When it comes to defense, the Indiana Pacers have been outliers this season. Plotting the NBA's defensive ratings so far requires stretching the axis to include the Pacers, who have allowed just 93.5 points per 100 possessions in a league in which the average team allows 105.9.
Only one other team, the San Antonio Spurs (98.8), allows opponents less than a point per possession, and the difference between Indiana and the third-place Chicago Bulls (100.9) is larger than the gap between the Bulls and the team ranked 23rd (New Orleans Pelicans, 108.1).
As early as it is, such dominance requires us to consider whether the 16-1 Pacers might have the best defense in NBA history -- and how they've gotten here.
Better than the best
Of course, Indiana already was the league's best defensive team last season, allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions. And the Pacers' prowess was on full display in the playoffs, as they shut down the league's No. 3 offense (the New York Knicks) and held the No. 1 offense (the Miami Heat) in check during the Eastern Conference finals. As the Memphis Grizzlies can attest, however, elite defense doesn't necessarily carry over season to season. But somehow, the Pacers have gotten better.
It all starts in the middle, where Roy Hibbert has built on last season's impressive postseason run to emerge as the league's premier individual defender. Hibbert has improved his block rate from 6.7 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts last season to 9.2 percent this season, while simultaneously cutting his foul rate, a development that began in the 2013 playoffs as referees began giving Hibbert the benefit of the doubt when he contested shots while remaining vertical. The result has been the league's second-best rate of blocks per foul (1.2), trailing the Spurs' Tim Duncan (1.33).
In addition to putting opponents on the free throw line less frequently because of Hibbert's ability to defend without fouling, Indiana is forcing more turnovers. The Pacers, who ranked just 26th in the league in opponent turnover percentage last season, have jumped into the league's top 10 in 2013-14. According to NBAWowy.com, the Pacers have drawn a league-high 52 offensive fouls through Friday.
Indiana has improved elsewhere without sacrificing its ability to defend shots. Opponents have barely made 40 percent of their 2-point attempts against the Pacers, far and away the league's lowest mark. Remarkably, just 11 players in the league with at least 100 2-point attempts have shot as poorly this season as the average Indiana opponent.
Tested by the West
Skeptics will note that the Pacers have benefited from a weak November schedule. Of the NBA's top 12 offenses on a per-possession basis, 11 reside in the Western Conference. Indiana has faced just three of them. The average Pacers opponent ranks 23rd in the NBA in offensive rating.
Accounting for that easy slate takes a little air out of Indiana's impressive start. The Pacers have allowed 12.1 percent fewer points per 100 possessions than league average but are holding their opponents just 9.0 percent below their typical performance. Nonetheless, that mark will still be the best in post-merger NBA history if Indiana can maintain it all season:
The schedule will soon even out. Indiana's win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday was the start of a five-game trip that features matchups against four of the West's top five teams. That includes a visit Monday night to the fast-starting 14-3 Portland Trail Blazers. Then, after the Pacers return home, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat pay a visit a week from Tuesday. At the conclusion of this stretch, we'll have a lot better idea of whether Indiana's defense is historically great -- and whether the Pacers can hang on to the top spot in the East all season.
The sincerest form of flattery
It's impossible to separate Indiana's success defensively from its personnel. Hibbert is the early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, and budding superstar Paul George might join him on the All-Defensive First Team. George Hill and Lance Stephenson also are effective on the perimeter, and David West's versatility enables him to match up with both traditional big men and stretch 4s.
But coach Frank Vogel has found a scheme that takes full advantage of their skills -- in particular Hibbert's ability to contest shots in the paint -- so the Pacers are able to minimize high-efficiency looks inside and beyond the arc. While conceding that the defense wouldn't be as effective without Hibbert, Vogel recently told reporters he would consider a similar philosophy with different personnel.
"I think this is how you have to build a defense with players like this," he said. "If you don't have size, there's other things you could do that might make more sense."
Vogel's peers might be starting to come to the same conclusion. Elements of Indiana's defensive scheme have begun to trickle throughout the league -- most notably in Portland. The Pacers will recognize how Blazers coach Terry Stotts is having his big men sink to the paint against pick-and-rolls while perimeter defenders stay at home on shooters.
Portland, which ranked 26th defensively last season, hasn't seen anywhere near the same results. Still, the new scheme -- anchored by 7-footer Robin Lopez, acquired in a summer trade -- has helped the Blazers improve from 26th to 10th in opponents' effective field goal percentage. Portland actually has outdone Indiana by allowing opponents to attempt 3-pointers on barely 20 percent of their shot attempts, the league's second-lowest mark. (The Pacers rank third, with the Boston Celtics No. 1.)
In a league that emphasizes efficient shot selection on offense, smart coaches are trying to take those high-value attempts (corner 3-pointers and shots around the rim) away from opponents. And nobody has done a better job of that -- now and maybe ever -- than this season's Indiana Pacers.