Right now there are three NBA teams with better records than you'd expect given their track record from last season and the various circumstances surrounding their performance so far this season: Denver, Minnesota, and Indiana.1 The Nuggets are 23-16 despite one of the toughest early-season schedules in recent NBA history and the underperformance — until Danilo Gallinari's recent surge, at least — of every player with a leadership role in its offense. Minnesota, at 16-19, has stayed in the playoff race amid an unending pile of injuries.
In a very broad sense, the answers to the success of the Nuggets and Wolves lie in the way they leverage shot selection to their advantage. Both compensate for a lack of outside shooting and All-Star-level scorers (when Kevin Love is out) by relentlessly going at the basket and doing their best, defensively, to keep opponents from doing the same. Denver takes about 45 percent of its shots from within the restricted area, by far the highest share in the league, and Minnesota is close behind. Both get to the line a ton as a result, and they work to avoid fouling at the other end; Minnesota has been especially Spurs-like in this regard. They can't get all the variables to flip the way they'd like,2 but this is generally how two imperfect teams come out ahead: exploit math, understand the geometry of the court, bowl your way to the basket at all costs, and work to build a cohesive defense.
And the Pacers? A lot of this story doesn't apply. They have the look and feel of a bruising interior team, but only a league-average share of their shot attempts come from the restricted area, per NBA.com. Even worse: They can't hit those close shots. Thanks in large part to Roy Hibbert's struggles, Indiana has hit a putrid 55 percent of its shots in the restricted area; only five teams have been worse. They don't take an unusual number of corner 3s, and they're only getting to the foul line at an average rate after living there last season. Put it together, and the Pacers rank 29th — next-to-stinking-last — in points per possession.
The Pacers' 23-15 record, and their recovery from a 5-7 start in the wake of Danny Granger's knee injury, is about defense. Indiana has allowed just 95.7 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. Their defense has gotten even stronger as the schedule has gotten tougher in the last two weeks, with games against Atlanta, Memphis, Miami, Boston, Brooklyn, and New York (without Carmelo Anthony). Indiana has allowed about 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, putting them near the company of some of the greatest defenses in modern NBA history. Since the league introduced the 3-point shot in the 1979-1980 season, only eight teams have finished a season at least seven points per 100 possessions stingier than the league's overall average, per Basketball-Reference.com.3
Indiana's defense, so far, is beyond good — it's potentially historically great. That raises two questions:
1. Is this kind of defense enough to contend for a title, even with an offense this poor? A handful of teams — the mid-2000s Pistons and post-2009 Celtics, for instance — have ridden the combination of a league-average offense and an elite defense to legitimate title contention. But does the formula work when "average" becomes "sub-Bobcats"?
2. How are they doing this?
The answers to the second question are pretty simple. The Pacers aren't the early-1990s Sonics, reinventing NBA defense. The Pacers are huge, they don't have any weak links among their heavy-minutes players, and they're smart.
Those first two factors — sheer size and the lack of a minus defender — are so basic and immune to strategy that they are easy to speed past in search of sexier answers. But they are the foundation of what's going on here. During a team meeting in training camp, Frank Vogel, Indy's recently extended head coach, called George Hill, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George to the front of the locker room and had them stand side by side, with their arms outstretched, according to Vogel and several players. The point was obvious: "I just wanted to illustrate to the guys what enormous length we have," Vogel says. George laughs when he recalls the scene: "I was like, 'What does coach have us doing up here in front of everybody?'"
Hibbert is the biggest, and Vogel decided early on that he preferred his center to hang back below the foul line on pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor.4 David West is faster and more comfortable away from the rim; when opponents target West in the pick-and-roll, Vogel has him "blitz" out at opposing point guards, lunging at them out toward mid-court, hoping to cut them off, bump them, or make them pause before they can turn the corner.
The pick-and-roll is the centerpiece of just about every NBA offense, and Vogel has settled on these two methods as the best combined way to contain it.5 The goal is for the two primary defenders — the big and the guard — to disrupt the play enough to limit the level of help Indiana's other three defenders must provide. Every team requires at least one help defender to leave a weakside shooter to crash down on an opposing big man rolling free down the lane. Indiana's system is no different. But the Pacers want that player to get back to his assignment earlier than he'd be able to on other teams, and to perhaps have one or two fewer steps to cover on his journey.
