Victor Oladipo is a superstar. That much can’t be denied anymore, not after the magical season he had and not after he silenced a rowdy Cleveland Cavaliers crowd with 32 points, six rebounds, four assists, and four steals in the Pacers’ shock Game 1 blowout win.
So I’m not here to tell you to pay attention to Victor Oladipo, to appreciate Victor Oladipo, to watch Victor Oladipo, or to put Victor Oladipo much higher on your hypothetical list of the top NBA players in the game.
I’m more interested in dissecting what, exactly, makes Oladipo such a devastating two-way force. How did a player that bounced to his third team in three years emerge into one of the six best guards in the NBA? More importantly, why did it take the league and those that cover it so long to recognize what was going on?
Some of this story has been told. Oladipo worked his ass off in the summer, entered training camp with a level of dog he observed in Russell Westbrook, and played with joy and freedom in commandeering the franchise.
But something else has happened that speaks to how the NBA has changed: Oladipo’s skill set has become more en vogue.
As the NBA has spread further out, closing speed — that football buzzphrase to describe great defensive backs — has become significantly more important. It’s not about how fast a player is, or even always about how much ground their arms cover (though that certainly helps). It’s the ability to zoom from zero to 60, and 60 to zero, in a series of short, contained bursts to eat up space. In other words: closing speed.
And nobody in the NBA has closing speed quite like Oladipo.
Closing speed on defense: hit and runs
Not to pick on any specific colleague, but one way I can tell you didn’t pay much attention to the Pacers this season was if you questioned Bojan Bogdanovic’s defense. Or, more specifically, the wisdom of putting a player with Bogdanovic’s defensive reputation on a superstar like LeBron James. Those who actually watched Indiana closely this year knew that Pacers coach Nate McMillan has employed this strategy all year, and it’s worked.
Credit to Bogdanovic, who has turned his negative defensive reputation around in a big way this year. But the reason McMillan employed this strategy all season and in Game 1 against the Cavaliers has less to do with Bogdanovic’s defensive capability and much more to do with activating Oladipo’s best strengths.
Oladipo is a great defensive guard who rarely guards the opposing team’s best perimeter threat. In fact, he explicitly guards the opposing team’s worst perimeter threat. The Pacers go to great lengths to preserve this setup, even using Darren Collison or Cory Joseph on top scoring guards instead of Oladipo.
This seems counterintuitive, but it actually mirrors the Warriors’ approach with Draymond Green, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year. When the Warriors are at their best, Green doesn’t guard a man so much as he zooms to the threat like a heat-seeking missile. As I wrote last year:
[Green] tortured Portland with a devastating display of Easter Egg 25: The ability to put out any defensive fire, wherever it is. He was the enforcer roaming outside the usual defensive chain of command, a Darth Vader to Ron Adams’ Emperor Palpatine. (Though it’s hard to imagine the Warriors’ defensive guru as an evil tyrant.)
Indiana uses a similar approach with Oladipo. He roams off his man to assess the necessary threats and flies in to deal with them when the defense least expects. Plays like this explain how Oladipo led the league in steals.
We saw this on full display in Game 1 against the Cavaliers. Just when the Cavs thought they had an opening, Oladipo closed it down with such speed.
Oladipo isn’t the first guard to roam off his man to seek steals, but there are two big differences between him and the riverboat gamblers you’re used to seeing. One is that Oladipo really does fly to the ball no matter how it’s loose. He’s a terror snagging long rebounds and has amazing anticipation to predict your pass before you do. I’m still not sure how he plucked this 2-on-1 lob pass out of the air.
The other, related skill goes back to the deceleration point we discussed earlier. He doesn’t just start quickly. He also stops quickly. Because of that, he’s able to address a player’s initial move and the countermoves that normally cause poor defenders to fly into the seats.
Consider these two sequences from Game 1, neither of which resulted in actual steals.
The Cavaliers, like most NBA teams today, run to the three-point line in transition. In both of these cases, they had a deadeye shooter on the wing and another dead-eye shooter in the corner, with just one player to cover them. This results in an open shot from someone 95 percent of the time, if not more. That one opponent can try to cover both shooters at once by stunting between them, but there’s usually too much space to cover and too little time to fill it while staying on balance.
