Pacers Hoping to Maintain Historic Defense (Part 1)
by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
November 19, 2013
The numbers speak for themselves, but they don't tell the story.
86.3 — the average number of points the Pacers have allowed opponents this season, still best in the NBA despite Chicago's 110-point barrage on Saturday.
.398 — the Pacers' opponents' average field goal percentage, also still leading the league despite the aberration in Chicago.
Defense clearly has been the primary generator of the Pacers' 9-0 start to the season, the longest regular season win streak in the franchise's NBA history, but how it came to be is far more complex than a couple of obvious statistics. As with any intricate machination, it is made up of an assembly line of components, born of multiple masterminds, that have meshed to operate in sync. Most of the time, anyway.
It could turn out to be one of the better defenses in NBA history. It's certainly on its way to becoming the best in franchise history. No Pacers team has allowed fewer points per game or a lower field goal percentage. Perhaps even more tellingly, no Pacers team has enjoyed a greater per-game points differential. This one is scoring a league-best 9.4 points per game more than its opponents – it was 10.6 points before Chicago happened.
The statistics are significant when put into historical context. Larry Bird's best team as head coach, which won 58 games in the 1997-98 season, allowed 89.9 points and a .432 field goal percentage, and outscored opponents by an average of 6.1 points. The 2003-04 team, which featured Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest and won a franchise-record 61 games, allowed 85.6 points and .432 field goal shooting, and scored 5.8 points per night more than opponents.
The current group has been better than those teams because of its length, athleticism and devotion to the cause. The focus comes from coaching emphasis, sure, but also the mature realization that a consistently elite defense will give it a chance to win on nights when it shoots poorly, and bring a legitimate shot at a championship.
Says Paul George: “We understand defense wins games. Point-blank.”
A defense such as this doesn't come along often, nor does it happen overnight. For the Pacers, it was years in the making.
Assistant coach Dan Burke is the current defensive coordinator. Coach Frank Vogel half-jokingly throws out the G-words – “genius” and “guru” – that make Burke cringe. Regardless of what he is, he gets most of the credit for it, and Vogel gets credit for giving him a wide latitude to implement the plan. Some head coaches – Larry Brown and Jim O'Brien, for example – insist on being the lone voice in the locker room, which brings mixed results.
Burke joined the Pacers as a video coordinator for the 1997-98 season after working eight seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers as a video coordinator and scout. Larry Bird had hired Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter away from Portland as his (only) assistant coaches after taking the Pacers' head coaching job, and Burke followed them after the season began.
If Burke is the guru of this defense, Harter is the godfather. He's a legendary defensive coach within NBA circles, and was never more effective or recognized than when Bird gave him free reign for the three seasons that culminated with the Pacers' trip to the NBA Finals in 2000. A former officer in the Marine Corps, Harter was the classic ruddy-faced, leatherneck type, a congenial but genuinely tough man. His success as a college coach had been built on a swarming, physical defense – his teams at Oregon were known as the “Kamikaze Kids” – and he brought that mentality to the NBA as much as was practical. That was especially true under Bird, and while some of the Pacers players resisted him at first, his defense was a major element of their success.
It was a byproduct of strategy, sure. But it was also a mindset. Burke recalls a practice when Harter, who was in his late sixties at the time, tripped and fell after turning away as the pre-practice huddle broke up. The players laughed and began making jokes. “You think that's funny?!” Harter shouted. “I'll show you how to get on the floor!” He then rolled a ball onto the floor and dove on it.
There also was the time in the 1999 lockout season, when the Pacers – a popular preseason pick to win the championship – started 2-2 and then struggled to beat a weak Vancouver team. Heading into Los Angeles to play the Lakers, the team was in a bit of a funk. So, the day before the game at The Forum, Harter had the players line up, roll out a ball and dive on it – or at least slide and pick it up – one after the other, all the way around the court. Reggie Miller started yapping, everyone else joined in, and the mood changed. They beat the Lakers the next day, their first win in L.A. since 1992.
Harter's specialty was team defense. Players worked together as a unit, even more so than on offense, rotating to help and cover for one another, a system that required nearly as much mentally as physically. That's how he was able to wring the most out of an aging and relatively non-athletic lineup that included Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Dale Davis and Rik Smits – none of whom, with the possible exception of Davis, was a strong individual defender.
Burke uses many of the same team defensive concepts as Harter, but with some tweaks, such as how the center defends the pick-and-roll. Smits had to jump out and defend the ballhandler until he got help – a “hard show” – and then run back to find his man. Roy Hibbert doesn't have to do that. Burke also incorporates concepts from other coaches, such as Mike Brown, who joined Rick Carlisle's Pacers coaching staff in 2003 after working for Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio.
“Every element is a five-man fundamental, whether its post defense or pick-and-roll defense,” Burke said. “When we get to the point all five guys are in sync, where one guy moves and the other four move at the same time, and our talk is at a premium, then we're where we want to be.”