And they want to limit the number of times those defenders have to help at all. Hibbert has gotten good at sliding to opposing point guards while keeping contact with his original guy in the lane, and when point guards do turn the corner, Indiana trusts that its long-armed guards can still bother those players from behind. A little guy has to add more lean to his layup or floater if the guard trailing him around a pick is long enough to bother the shot from behind; Vogel calls it a "rearview challenge."
Hibbert has been an impactful deterrent down low; the Pacers allow the third-fewest shot attempts per game within the restricted area, and their opponents shoot a league-low 52.8 percent on the few shots they do get in there, per NBA.com. The system concedes mid-range shots to pick-and-roll ball handlers — remember all those LeBron floaters over Hibbert? — but any system has to concede something at the NBA level, and Vogel will have Hibbert come out an extra step or two against Chris Paul types. Hibbert has been a liability on offense, but he deserves a fringe mention in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. So does George.
There's a deeper braininess going on, too. Indiana has allowed only 4.1 corner 3 attempts per game, the second-lowest number in the league, and their opponents have hit a pathetic 27.7 percent on those enticing shorter 3s — the stingiest mark in the league by a mile. That number will regress to the mean a bit, but it's also the product of Indy's collective length and grasp of NBA math. Vogel and his staff work hard to make sure Indiana understands which shooters can be left with a bit of space, and which require close attention, help instincts be damned; the team calls the latter type "laser shooters." And Vogel has another rule: "We never rotate to a 2-point jump-shooter off of a 3-point jump-shooter," he says.
Toss in an elite wing defender in George, and a lot of communication, and you've got a top-shelf defense. "One of the silver linings of Danny Granger being out," Vogel says, "is seeing everyone step up defensively to help make up for it." Given good health, there's no reason to expect a significant drop-off.6 That leaves that pesky second question: Is this defense enough to contend for a ring?
The answer is almost certainly no. Over the last 25 years, no team ranked near this poorly on offense has won a title, and only one, the 1998-99 Knicks (26th in scoring efficiency that season), advanced to the Finals. That team rejiggered its rotation dramatically late and played in a wacky lockout-shortened season. So did last year's Celtics, who got within a game of the Finals despite a sputtering offense that ranked 25th in points per possession. And even getting that far required considerable luck.7 Those two teams in lockout seasons essentially represent the entire history of bottom-five offenses advancing even to the conference finals. It's true that elite defense correlates to winning titles more than elite offense does, but teams that excel at both generally win it all, and teams that stink at one generally don't.
The Pacers have to do better, and they're trying. After playing perhaps the simplest offense in the league last season, Vogel has gradually introduced more spice — plays for Lance Stephenson, including some pick-and-rolls that come after creative misdirection; some surprise pin-downs for West; and greater freedom for George, blossoming into an All-Star candidate.
That almost didn't happen, by the way. George struggled so much in trying to pick up the Granger slack that Vogel nearly torpedoed the experiment. George was running a lot of pick-and-rolls early, the territory of a ball-dominant star, and he had a tendency to try to copy those stars — Dwyane Wade especially, he says — by splitting the two defenders on those plays. It was a disaster, with George coughing up the ball at an alarming rate. "We reached the point where we asked him to remove the split from his game entirely," Vogel says. "It was a turnover 70 percent of the time."
But even with more movement and the dual pass/score threat West represents in pick-and-rolls, Vogel still needed a perimeter anchor, and he needed it to be George. "We had to make a decision," Vogel says. "Stop running pick-and-rolls with him, or get him better at it. We decided to try and get him better at it." George has improved his own game, and the coaching staff has helped by making it easier for him at times — by jump-starting him into pick-and-rolls via hand-offs or catches at the elbow, instead of having him initiate them all from 30 feet away. "I was trying to force it too much early," George says. "I'm starting to get an understanding now of how everything works — our offense, and our spacing."
