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.
NEXT PAGE: Free throw rates, Greg Monroe driving and more
• Last season, Ramon Sessions was a surprising inclusion among the league leaders in free throw attempts per minute. The Bobcats’ guard finished ahead of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and many others. He’s essentially doubled down on that strength this season, ranking as one of three players — along with Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant — to average more than 10 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. Most of his fouls have been drawn in the pick-and-roll, where Sessions wobbles through a constant string of slight hesitations. He’s not quick enough to beat opponents off the dribble consistently, but he’s just herky-jerky enough to keep them off-balance.
• In reversing a trend from last season, Wizards big man Nene now rightly piles up free throw attempts whenever John Wall is in the game. He’s shared the court enough with Wall to rank sixth in free throw attempts per minute. Wall, for his part, ranks in the top 10 in free throw assists per game, according to SportVU.
• It’s good to see Kevin Martin continue his parade to the foul line after a few down years, particularly considering that the Minnesota guard has drawn only one shooting foul (out of 22 overall, per Synergy) in transition. His capacity to draw fouls very understandably faded in OKC last season, given his role, but the movement and flexibility of Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman’s offense have put Martin in a position to bait defenders for contact again.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Greg Monroe, making decisive drives
Detroit’s offensive spacing has been about as gross as expected. Monroe has managed to help a bit by attacking more quickly on the catch. He’s a regular for Detroit at the elbow but lacks the range to shoot from that spot consistently. That makes it all the more important that he continues to leverage his position there, which he’s done to great effect by looking to drive immediately and catch his defender off-guard. Monroe has been very deliberate over the past few seasons, which is fine for the time being. But for him to evolve into a more team-friendly high- and low-post threat, he’ll need that change of pace to his game that can help throw off potential double teams and generate easy points.
2. Chris Paul shrugs off the open three-pointer
I’m not sure any player in the league passes up as many good three-point looks as Paul. I take no issue in his case, however. Though struggling with his long-range touch this season, the Clippers’ point guard has been a sound three-point shooter in the past that attempting more shots beyond the arc would seem to be a good thing. But Paul has a gear off the dribble that few other shooting threats can match, which changes the decision-making calculus. For Paul, putting the ball on the floor isn’t a concession, but a sensible — and profitable — endeavor to create even better looks. That’s especially true of this season’s hyper-focused version of Paul; he’s averaging career highs in assists and free throw attempts for a reason, and has managed to make the most of those clean looks he passes up.
3. Mike Dunleavy, settling in
Stylistically, Dunleavy is a natural fit for the Bulls — an off-ball cutter and willing passer who should do well for Chicago’s offensive flow. But fit shouldn’t be misconstrued for ease of incorporation, as evidenced by Dunleavy’s iffy performance through his first few games after signing a two-year, $6.5 million contract. The learning curve in picking up Tom Thibodeau’s defense was obvious in Dunleavy’s blunders. Worse yet, though, was Dunleavy’s lack of impact on offense while Chicago struggled to score as a team.
But a subtle shift over the past two weeks has put Dunleavy in a far more comfortable position. He’s largely going about his work in the same way, albeit a bit more cleanly and more in sync with the Bulls’ offense. The result: 9-for-13 shooting from three-point range in the past six games, during which Chicago’s scoring efficiency has improved ever so slightly.
4. Memphis rebounds, with a catch
Good on the Grizzlies for beating the Clippers on Monday to extend their winning streak to three and improve to 6-5. But Memphis’ defense doesn’t look quite right yet, perhaps exemplified by the fact that Travis Outlaw — Travis Outlaw — hung 18 on the Grizz in 17 minutes while very nearly completing a Kings comeback on Sunday. Good teams have bad stretches, but an Outlaw explosion might be the worst of basketball omens.
5. The ripple influence of Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is revered for his shot-swatting eminence, which perhaps overinflates his defensive reputation while doing a disservice to his offensive value. Some of that is situational value (when the alternatives are Kendrick Perkins, Steven Adams and Nick Collison, Ibaka’s offense is a considerable asset), but value all the same. Smart defenses will understand how to tilt away from OKC’s less threatening big men whenever Ibaka leaves the floor, which puts more pressure on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in their work off the dribble. Consider the Thunder’s shot chart with Ibaka on the floor:
Compared with OKC’s shot chart when Ibaka sits:
Interestingly enough, where his absence has been felt most is in the Thunder’s mid-range attempts from the top of the floor — those three red zones where Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson are forcing contested jumpers as a result of opponents clogging their driving lanes. The impact of a quality big man isn’t merely felt around the rim, after all, but in the way the entire defense accounts for his presence.