One of cable television's highest rated shows stars Kyra Sedgwick, the actress wife of Kevin Bacon, as a detective working for Los Angeles Police Department as head of what they call their Priority Homicide Division. The entire plot of the show is that she was brought in to finish difficult cases that LAPD couldn't seem to get finished.....the name of the show is, appropriately, "The Closer."
While I'm not recommending we bring a Hollywood actress to help run our franchise, I do think our Pacers are in desperate, more than any team in the league perhaps, would be helped by obtaining a "closer"....someone who gets the job done, regardless of how it may look or feel.
To be clear, I'm not talking about a "closer" in an offensive sense, as it is usually referred to in basketball. I am instead referring to our inability to stop teams from scoring, particularly in crunch time, but in reality all throughout the game. Consider some following stats:
The Pacers are 10-19 as I currently write this. As of now, the are I believe the 4th or 5th worst field goal percentage defense in the league, and while I havent looked it up lately, we also foul I think more than most teams in the league, giving up more foul shots by far than the average NBA team, with the usual exception of Utah.
In spite of that, in those 19 losses, we have had the lead in the 4th quarter a staggering 12 times! In addition to that, I believe we have been within 1 possession during the final 3 minutes 8 of those losses, and have been (by my unofficial count) ahead 5 different times in the last 20 seconds, only to see our opponents score baskets at the end of games to either win or send games into overtime, where we have also been pitiful. Someone else can list all the specific games, but off the top of my head at midnight on a Saturday night I can think of the Boston game (Ray Allen hits a three), the Charlotte game at home (Ray Felton sends it into overtime) and the New Jersey game this week (Devin Harris scores at the buzzer). I know there have been a few more....after a while, it becomes hard to keep track.
Our lack of ability to make any team in the league struggle offensively, no matter how poor they may be, is the single biggest factor in my view of why we aren't 16-13, or 14-15, or somewhere much better than we currently are at least. Coming from a coaching perspective, our defense is so abysmal at times that it makes us difficult to watch, even when we win a shootout against a fellow doormat such as Golden State this week.
I believe the time has come to at least start to ask some difficult questions of ourselves, to our Pacers, and to our fellow fans. As I see it, the defensive problems at their core can be boiled down to three central elements: Effort, scheme, and talent. This thread will attempt to hit all three topics, and hopefully create some quality discussion.
I'll discuss effort first.
The popular thing I read or hear from casual fans, and sometimes on here, is that the Pacers are downtrodden, but at least we are happy with the effort they are giving. I know it makes us feel better to think that and verbalize it, but isn't this just damning with faint praise?
I expected and demanded effort from my teams in my coaching days, and I expect it from my employees and myself everyday. I am sure most of you experience those feelings everyday too at your jobs. Giving your best, your maximum effort, as a professional athlete is not only expected, it should be a given. I no longer will give our Pacers a pass for incredibly bad or stupid play defensively just because of the shadow word of "hustle" or "effort". That is a staple, not a bonus plan....nothing for me to be excited about anymore, and you shouldn't lower your expectations of success just because your team seems to "hustle", if they are completely unsuccessful while doing so!
Everyone, and me included until now, has been over-rating our team's hustle and effort anyway, I guess because it makes us feel better about things, I don't know. But effort has to come from the mental side too, and if our "effort" was truly so great then we should be seeing at least some marginal improvement collectively by now. We aren't seeing that, in fact I think we are regressing defensively.
Praising effort can be a cop out for fans to say something nice about bad teams. Here in Bloomington, you often here about the IU fans (of which I am one and proud of it) praise this years team for always hustling and "playing hard". People say that, but they don't know what it really means at times. You see a player hustle after a loose ball or just get to help side in time to take a charge, and everybody says "great effort!". Well, it isn't always great effort, in fact it is often because the player was late and out of position to start with, thereby creating a driving lane...if the player on defense truly was demonstrating "great effort", he would have been in the right place to begin with, and the drive may never have been attempted.
My bottom line is this: Playing hard or semi hard most nights isn't good enough for me. My standards are higher than that, and our team should be better defensively than it is. We don't improve, we don't get tougher, we don't get physical, and lately, we don't seem all that bothered as a team or as fans even when our defense becomes more and more porous. In fact, there is a certain human nature that wants us to just accept it for what it is....but acceptance of failure is, well, unacceptable!