It hasn't been enough — yet. After a blip of improvement when the schedule got especially soft in December, the Pacers' offense has fallen off again. Hibbert still can't find his shot. The bench remains a scoring disaster area, though D.J. Augustin's rediscovery of his game after falling out of the rotation is encouraging. Hibbert is basically a 30-minute-per-game player, and poor bench play was a key factor in Miami's six-game win over Indiana last season. Indiana was unusually dependent on its starting five last season, and they are again today.8
Vogel knows the scoring rate has to jump. He's monitoring the points-per-possession rankings daily, hoping to see his team inch into the territory it must reach in order to seriously contend. Granger's return will add a valuable spot-up shooter — a role in which Gerald Green has struggled — and have a nice trickle-down effect for the bench. The Pacers were a top-10 offense just last season, and the starting group with Granger scored at an elite rate. Heck, the current starting group has scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions, equivalent to the eighth- or ninth-best offense in the league, per NBA.com's lineup data. Stephenson's emergence as a reliable part has been key; if that continues and Granger regains something like peak form, perhaps Indiana can cobble together an average offense.
They'll need to if they want a chance to beat a healthy Miami team. A defense — even a great one — can take you only so far.
1. Coaches on the Floor
Tony Brothers became the official favorite referee of this space last Thursday, when he stopped the Miami-Portland game and warned Erik Spoelstra to get off the court. Spoelstra is probably the worst offender among the league's head coaches, routinely crossing a couple of steps onto the floor and up toward midcourt to frantically yell instructions — as if the Heat were a junior high team. But most coaches cross onto the playing surface now and then; Mike D'Antoni got in the way against the Knicks on Christmas, and Lawrence Frank (another serial offender) accidentally deflected a pass during garbage time against the Kings two weeks ago.
And these are just the latest examples. Scott Skiles nearly took out Carlos Arroyo's ankles two seasons ago (see the 1:45 mark) on a corner 3, and the season before, Jason Kidd and Mike Woodson (then with Atlanta) combined for perhaps the most famous on-court player-coach collision.
The actual rule is simple: If a coach steps onto the court without permission from the referees, officials are supposed to call a technical. They rarely do, and on the surface, that's fine; games would take forever if officials enforced every rule to the letter — coaching box regulations, the 10-second rule for free throw attempts, or the rule barring scoring teams from touching the ball after it goes into the basket. But officials selectively enforce those rules at random times, and the randomness gives the victims of those calls a legitimate "Why us?" argument. A rule is a rule; enforce it consistently or wipe it from the books. This one is especially easy. Coaches do not need to be on the floor, and they pose a risk to the integrity of the action when they move there.
The lone exception to the general rule that black alternates are needless and mostly ugly attempts to gouge jersey-buying addicts. The red-and-black just works.
3. Charlotte's Punchless Starting Lineups
Included in this dislike: Any starting lineup that includes zero among the Gerald Henderson–Ben Gordon–Ramon Sessions bench spark plug trio. The Bobcats don't have a single big man who brings anything close to a league-average game on offense, and scoring thus becomes unduly arduous when Mike Dunlap starts the perimeter group of Kemba Walker, Jeffery Taylor, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — as he did during a Friday-night whitewashing in Toronto. When some of your sets center on Hakim Warrick facilitating at the elbow, you've already lost the game.
4. David West, Leading With His Shoulder
Guess who has attempted the most shots in the last three minutes of games in which the scoring margin is at three or fewer points? It's West, perking up Indy's limping offense during crunch time by hitting a tidy 14-of-27 from the floor in qualifying minutes, per NBA.com. He's done much of the damage by catching either at the foul line or along the right baseline, leaning into his defender's chest with his right shoulder, and using the space he's just cleared to launch a leaning mid-range jumper. He's as tough as they come in the NBA.
5. The Paul Millsap Duck-In
Al Jefferson lives on the left block, often leaving the other four Jazz men to cut and space around Jefferson's ownership of that real estate. That leaves Millsap on the right block to watch the action, brace for a rebound chance, or cut up toward the elbow. But now and then, Millsap will sense a chance to catch an undersized or overmatched defender napping as Jefferson plays with the ball in the post. And in that moment, Millsap will suddenly slide across the paint and seal his man in an ultra-deep post-up below Jefferson on the left edge of the paint. The play requires Jefferson to bounce a tricky close-range entry pass to his front-line partner, and Jefferson, once a pass-averse black hole, has improved his interior passing game in Utah. A nice little bit of physical cooperation.
