The Pacers posted a record of 250-181 under the leadership of Frank Vogel. This run included five playoff appearances in six seasons and two Conference Finals. Frank Vogel built a reputation for defense, and deservedly so. His Pacers teams finished 12th, 10th, 1st, 1st, 8th, and 3rd in defensive efficiency from 2010 to 2016.
At their peak (2012-2013 and 2013-2014), they started George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert. This group of five mastered the concepts and formed an ideal defensive unit. Now in Orlando, Vogel will have the chance to work with Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, and Aaron Gordon, a talented defensive frontcourt on paper. But with young guards, Vogel will have to do a lot of teaching to mold Orlando into a top defensive team.
While his defensive schemes are complex, there were a few distinguishable principles that led the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals.
(1) Zoning Up the Pick & Roll: Against the high pick and roll, the Pacers would drop Roy Hibbert back to the free throw line and have George Hill go over screens. By doing so, George Hill was able to prevent open three-pointers. Meanwhile, Hibbert had time to read the dribble penetration, and get in position to contest the drive without fouling, using the rule of verticality. Where this left the Pacers vulnerable was the long-two, a shot Coach Vogel conceded. In this clip, by Dylan Murphy, you see Hill and Hibbert employ this strategy:
Notice that George Hill doesn’t even have to fight over the screen as he forces Westbrook to the right by angling his body (similar to ICEing). Roy Hibbert is at the free throw line, a much more conservative approach than when you see bigs hedge or show on the pick roll. This allows Hibbert to stay with Westbrook, as he never fully turns the corner.
Two other staples of Vogel’s defense in Indiana were the Pacers help defense and ICEing the pick and roll:
(2) Help & Recover: The Pacers played in an exaggerated help position. At the high school level, you teach players who are guarding off the ball to split the court in half, and to come all the way to the mid-line. At the NBA level, that can be risky as leaving players that open can lead to open shots. But the Pacers employed this strategy routinely and used their athleticism to still recover and close out shooters.
(3) ICEing the Pick & Roll: The Pacers wanted to take away three’s and layups, and would send ball handlers towards the sideline to be bottled up by Roy Hibbert and David West. With Hill, Stephenson, and George’s ability to fight over screens and recover, the Pacers would force ball handlers to give up the ball to big men.
In this play, you see both of these concepts at work:
After the initial action, at the eight-second mark, you see Wade drive baseline off a Bosh screen. The screen was intended to send Wade into the middle, but he crosses over and goes left. But because of how Hibbert zone’s up (see first clip), he is able to impede Wade’s progress.
This is essentially an “ICEd” pick and roll, where you push the ball handler towards the baseline and force the ball out of his hands. But because Paul George is so quick to recover to Wade, Wade can’t take his favored pull-up jumper and swings it back to Chris Bosh. Mission accomplished from a defensive standpoint.
But even better is that while against most teams Bosh would have an open jumper, Hibbert is able to recover because Paul George is so quick to get to Wade. You see Bosh pump and drive, but the Pacers help defense snuffs this out.
As the play continues, you’ll see the Pacers flying across the court to help, but still recover to shooters. Watch George Hill from the 13-second mark to the 16-second mark go from one side of the court to the other to close out shooters, allowing his teammates to stay in the paint and force the travel.
Here’s an entire compilation of Roy Hibbert’s defense, which really shows all three of these principles at work:
Can Vogel Bring this to the Magic?
As awkward as the front-court logjam appears, Orlando’s additions of Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka make sense from a defensive standpoint. Biyombo has all the tools to anchor Vogel’s defensive system.
Biyombo, along with Ibaka, who should see minutes at center, both have the ability to protect the rim. Even more, they both have the ability to switch onto wing players (especially Ibaka), and won’t have to zone back as far as Roy Hibbert did for the Pacers. Zoning up takes away drives and three’s but invites open two’s. With the speed and agility of the Magic big men, they will be able to show higher on pick and rolls, and take away even more looks. Nikola Vucevic is obviously a concern on that end, but could turn into an electric scorer off the bench if Vogel decides to go that route.
Aaron Gordon is no Paul George, but he does present the versatility to guard against the perimeter or in the paint, stay with dribble penetration, and contest effectively. With even more coaching, Gordon has the potential to guard small forwards and make them uncomfortable.
In this series of clips, you’ll see his ability to close out to the three point line and then slide with offensive players as they attempt to turn the corner:
Where the Magic will struggle is in the backcourt. Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton have a long way to go defensively. While they are both young and can learn, they will have to add strength to go over screens. If they can’t fight over picks and recover to their man, Biyombo and Ibaka will be forced to defend attacking guards and leave their man.
As more and more teams are playing four and even five three-point shooters at a time, this becomes problematic. Indiana was so good at recovering, which allowed David West and Roy Hibbert to get back to their primary responsibilities. Look how long it takes Payton to recover here:
While this play is a team highlight, it isn’t for Elfrid. It takes him too long to get over the screen and recover to Rubio. Any other point guard would have turned the corner for a layup, but Rubio elected to pass. This is an area where both Payton and Fournier must improve. The good news is that playing with Ibaka and Biyombo gives them more options, as they are much more skilled at hedging than Vucevic, and both can switch if need be.
The Orlando Magic will be a work in progress as they sort out their rotations. Scoring will be an issue, especially since Vucevic, their best scorer, is a negative on the defensive end. But regardless of whether or not the Biyombo deal made sense, or if the Magic gave up too much for Ibaka, that pairing will make it very hard on opponents at the rim.
You add Aaron Gordon to that equation, and the Magic should be able to seal off the paint. But Vogel will have his work cut out at the guard position, and that could be the difference between the Magic making a surprise playoff push, or going back to the drawing board in their rebuilding effort.