Maybe its just the late hour, our my cranky mood, but our Pacers are starting to just roll over and accept the losing I am afraid, and I'm afraid it is happening here too among us. Realism is one thing, but accepting mediocre effort and results is something else. No more lip service to playing tougher defense guys, either get the job done, or we will find someone else who will.....that is the type of message I am longing to hear someone say on the coaching staff.
That is a good lead-in to my next discussion point, which is our defensive scheme, and the ability of our coaches to get it to work.
I hear people say often that our scheme is similar to what Boston runs. Well, I am a coach/scout by trade, and I breakdown teams on film at the high school level alot. Either we are trying to do something more complex than Boston that to me is unidentifiable, or we just completely stink at doing what the coaches are attempting to install. Regardless, something will need to change from a coaching standpoint defensively, because we are beyond porous.
Our perimeter guys, especially it seems to me our point guards although they arent the only culprits, are still getting beat WAY to easily and too often off the dribble. This is causing our alreadly slow and weak inside guys to have to overreact and help too much, and our complicated rotations out of help are way too slow, and therefore we give up easy jumpers uncontested way too often.
Other problems exist too of course. Our screen/roll defensive scheme has cost us at least 2 games at the end I can think of (Boston game and one more I can't remember), when our big man INEXPLICABLY, when helping "hedge" on the ballhandler/shooter, LEFT THE BALL TOO SOON to rotate back to his man (before the original defender was in position) and gave up an open three point shot to beat us eventually. In the Boston game at Conseco, it was Jeff Foster (a vet who should know better) who left RAY FREAKIN ALLEN alone at the top of the circle with the Pacers ahead 3. Allen of course nailed the three ahead of a flailing attempt by a too late Marquis Daniels, and the Pacers lost eventually.
We are not "tied together" very well defensively. Do you want something to watch in a Pacer game to prove this? One of the keys to man to man defense that is successful is the theory of "jumping to the ball". That is the principle of when the opponent makes a pass, that all 5 of your defenders should slide toward the ball one slide, in a defensive stance, reacting as one force to help stop the shot. I cannot tell you how much a typical high school team in this state that is well taught practices that....it is an old fundamental. Some coaches (including yours truly) have tied the defenisve players together by rope even, FORCING them to move as one in help position. The oldest defensive drill in the world is the "4 man shell drill".....and the Pacers look like they've never heard of it. Watch how the Pacers weakside defenders do not all react jointly to a pass, and you'll see what I mean.
You know what? Maybe our scheme is too complicated for our players, because maybe we have the dumbest players in the league. This is a defensive thread I know, but how many times will Jarrett Jack need to leave his feet with no where to pass and turn it over in the last 2 minutes to learn not to do that? How many times will we leave a great shooter wide open at crunch time when we leave the basketball for no reason? For a professional basketball team full of players who have played their entire lives preparing for these moments, we make a ton of silly mistakes.
Which leads me to a lack of talent. Obviously, we lack some in this area. But again, I've always told my teams that intelligence and heart and effort can make you a quality defensive team. But in reality even I know that heart and "want to" can only take you so far. We badly need an influx of defensive individual talent...... our seemingly shoddy scheme might look a little better if we didn't have such dopes trying to execute it perhaps.
We need several new pieces to be a good defensive team in the future. I go back and forth about what order we need them with this group, but I'll stick with my normal philosophy I think and put them in this order:
1. An elite wing defender to guard the opponents best player so Granger doesnt have to. I know everyone is semi happy with Marquis Daniels and his offensive contributions, but in reality he is a sieve at times. Granger is a nice shot blocker and I think does play more physically like I like defensively, but we still need a bookend to play next to him.
2. We badly need a physical, strong enforcer inside....a Dale Davis type player who can intimidate physically. The Pacers have the softest bigs in the league as we know. Taking charges is nice, and our bigs do it well, but if we had better defenders on the perimeter and an enforcer inside to punish drivers, maybe teams wouldnt just dunk on us with impunity like they do now. Maybe an intimidator would keep teams from wanting to drive in the first place, especially if we committed some hard fouls! In reality, we may need a couple of guys like this....and they aren't as easy to come by as you would hope.