6. Memphis's Crawling Offense
A full 42 percent of Memphis's field goal attempts come within the last eight seconds of the shot clock, the third-highest mark in the league, per 82games.com. A league-high 19 percent come within the last three seconds of the shot clock, when shooting percentages are typically lowest. The Grizz have actually shot unusually well on these late-clock heaves, but "unusually well" still amounts to only 35 percent on jumpers, per Synergy Sports. Memphis is always going to struggle to space the floor and mesh its three frontcourt starters, two of whom (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) are relatively slow runners. But there's no reason so many possessions, especially late in close games, should involve almost no meaningful movement until the shot clock hits single digits.
You know the one — when an entire team's bench rises in anticipation as its little-guy point guard has the ball at mid-court on a fast break with nothing but open space until the rim. Will he go for it? And can he pull it off? In the last week alone, Steph Curry, Kemba Walker, and Chris Paul have all given us these moments, but only Paul has pulled the slam. Curry seemed to go for it during a home loss to Memphis last week, but he couldn't quite get up there.
8. Stephen Jackson and Amir Johnson, Loading Up
You can wash the dishes in the time it takes these guys to get set, bend their knees, and go through the motion of their jump shots. It's one thing for someone like Kendrick Perkins to take his time with an open look; Jackson's a wing player whose range is allegedly an asset, and Johnson attempts about two mid-range jumpers per game. He's hitting 35 percent of those shots, a below-average mark, but I'd love to see his percentage on attempts open enough for him to perform his full pre-shot routine.
9. This Crazy Prize-Winning Shot
Can this possibly be real?
10. The Taysolation
I've called it the most boring play in the league, but it's time to eat crow: Prince is 23-of-51 on those deliberate, stasis-inducing post-ups, and since he rarely turns over the ball, he ranks as one of the league's 30 most efficient post-up players, per Synergy Sports. He can bully smaller defenders with jump hooks from the right block, and he has a great high-low entry passer in Greg Monroe; he has brutalized Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Gordon Hayward on this exact play over the last week. All hail The Taysolation.
You could also include the Blazers and Bulls, but they don't quite inspire the same sort of confusion. Portland has a decent offense, not unexpected given the talent of the starting lineup and the aptitude of the coaching staff, and they've had the easiest schedule in the Western Conference. And everyone knew the Bulls would survive with an impenetrable defense and an offense just good enough to get by — an offense that has outperformed Indiana's for most of the season.
Denver allows a ton of corner 3s, and Minnesota's offense has been cratering of late. And there are lots of other factors that go into the success and failure of any team.
The Popovich–Duncan-era Spurs account for three of those eight teams.
Vogel says he was inspired by the way Stan Van Gundy used Dwight Howard in Orlando.
He has Indiana's backup bigs, Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough, mimic what Hibbert and West do; Hansbrough blitzes in the style of West, while Mahinmi, once comfortable blitzing, now drops back in the manner of Hibbert. "We want a 7-footer near the rim all the time," Vogel says.
It's true Indiana has played the league's easiest schedule so far in terms of opponent winning percentage, and that it will get more difficult going forward, but let's not overstate things. Any good Eastern Conference team will have an easy schedule by this measure, since they don't have to play themselves, and their own division will feature so many bad teams. The schedule makers also helped Indiana by including Boston, Brooklyn, and Miami among the four Eastern Conference teams the Pacers will play only three times. As for out-of-conference games, Indy has already played the Spurs twice, and the Grizzlies, Thunder, Lakers, and Warriors once each. Their second-half schedule is a bit harder than what they've faced so far, but not dramatically so; they've also played three more road games than home games.
Yes, Boston was banged up. They also missed Al Horford in the first round and got the benefit of a crucial crunch-time call in the clincher; drew a mediocre Philadelphia team in the second round, there only because of injuries to Derrick Rose and then Joakim Noah; and ducked Chris Bosh for the first four games of the conference finals.
The Pacers outscored the Heat in that series when its starting lineup was on the floor.