The Fundamentals: How the best defense in the NBA got even better this season
The Pacers have never lacked for boldness under coach Frank Vogel. It comes as little surprise, then, that Indiana would look to improve on what was already the best defense in the league a year ago. The Pacers have gone about building a contender brick by audacious brick, connecting on mid-first-round picks and moderate free-agent signings to devise a roster of uncanny fortitude. They’re stable enough to force the issue, and from that forge the means to challenge their supposed superiors.
A bit more astonishing, though, is the degree to which Vogel and his team have succeeded in their defensive goals. After allowing an impressive (and league-leading) 96.6 points per 100 possession last year, the remarkably stingy Pacers have held opponents to a jaw-dropping 91.4 points per 100 through 10 games this season. Even if that margin of improvement is halved by season’s end, it would stand as the best single-season improvement by a top-rated defense in NBA.com’s database (which dates to the 2000-01 season). Should they somehow maintain their current, incredible success over the full season, the Pacers’ mark would also be the best team defensive performance in the database’s range, with the 2003-04 Spurs the only team to even come close.
Simply: This would be an unprecedented leap for an elite defense to make, and an astounding one even in the context of Indiana’s postseason success. The Pacers’ interior coverage was at its most impressive in turning away the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the Eastern Conference finals, but defending at this level through a drawn-out regular season would be a far broader accomplishment with playoff-relevant stakes.
Indiana’s roster was constructed with Miami in mind, as should be the case with any Eastern Conference team aspiring to contend for a title. Where the Pacers separated themselves from the pack was in the execution of that plan, primarily due to the defensive evolution of Roy Hibbert and Paul George. Both have grown into exactly the kind of players Indiana needed to undercut the dribble-driving abuse Miami typically inflicts on its opponents, helping the Pacers become a true postseason foil.
Disguised in that specific strength, though, was the fact that the Pacers were crushed by the Spurs and Thunder and upstaged by the Nets, Celtics and Clippers last season. Indiana could match up with Miami in a way that few could, but had struggled to impose its will more broadly against many of the league’s contending and faux-contending teams. Their recent defensive improvement, should it stick, would help the Pacers handle a wider range of opponents and gain the advantage in a greater variety of playoff matchups.
Knowing whether Indiana’s improvement is likely to stick, though, hinges on a fine-toothed understanding of exactly how the Pacers are getting better. Among the factors involved: the combination of sharpened technique and swelling reputation to depress the team’s foul rate. Indiana was already a top-10 team last season in keeping opponents off the free throw line, but this season it’s risen to the top three. Hibbert is responsible for the biggest individual swing (4.4 fouls per 36 minutes last season to 3.0 this season) and deserves a ton of credit for getting to the right spot earlier, extending vertically as best he can and just obliterating opponents’ shots with record-shattering consistency.
Yet as much as anything, Hibbert is now benefiting from the momentum of his burgeoning defensive reputation — an earned asset that often gives him the benefit of the doubt on debatable calls. Where Hibbert was whistled for a foul on a play like this a season ago:
He now plays on through sequences like this one:
Let’s not kid ourselves — Hibbert might be the living embodiment of “verticality,” but he bumps offensive players with his chest, brings his arms down into a defender’s shot and more generally gets away with a level of contact that not all interior defenders are privy to. He’s worked to earn that privilege, but it’s a privilege nonetheless. Either way, Hibbert’s career to this point has been a consistent string of borderline fouls, and the fact that he picks up fewer of them does well for both his ability to stay on the floor and his team’s bottom line.
In addition to the stout complementary work of David West, Hibbert is also getting top-notch help from the Pacers’ perimeter players, who have done well to recover in time to contest jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. Indiana’s scheme uses Hibbert as an arbiter of the paint, a placement that concedes mid-range jumpers to opponents who find room to take them. The Pacers’ guards, then, have to make up ground to challenge those opportunities (which the defensive system very much encourages) as best they can. Thus far, they’ve done so to exceptional effect. Opponents are shooting just 27.8 percent on long two-pointers, according to NBA.com, down from 41.9 percent last season. That year-over-year difference won’t be quite so stark once the Pacers build up a bigger sample, but right now Indiana is denying opponents that previous safe haven by way of even scrappier recovery than usual.
None of this, though, should overshadow the most radical change of all within the Pacers’ rotation: the emergence of a useful, usable bench. Last season, Vogel had little choice but to incorporate his reserves into the game in bits at a time, lest his team implode. Tyler Hansbrough would share the court with a few starters, then Ian Mahinmi would do the same, then D.J. Augustin and so on. As a result, the Pacers were as reliant on their starters as any team in the league. The starting five ranked as the second-most-used lineup in the NBA last season, and beyond that the Pacers owned three of the 10 most-played four-man lineup combinations as a result of their various permutations. The possibility of fielding a unit of reserves just wasn’t feasible; in extremely limited minutes, such groups were a mess on defense and suffered for their lack of shot creation on offense.
This season has been entirely different. A reserve-dominant group composed of one regular starter, Lance Stephenson, and C.J. Watson, Mahinmi, Luis Scola and Orlando has been both very successful and consistently used. Only the two variations of the Pacers’ starters (exchanging Watson for George Hill due to injury) have logged more minutes than Indiana’s reserve group this season, which has been marked by passable scoring and tremendous defense. There isn’t a single exemplary defender in that bunch, but they’ve built up their coverage in a way befitting the Pacers’ ethos. There are so many little things worth appreciating, whether it’s Watson (No. 32, defending at the top of the key) denying multiple passes while maintaining good position:
Mahinmi (No. 28) getting low to corral a ball handler:
Or Stephenson (No. 1) playing a smart angle:
Moreover, a willingness to make multiple efforts strengthens the reserves’ defensive work — an aspect of team coverage that can prove to be an unexpected challenge for some other teams. Watch Scola (No. 4), who’s hardly a plus-defender in a general sense, on this play:
First, Scola plays Lance Thomas close on the elbow catch, denying a possible feed to the cutting Brian Roberts. Then, when Thomas gives up the ball, Scola eyes it to see the Pelicans initiating a side pick-and-roll — one that will necessarily involve Mahinmi. By design, Scola picks up Mahinmi’s man (Greg Stiemsma) as he rolls into the paint, preventing a quick interior feed and score. Once Scola hands off Stiemsma to a recovering Mahinmi, Scola darts out to the foul line to take away the open jumper from Thomas, sliding over at the last moment to impede Thomas slightly on his way to the rim. That momentary delay gives Mahinmi all the time he needs to rotate over and block Thomas’ shot.
That sequence may not be executed to perfection, but it involves the worst defender on the floor for the Pacers effectively stringing together a series of necessary plays. Scola doesn’t have to lock any opponent down, or even approximate Hibbert or West; all that’s asked is that he not be a complete liability. He’s worked to help make the Pacers’ reserves more viable in coverage than they were previously.
These are small changes of considerable consequence, especially in light of the fact that Indiana often struggled when incorporating even a single bench player at a time last season. The divide between Augustin and Watson alone is enormous, which in turn gives Vogel better, more diverse lineup options to react as an in-game situation demands. Add in the fact that Hibbert is no longer battling consistent foul trouble, and for perhaps the first time since he took over the Pacers, Vogel’s hands aren’t tied. That’s a powerful thing and could be just the catalyst Indiana’s defense needed to vault from great to all-time great.
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