The Indiana Pacers have the largest net rating in the entire association. Really, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us at this point. The Pacers have developed into one of the top teams in the NBA and they’ve proven that by pushing the Heat to their limit in the postseason for two seasons in a row. According to ESPN.com, they’ve got the highest odds of winning a title this season at 41.3%. That doesn’t happen by mistake.
Let’s talk about some more information you know, just so you don’t feel overwhelmed. The Indiana Pacers have the best defense in the NBA–obviously. With pieces like Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West, a great defense comes almost naturally.
But I bet I know something you don’t. Remember that net rating we talked about? That 9.4 net rating? Well, the Pacers have been able to sustain that with an offensive rating of only 102.9. That means the Pacers only give up 93.6 points per 100 possessions. Think about that. Only 93.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s 6.2 points under away from a point per 100–a remarkable feat.
What makes that feat more remarkable? Well, that 93.6 rating isn’t easy to achieve, firstly. But the next best defense in the NBA is the Bulls defense. Can you guess how close they are to that 93.6 mark? If you said not very, you’d be correct. The Bulls are a full 3.8 points per 100 behind the Indiana Pacers. Think about that for a second. The vaunted Chicago Bulls defense isn’t even close to the level the Indiana Pacers defense is on.
Why are the Pacers so good? Well, they defend everything so well. According to Synergy Sports technology, the Pacers rank in the top 10 of every one of their statistical categories on the defensive end with the exception of offensive rebounding and isolations. Before last night’s thrashing from the Phoenix Suns, they were in the top 10 in every category. But still, they only allow .81 points per possession on average which is extremely stingy.
Even with the aforementioned pieces, you don’t just develop this type of defense overnight. It takes time, strategy and chemistry to develop. They know how to defend every single thing on the floor well, and their strategy isn’t too complex to understand. In fact, I’d argue the Pacers have one of the more simplistic defenses in the league. It’s really the perfect fit for the pieces they have. They make the scheme they employ work and that’s the most important part.
First, lets examine the Pacers opponent’s shot chart:
As you can see, there are absolutely no green spots on the graphic above. Green means good. The Pacers don’t allow teams to be good anywhere. And what’s more, they’re protecting the rim at an astounding rate. They have opponents shooting about 7% under league average at the rim. That’s a figure that will have any defense, no matter who the pieces are, at the top of the league.
Now, lets take a look at their opponent shot distribution.
Most defensive gurus in the NBA will tell you they want their opponent shooting midrange shots. Shots from the middle have the least overall value in the league. They’re made at the same rate three point shots are, but worth one point less. In other words, it’s worth more points to take a three and you aren’t as likely to hit from midrange as you are to make a shot at the rim.
Because of that, the Pacers leave the middle of the floor wide open for ball handlers to pick and choose their spots. It sounds like a bad idea, but when 34.2% of your opponent’s shots come from the middle of the floor you’re doing things right. Opponents hit at a league average rate against the Pacers from the middle of the floor, but they still shoot terribly at the rim and in the corner spots–the best places to shoot in the NBA. That’s what makes this defense so proficient.
And that all starts with having Roy Hibbert as your rim protector. For all he can’t do offensively–and even defensively in some cases–Roy makes up for in rim protection. He isn’t able to slide away from the rim in most cases or hang out on the perimeter. That’s why he sags back into the lane and gives up midrange shots. But his enormous frame allows him to stop whatever is coming his way at the rim. Opponents only shoot 41.7% at the rim when Hibbert is in the game according to SportVU’s player tracking data presented by NBA.com. What’s more, they’re taking 9.7 shots at the rim while he’s on the floor. That’s a large chunk of an opponent’s offense Hibbert is able to take away. And that kind of defense at the rim will force opponents to change the entire way they play offense.
Now, lets examine how well they defend the most proficient areas of the floor.
At The Rim
We already got into this a bit above, but I want to delve further into the topic. We know that things start and finish with Hibbert, but it’s still a team effort. The Pacers are a team that defends from in the paint. There are normally at least two players with a foot in the paint on any given possession. Meaning that there’s always a help man ready to deter opponent drives before they even get to Hibbert.