Burke has a far more athletic group of starters to work with than Harter did, and a more disciplined group than the team from 2003-04. Hibbert leads the NBA in blocked shots, and Paul George is one of the league's best perimeter defenders. Vogel considers both of them among the top five defenders in the game. Both have stated their goal of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award someday. George Hill is one of the league's better defensive point guards. David West has great hand speed in making deflections and is the group's best communicator. Lance Stephenson is raw, but physical and willing.
As Stephenson improves and the unit continues to build chemistry and learn nuances, they should improve on what's already the league's best defense. And if they maintain their current standard, they will become the best in franchise history, something Burke grudgingly acknowledges.
“I would say it might be better in that I feel really comfortable when we need a stop late in the game we're going to get a stop,” he said. “We have more guys capable of making game-winning plays.” As an example, Burke cited the Pacers' win at Brooklyn, when both Stephenson and West made game-saving defensive plays in the final minutes.
One of the crucial elements of the Pacers' defense is contested shots – the percentage of times a defender crowds a shooter and gets a hand up to distract him. Under Bird and Harter, the goal was about 37 percent. This season's team has challenged about 40 percent of shots. The only times it failed to reach 40 percent was in the win at New Orleans, when it trailed by 14 at the half, and Saturday's loss at Chicago. It challenged 43 percent of Memphis' shots in a 16-point win. Burke considers that stat and the percentage of offensive rebounds an opponent grabs (25 percent or less is the Pacers' goal) to have the greatest correlation to winning.
What counts as a contested shot is open to interpretation, but the Pacers keep track during games and go back and check again on video to count them. Generally, Burke says, a defender has to be within a couple feet of the shooter and have a hand up for it to qualify as a contest. Rarely do they lose when they contest 40 percent or better of an opponent's shots.
The Pacers also chart deflections, but do not value steals. One might think steals would be an important element of a strong team defense, but not so. Burke believes players trying to make a steal usually start a ripple effect that leads to an easy shot. The Pacers don't keep stats on “gambles,” but note them when watching video, and discourage them unless the opportunity is obvious.
The NBA standings support the argument. The Pacers rank second-to-last in steals, at 5.9 per game, ahead of only Portland, which has a 9-2 record. Detroit and Dallas are tied for the league lead at 10 per game.
The bottom line of the Pacers' team defensive approach is consistency of its principles. Burke won't make changes in strategy whenever a player hits a few jump shots early in the game. He cites the example of their win in New Orleans, when they fell behind in the first half and players were wanting to start switching on pick-and-rolls. Burke grew angry in the locker room, and said: “Do what we do first. Let's just do it better. If they keep beating us, we can adjust.”
The Pacers came from behind to win by five points.
Maintaining strict defensive principles enables the players to hold one another accountable, because they all know what's supposed to be done. This group does that without much prompting. When Stephenson allowed O.J. Mayo a couple of quick 3-pointers early in the game against Milwuakee, he heard about it from Hibbert. When he failed to block out on the weakside moments later and gave up an offensive tip-in, he heard about it from Hill. Players can often be seen talking to one another during dead balls on the court to clarify assignments. They also are shown video of first-half plays in the locker room at halftime, and have further discussions then. (Those halftime sessions, by the way, have been a major factor in the team's third-quarter success.)
“They make it fun,” Burke said. “They're coachable and they ask questions.
“I don't want to get too greedy with our talent, though. You think, These guys are so smart, we can do this and we can do that … no, let's just do what we do.”
A truly great team defense, however, starts with athletic and active individual defenders. Here's Burke's take on the Pacers starters:
He leads the NBA in blocked shots, at 4.6 per game, one more than second-place Anthony Davis. His block of Carmelo Anthony's dunk attempt late in Game 6 of last season's second-round playoff series has become an iconic moment modern Pacers' history.
As a rim protector, Hibbert enables his teammates to play more aggressively on the perimeter, knowing Hibbert is there to help if they get beat. He also makes opponents think twice about driving into the lane in the first place. Television commentator Jeff Van Gundy dubbed him “the Great Wall of Hibbert” during last season's players series against the Knicks, when Hibbert established himself as a premier post defender, and he's taken greater pride in it since. He knows he won't get a lot of shots while surrounded by so many capable scorers, so he saves most of his energy for defense.
He's 6-9, agile and eager, so he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He notably shut down high-scoring opponents such as James Harden and Rudy Gay in games last season, and felt slighted when he was voted to the second-team all-defensive unit. On the day he was presented with the Most Improved Player award, he vowed to win the Defensive Player as well, someday.
George might be the best all-around defender the Pacers have had. Artest, honored as the NBA's best in 2004, was blessed with a low center of gravity as well as great hands, strength and desire. George, however, has some advantages over Artest, aside from greater length.
“He's more flexible,” Burke said. “I don't know if that makes him better, but he's more flexible. Paul's got this body where he can get through screens and fight through crowds. He has great anticipation. He's getting more patient with his hands, too. Sometimes his fouls come when he's gambling and reaching for a steal. He's limiting that.”
George's flexibility also enables him to be a better off-the-ball defender than Artest was. Where Artest was an intimidating one-on-one defender, George is more willing and able to chase players around screens and away from the ball.
