating the system. The chemistry will come.”

When asked how the team will play differently, All-Star center Domantas Sabonis had a difficult time explaining it. You could sense him thinking just wait, you’ll see.

“We’re going to play quicker in the sense that it’s more of different reads depending on what one player does and there’s a lot of different reads to go on from that,” he said. “Every possession could maybe look different.

“We’re gonna play very fast. I don’t know. It’s the same team, we’re all going to be us — but we might be moving a bit differently.”

One of the biggest challenges for the team may be unlearning what they did before. Not only are they doing different things, but they have all new terms on both ends.

“Coach has been really trying to put in a whole bunch of new things,” said Sabonis, whose last game played was nine months ago. “We have many different defensive coverages — depending on the player, depending on the team, who we’re playing against — and we’re going to adapt and we’re going to change the way we do things to win the game.

“It’s fun basketball, it’s everything you learn as a kid.”

The Pacers ranked in 22nd in pace last season, up three spots from the 2018-19 season. In comparison, the Raptors ranked 12th. For years now, they’ve talking about playing faster and shooting more 3s. This time feels different because they’re not just talking about it, they’re explaining how.

“There’s going to be a lot more movement, everybody will be involved to some capacity,” Victor Oladipo said. “There’s a lot of options offensively, a lot of different reads, a lot of counters and things like that. We put in some offense today and it was fun just to get up and down the floor, 5 on 0, and run some sets.”

Oladipo, meanwhile, is healthiest he’s been in two years. He’s fully recovered from a significant injury that occurred 23 months ago and he went through camp without a problem.

“He looks great,” Bjorkgren said. “Energy is good, he’s got a lot of bounce to him and everything that I’ve asked of him, he’s doing. And he’s trying to do it at a very high level.”

See Also: Breaking down the first half of the Pacers’ 2020-21 schedule

And for Bjorkgren — this is his debut being the guy on an NBA bench. He’s been the head coach at the high school and development-league levels, but this is his first opportunity in the big leagues. All decisions run through him, and he expects to have pre-game butterflies, as usual.

“I always have that feeling, whether I’m an assistant coach or a head coach,” he said. “I think that’s why I love coaching so much. You get the butterflies, you get a little nervous before the game and it just gets your blood flowing. I like the feelings of it — the highs and lows throughout the course of a game or the highs and lows throughout the course of the season. I truly believe that’s the competitiveness in me. I can’t play basketball anymore so I get that competitive fire through coaching.”

No longer shielded by a figurative protective bubble, make no mistake — this is a massive undertaking by the league and its 30 teams. An exorbitant amount of time and resources are spent daily to be safe, abide by the rules and take all precautions. That’s on top of the dozens of tasks that must be done in camp.

As for these exhibition games, Sabonis spoke up for the team, the league and those who follow it when he shared his primary goal before opening night.

“Everybody come out COVID free,” he said.

(All three preseason games will air on Fox Sports Indiana.)

Polo game

NBA head coaches and their staffs will not be dressed in suits like we’ve come to expect. The coaches association talked and agreed to continue the relaxed business look for the upcoming season.

It’s basketball, not business. Coaches will be on the sideline dressed uniformly in polos or quarter-zips with dress pants, something they started down in the bubble. It’s also a change college basketball coaches made this season.

I searched his name on Google Images and Bjorkgren always has wore a suit. Always gray or dark blue or black. As a first-year coach, he said he’s fine with the change.

“All the NBA coaches have been on a couple calls together talking about sticking together,” Bjorkgren said. “So I’m going to do what the rest of the NBA coaches do.”

Health update

Last season was an outlier for Indiana. They had nearly 200 games lost due to injury and utilized 22 different starting lineups. Here’s where things currently stand.

  • T.J. Warren: One of the highlights of the bubble is sidelined for the time being. Plantar fasciitis in his right foot flared up and bothered him after a few days of practice. It’s an injury he managed, but played through in Orlando. He’s listed as week-to-week and with opening night 12 days away, it seems unlikely that he’ll play in the preseason.

  • Jeremy Lamb: Continuing to rehab from a torn ACL suffered almost a year ago in Toronto. He continues to up his workload and is playing 1-on-0. The team hopes he could begin contributing next month.

  • Brian Bowen II: The second-year player has suffered a painful injury, a partial tear of his groin. He is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.

  • Goga Bitadze: To end on a positive, the Pacers’ 2019 first-round pick, has dealt with knee soreness since he arrived in Indianapolis. But he’s been pain-free the last few days at practice. “Hopefully it will go like this and I’ll be able to play pain-free, which I was not able to do (last season),” he said.

Depth chart

PG: Malcolm Brogdon, Aaron Holiday, T.J. McConnell, Naz Mitrou-Long
SG: Victor Oladipo, Edmond Sumner, Cassius Stanley, Jalen Lecque
SF: Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, Rayshaun Hammonds
PF: Domantas Sabonis, JaKarr Sampson, Kelan Martin
C: Myles Turner, Goga Bitadze, Amida Brimah

OUT: Lamb, Warren, Bowen II.