3. I had higher hopes for the Ford/Jack combo as a defensive pairing. Jack in particular is getting exposed at times when playing the point, and I may be the only one, but I absolutely despise playing these 2 players together. I think playing them together, combined with our already soft as charmin front line, makes us the pansiest team in the NBA. I need further study about these 2 players defensively to see if them in combination can play the position defensively the way I want. If I decide not, I may be pushing to draft a point guard in June, when back in October I would never have though that.
Speaking of the draft, there is a distinct lack of anyone I consider a superior wing defender in the draft, with the possible exception of Earl Clark from Louisville...and he is iffy to me as a potential lockdown defender. I see no real "tough guy" big power forwards either, other than Blake Griffin who I think will be an outstanding pro, an all NBA level player eventually. Other than him I don't see a tough guy who has the other skills to play next to Roy Hibbert in the future, so Larry is going to have to be creative I think to fill these holes with players already in the league I think. I like Thabeet from UCONN alot as a center anchor of defense so far, but I question whether he and Hibbert could play together, and I'm not willing to write off Roy yet at all, and in reality all those players will likely be gone by our eventual pick anyway. I think we likely will need to go the free agent route, using our MLE, or creative sign and trades.
One potential answer I think is the Lakers Trevor Ariza, who I think we should make priority number one for next summer. He is an unrestricted free agent, is likely to leave LA for a starting spot and more money, and most teams will be saving up for the summer of 2010. We will have money coming off the books in Daniels and Nesterovic, so he should be affordable, and he makes a ton of sense. No reason I can't start the drumbeat now for him, so some of you can watch him play the rest of the season with a closer eye and give us your opinions on him. I think he is perfect for one of the pieces we need to become a great defensive team.
I am very concerned about the team style and identity we are seemingly going for, or at least that Jim O'Brien is going for. I think we are soft, weak, play too small, and play too.....immature?....gutless?....wimpy? I don't know what word I would describe us now, but what I envision us being is tough, physically strong, intimidating, smart, enthusiastic.....and "relentless". I hate to quote Isiah, but he once said in his tenure that we "need some dogs". I agree with that....we need some junkyard dogs in here!
How much help would it be, for instance, to have a player like a Paul Milsap, or Trevor Ariza (I view him as a perimeter guard dog), or to go back in the past, a player like Rick Mahorn or Dale Davis? I think it could help a ton, and it is the direction that we need to go. I envision us as being the toughest, hardest to play against, most physical team in the league, not some pansy collection of jump shooters who play matador defense and try to outscore you.
Regardless of what players are here and how we play, I am and will always remain a loyal fan....after all, that is what I am and what I do, and I am sure many of you can relate. But my loyality doesnt need to be blind, and it doesnt mean I can't question things.
Larry Bird: it's time to start acquiring some players who can be athletic and mentally and physically tough enough to defend with pride, and who would rather bleed and cause blood to flow than give up a drive or a jump shot.
Jim O'Brien: it's time to quit paying lip service to defense, and to actually start demanding it be played well and played correctly. It's time to quit worrying about protecting your job, and to start doing your job! It's time to either get the players to buy in, to simplify your scheme, or to coach it and teach it better. It's time to get your assistant coaches involved, and perhaps to its time to quit being so stubborn offensively and to use your offense to help hide your swiss cheese defense.
Players: it's time to quit blaming injuries, youth, inexperience, and all the other crap excuses that the media in our town and the fans and staff may give you. It's time to suck it up and take some individual pride in stopping someone. it is time to study harder, scout better, play with even more effort and tenacity, it is time to concentrate, be more determined, and to be tougher. It's time to quit making excuses, and to start making plays that can win ballgames on the defensive end.
Fans: it's time to start holding people accountable for their play, and to raise our expectations above where they are now. We are starting to become enablers by accepting passively terrible play, and sometimes poor effort. We need to start being more demanding of this team, and not just lay back and accept our fate.
In fact, I think that is the key word: Accountability. It is time we had some regarding this team's performance, starting right now. The business side is solid now, and we have good citizens and people. All that is awesome, but I expect alot more from my favorite team than having a group of solid citizens who get their butts kicked every night.
As always, the above is just my opinion.