He might not have the quickest feet for a power forward, although they're certainly adequate, but he has great hands for defending. He trains in the off-season by boxing, and one of his favorite hobbies is drumming, so that might help. He deflected the ball from Derrick Rose a couple of times in the Pacers' win over Chicago on Nov. 6, and got a crucial deflection from Deron Williams late in the win at Brooklyn.
He's also the team's best communicator and improviser on defense. Sometimes, for example, he'll trap a ballhandler on the sideline to force a double-team when it's not called for in the scouting report. Or, he'll double-team the ball in the low post, something Burke generally discourages.
“David has a real feel for when to do things during the game,” Burke said. “Sometimes it's out of our scheme, but we have a lot of trust in David.”
West has a feel for personnel, too. Late in the game at Brooklyn, the coaches were going to take Hibbert out and bring in another perimeter defenders to guard against a 3-point shot. “No, no, man, we got this!” West shouted to the coaches. Hibbert stayed in the game, the Nets threw the ball out of bounds, and the Pacers improved their record to 7-0.
“He's the lion heart of everything, a guy you really trust,” Burke said. “I'll ask him, 'How do you want to guard this?' It's great give-and-take and he'll own up to everything he does.”
Although West has the liberty of straying from a team concept at times, he's the closest the Pacers have to a coach on the floor. He communicates with his teammates as much as he does his coaches, and speaks as passionately about defense as Burke does.
“We're committed to it,” West said, when asked to explain the team's defensive success. “We trust in it even if the other team scores. We put the work in to make it work. Ultimately we have guys who can defend their position and we have great help defenders.
“I talk about this with our group … the other night Rudy Gay got going and I was pissed off because I couldn't get a piece of him, couldn't get over to help. But Paul was saying, 'I've got him.' That's unique about our locker room. We pull for each other. We want to defend one ball, one guy with all five of our guys. We're constantly in communication, starting with our point guard all the way to the rim with Roy.
“If we lean on our defense, it's going to pull us through most nights. If we trust in our defense it's going to put us in a good way at the end of the night.”
Defense wasn't foremost on his mind when he was dominating the playgrounds of Brooklyn, but he's gradually getting on board with the notion. Last season, he constantly talked about “air space” in post-game interviews with the media.
“We took away their air space,” he said after most wins.
“We didn't take away their air space,” he said after most losses.
He still gets lost at times, such as when he gave up those quick 3-pointers to Mayo against Milwaukee, but he's willing. It doesn't hurt that he's often the strongest and fastest player in the game. He got back on defense late in the game against Brooklyn to help make a game-saving defensive play.
The challenge for him, as it is for most young players, is making multiple efforts in a single defensive possession. He not only has to remember to “sink” to help defend in the lane, but also to run back out to get a hand in the face of a perimeter shooter.
“Those are the concepts he's getting dialed in,” Burke said. “For him to get on board with the discipline of our defense has been hard, but that's just a natural thing for a guy like him, who could just go out and create havoc and do what he wanted (with previous teams).
“But he's come a long way. I told him, if we ever get you up to (contesting) every three out of five shots, we're going to be in business.”
He played his first three seasons in San Antonio, which consistently has one of the league's better defenses. That was a great training ground.
“Coach Pop was a defensive-minded coach,” Hill said. “That's how you got on the floor for him. Defense is something you have to want to do.”
Hill has average height for an NBA point guard at 6-foot-2, but has unusually long arms. He also has expertise that often goes unnoticed to most observers.
“George is one of best pick-and-roll defenders I've been around,” Burke said. “He's got a lot of savvy tricks he uses.”
The Pacers' bench unit also has improved defensively from last season, Burke said, although Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young were capable. The key to the unit now is Ian Mahinmi, whose quick feet allow him to clean up the mistakes of others. While Hibbert is known as a rim protector, Burke considers Mahinmi a “lane protector” who is able to jump out and defend a pick-and-roll but still get back to the basket in time to help defend near the basket.
He's also taking greater pride in his defense, asking for game video to take home and study.
“He's so mobile,” Burke said. “To have a one-two tandem (with Hibbert and him) is pretty impressive. It's a luxury.”
Luis Scola lacks quickness, but says he's become more committed to defense since his trade to the Pacers, mostly because it's emphasized more. Burke takes pride in seeing him lower his head and sprint back on defense, and in seeing him defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively. C.J. Watson was well-tutored in Chicago's defensive system, and has more size and strength than last year's backup point guard, D.J. Augustin. Orlando Johnson and rookie Solomon Hill are physical, aggressive defenders who pick up on the schemes quickly. Chris Copeland lacks the footspeed to be really effective and is still learning the schemes, which is one of the reasons he has struggled to find more playing time.
In the end, the Pacers will likely go only as far as their defense takes them. Burke will ride herd on it. He won't necessarily dive on loose balls, but he will continue pointing out mistakes – angrily, if needed. The players kidded him about being “crabby” one day in practice last week, but he takes that as a badge of honor.
“Everything matters,” he said. “When they're not dialed in, I like to grab their attention. Frank's a great motivator. But sometimes at the defensive end they need a shot. Sometimes I feel I need to be the bad cop.
“There's no tricks to it. There are twists and nuances and emphases, but our pride and heart and our desire will have to make it work, ultimately.”