On this drive by Rudy Gay(!), there are two Pacers who are already committed to the paint ready to help Ian Mahinmi should he get beaten to the rim.
Mahinmi didn’t really need the help containing Gay, who put up a shot with very little control, but the other Pacers were still there ready to help him out. And I’m sure that you see that this leaves an open lane for Terrence Ross and Kyle Lowry off of a ball reversal or a skip pass. But the Pacers are willing to give those up, partly because of their length on defense.
That’s what makes the Pacers so unique and what really makes things click for them. Most of their players have enormous wingspans and are able to play passing lanes from places that other players normally wouldn’t be able to. They can recover and contest better on defense because of their longer arms.
Paul George saw that a drive to the rim was about to happen and came over to help. Jordan Crawford made the correct read and kicked the ball out to Jeff Green who George was guarding. But George was able to use his length and his size to get back to Green in time to make his jumper a difficult one. This type of heady defensive play is what the Pacers make night in and night out. That’s part of the reason why they defend the corners so well.
It really helped that the Celtics don’t really have anyone who kills you from above the break when shooting threes. They play a free-throw-line-down style of basketball like the Memphis Grizzlies did two seasons ago. In other words, the Celtics don’t have many players that will stretch the floor from the top. The sides are really their bread and butter as far as shooting goes. That makes it that much easier for George to recover because he doesn’t have to stunt at the top and then get back to Green. Instead he has a straight path back to the corner and is able to give a really good contest.
George is able to get the clean contest despite being deep into the paint. That’s picture perfect defense if I’ve ever seen it played. And that’s the type of help that deters Pacers’ opponents from the rim.
Now that we’ve addressed rim protection, lets address the corners that the Pacers defend so well.
The Pacers are only allowing opponents to shoot 31% from both corners in total this season. Though it seems rather simple, ball reversals and defensive zoning make protecting the corners more difficult than ever. The Pacers do it better than anyone else in the NBA does it, and that’s because of stunting.
Stunting is the concept of faking the contest on a ball reversal above the break and staying committed to the corner instead. The corner is the shortest three pointer in the game–it’s essentially a midrange jumper worth three points. When the ball swings from side to side, you want to limit the options of the offense. Rotating away from the top and keeping the corners safe is the number one priority.
Take a look at how the Pacers work.
Kemba Walker receives a pass from Jeff Taylor after collapsing the Pacers defense into the paint. Walker has a wide open three so George fakes the rotation and buys George Hill time to recover to Walker after giving Lance Stephenson help on Jeff Taylor’s penetration. Gerald Henderson is open for a split second.
George’s stunt was really the key to this defensive play. He forced Kemba Walker into making a quick decision that seemed like the right one, but George was really just buying time for his defense to recover with his stunt. He knew he was staying home on Gerald Henderson the entire time. And this is the type of stuff that makes the Pacers’ defense next level.
That’s not the only thing they do to keep the corners in check. They stunt very well, but they also stay home on the strongside corner very well. They don’t just help on penetration in whatever way they can. It’s a methodical process they use to decide who is going to help and win. They don’t double or trap unless someone puts the ball down along the sideline, baseline, or near the backcourt boundary. They let the opponents make the mistakes and that allows their defense to find the easiest play to defend.
It isn’t an easy system to employ. If you don’t have the proper personnel in any given system it’s going to be hard to run, but the Pacers have the perfect roster and the perfect system for that roster. Frank Vogel has done a masterful job of getting these players to play on a string and they’ve kept the roster consistent with no major changes for the most part during his tenure.
Chemistry on defense is essential because if one player is out of line, that could be an easy bucket. Every player must know the style, whether it’s aggressive or conservative. They have to know what looks they’re going to get and what to do when they get those looks. They’ve got to know which side to rotate from, where to send the double from, how hard to stunt and a multitude of other things. The Pacers have mastered every single one of these concepts under Frank Vogel and, because of that, they’ve got the best defense in the NBA.