After an offseason shift toward a faster, spacier offense, the Indiana Pacers were supposed to be a team that scored a bunch of points and won games through its offense. Instead, Frank Vogel and the Pacers’ solid start has once again been driven by defense.
Despite the team-wide downsizing and deportation of rim protector Roy Hibbert, Indiana ranks eighth in the league in defensive rating at 98.0, a far better grade than their 21st-ranked offense at 98.6. The Pacers are welcoming a bunch of new personnel aboard, not to mention implementing a new style, so their early missteps on offense are understandable. But without Hibbert, not to mention former frontcourt mate David West, Indiana’s ability to maintain its defense has been a surprise.
Vogel and his staff deserve a lot of the credit. During the Pacers’ recent run of success, Vogel sculpted one of the decade’s best team defenses and helped foster an atmosphere where defense came first. He’s been able to instill that in Indiana’s rather sizeable fleet of newcomers during the last two seasons –– no small feat for a group that includes Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.
It’s amazing what can happen for a team’s defense when players are smart and selfless. A group of average individual defenders can create an above-average defensive unit, even a good one, simply by playing with effort and executing their roles. Vogel and his staff have brought that out in his players.
Having great players is always helpful though, and the Pacers have one of the league’s elite defensive players in Paul George. George’s return might be the biggest key to the team’s defensive success so far, as he’s wasted no time returning to form on that end of the floor, shutting down opposing scorers despite carrying the load on offense as well.
George Hill joins PG-13 on the perimeter to give Indiana a pair of very good defenders for their position, as well as some enviable length. Playing in the Eastern Conference with that pair means there’s almost always somewhere to hide Monta Ellis as well. And for all his meandering off the ball, Monta has given pretty respectable on-ball effort so far this season.
Under Vogel, Indiana has played a conservative-style defense, where the big men fall back on pick-and-rolls and double-teams or switches happen very rarely. That’s changed a bit this season as the Pacers trend toward a smaller spread lineup. With so much speed on the floor, the team has been trying to play it to their advantage. They’ve been doing a bit more switching and double-teaming when advantageous or necessary, though still rarely, and the most noticeable difference has been their willingness to jump the passing lane or attempt a strip. Indiana has climbed from next-to-last in the league to seventh this season in steal rate, from 6.4 to 9.0 per 100 possessions. What they’ve lacked in size, they’ve certainly been able to replace with quick hands.
Despite the lack of Hibbert, rim protection hasn’t been too much of a problem. Ian Mahinmi has been a great shot blocker playing with the second unit during the last few seasons, although he’s experienced a dropoff playing against the starters this season with a 56.7 defensive field goal percentage. Still, he’s been good enough for Indiana, especially since his mobility fits the team’s new mentality more than a traditional, lumbering rim protector. Mahinmi has shown off a bit more offensive ability so far as well, but overall, he’s still too jumpy at both ends of the floor.
Thankfully he’s just keeping the seat warm for Myles Turner, the Pacers’ first-round pick who’s out for at least six weeks with a broken thumb and some ligament damage. Turner got off to a great start with the Pacers and was defending the rim better, with a 47.5 defensive clip on even more attempts. While he’s still not quite ready to fully take over, he’s complementing Mahinmi effectively, and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the team’s defensive anchor.
Meanwhile, the team’s other two bigs off the bench, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen, have even put forth respectable defensive efforts, and they’re both rebounding the hell out of the ball, a must for any team focused on a small-ball style of play.
Indiana’s solid defense has been surprising considering their changes, but the Pacers clearly are not without defensive weapons: Vogel, PG, Hill, even Turner and Mahinmi. Defense was how Paul George first gained meaningful minutes under Vogel, and the rest of the team clearly feels a ripple effect when defense is a priority for a team’s star player. Vogel, George and the rest of the team’s incumbent players and staff have been able to get this team to play hard and get back on both ends of the floor, not just on offense, where their new focus has been. Indiana doesn’t quite yet seem to have the firepower to play the style it wants on offense, but things will inevitably improve on that end thanks to their coaching and talent.
Until that happens, though, it would be nice if the team could keep up their strong play on the defensive end. The Pacers have a chance to prove it’s legit with their West Coast trip at the end of this month.