But Oladipo isn’t most players. He has the burst to close down on one shooter, then the agility to go do it again to the other. That buys essential time for the rest of his teammates to get back into the play.
The end result is that two wide-open transition threes — among the most efficient shots in the game, and especially devastating when the other team is making a comeback — were not attempted, and the Cavaliers needed to pull it out to score against a set defense. That’s just as valuable, if not more, than getting a steal.
Anticipation, speed, balance, and deceleration are the hallmarks of great defensive backs. The Pacers realized that if they thought counterintuitively, they could turn those traits into a devastating weapon for their defense, even against great shooting teams like the Cavaliers. It’s normally death to roam off Kyle Korver like this, but Oladipo can do it because he has the closing speed to prevent Korver from getting a good shot off anyway.
That is why Oladipo is a great defensive player. Not because of the ability to hold the line, but because he’s the exact kind of player who can execute quick hit-and-run attacks to swipe the ball away and/or disrupt your timing if he doesn’t.
Closing speed on offense: the runway
Last week, we published a video on how offenses using more space have made it incredibly difficult to defend.
Fast forward to the 1:26 mark. Here’s the text:
This is why a team like the Raptors has DeMar DeRozan start his attacks from damn near halfcourt. It’s a lot harder to stop an athletic marvel when he builds up that much speed.
Toronto was the case study I used, but Oladipo and Indiana might’ve been a more appropriate example. Look how deep Oladipo is when starting these drives.
This is not by accident. Whenever Oladipo saw a big man switched on him in Game 1 — and sometimes even when he didn’t — he retreated to half court, like a long jumper preparing to leap into sand.
The Cavaliers players, like most natural defenders, retreated. Oladipo is quick, they reasoned, and the strategy most associated with stopping quick players is to hang back and give yourself space to cut them off.
That might have been true years ago, but it’s not necessarily true now. Ben Simmons, for example, uses space as a runway to put pressure on defenses, allowing him to compensate and even thrive despite never shooting jumpers. He always attacks, which means the defense always retreats, which means he dictates the terms of engagement.
Oladipo isn’t the passer or physical freak that Simmons is, but he deploys the exact same strategy using two traits Simmons doesn’t (yet). One is the ability to power through contact and finish. Even if a defender puts himself in a decent position along the wide path to the basket, Oladipo can bounce off him and stay on course, much like a great running back breaks tackles.
The other is the ability to stop on a dime and pull up. The second Oladipo sees a defender on the back foot, he does this.
This is where Oladipo’s closing speed is significant. Outstanding defensive backs in football are great because they fill a contained amount of space super quickly from a standing position. Cover too little ground, and they can’t break up the pass quickly enough. Cover too much ground, and they’re embarrassed with a double move. They have to get their starts and stops just right.
With his ability to simultaneously power through a hole and put on the breaks when defenders freak out about his ability to power through a hole, Oladipo uses the runway to his advantage.
It’s important to recognize Oladipo’s specific attributes because the game is changing. NBA teams are using the court more like spread offenses in the NFL use the gridiron. There’s value in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, just as there’s value in offensive and defensive linemen. But the name of the game ultimately is getting your speediest and most elusive players in the open field, where they can use those skills to moonwalk around defenders that simply have too much ground to cover.
The most valuable players in such a game are a) the ones who have the slipperiness to elude defenders, and b) the defenders who have the closing speed to fill those spacial gaps that the offense is trying to create in a short amount of time. That’s why linebackers in college football are getting smaller and why nickel is the pre-eminent coverage package these days.
As NBA teams seek out space, a similar revolution is happening. Great one-on-one offensive and defensive players in tight spaces still have incredible value, much like the old cliche about football games being won in the trenches still has some validity. But there’s a new crop of players who suddenly can make an incredible impact simply by thriving in those split-second intervals, where one player has room to attack and the other must stop him in the open floor.
Victor Oladipo is that new crop of player. As long as the game continues to evolve like this, he will be a superstar. And so long as the league’s coaches and talent evaluators pay attention, he might even inspire some imitators.