Did The Pacers Live Up To Their Promises Of Better Defense?

"I hate it.  It looks like a stickup at 7-Eleven.  Five guys standing there with their hands in the air." - Norm Sloan

Sloan, (former head coach at NC State and University of Florida) was referencing his distaste for the zone defense in particular, but his quote reminds me a lot of what I saw from the Pacers this season. Although to be fair, they didn't always have their hands in the air.

This was the year that the Pacers were supposed to become a defensive powerhouse. The team went out and got a "shut-down" wing (Dahntay Jones), a big, strong point guard to keep people out of the lane (Earl Watson), and an athletic big with terrific shot-blocking potential (Solomon Jones). Even Danny Granger, our newly crowned All-Star, professed his re-commitment to defense. Larry Legend himself came out, publicly discussing his new defensive vision for the team.

"There are a couple of common threads with our new players: defense and energy.

We know we're going to score plenty of points but on the defensive end we've got to get much, much better as a team. When you add players that are very good defenders and take pride in that end of the floor, you're going to improve.

Jimmy O'Brien talks about the players taking ownership of the defense. These new guys will help everybody buy into that mindset. "

 - Larry Bird   August 14, 2009

There seemed to be improvement, but I still caught enough matador defense to fill Seville's Maestranza bullfighting arena. So did they live up to their promises? Was the defense better this season, and by how much? In what areas was there improvement and where is there still work to do?

The first two questions seem straightforward enough to answer, was the defense better this season, and by how much? The problem is that there are a lot of different ways to measure defense. The most simple measure is, did the Pacers give up less points than they did last season? The answer is yes, last season they gave up 8,708 points, this year only 8,510. Although this is the ultimate measure of defense, there is much more nuance to this question. Did the team defend the paint well? Did they force turnovers which benefited the offense? Did they control their defensive rebounds and prevent extra shots for opponents? Did they force their opponents to shoot from inefficient areas of the floor? To answer the more nuanced questions I put together a table comparing our defensive statistics from this season to last season.

Defensive Statistics - 08/09 vs. 09/10
Def. Eff. OFG% At Rim FG% At Rim FGA% <10ft. FG% <10ft. FGA% 10-15ft. FG% 10-15ft. FGA% 16-23ft. FG% 16-23ft. FGA% 3PT eFG% 3PT FGA% OTOR DRR BLKR OFTR
2008-2009 106.5 45.8 60.3 28.2 46.1 9.9 40.4 10.0 40.2 29.5 56.2 22.1 12.67 74.54 5.3 .354
2009-2010 104.2 45.3 58.3 29.8 45.1 11.4 39.7 9.4 40.1 28.9 54.4 20.4 13.43 72.99 5.4 .341

Some of these statistics are new to both you and me so I'll go through them step by step.

  • Defensive Efficiency is the numbers of points the Pacers give up per 100 possessions. This is a much better statistic for defensive comparison than points per game, because it eliminates the variations caused by teams that play at different paces. The Pacers shaved 2.3 points off this number, which is a significant improvement. A Def. Eff. of 106.5 would have put them in the same category as the Wizards, Suns and Clippers this season. Instead their number was closer to NuggetsHawks and TrailBlazers. This is definitely an improvement over last year, but still leaves the team in the middle of the pack as far as the league is concerned.
  • OFG% is the Opponents Field Goal Percentage, or what percentage the Pacers allowed the other team to shoot. There is a small improvement here, but an improvement nonetheless.
  • The next ten categories are all statistics from Hoopdata.com. This terrific site has statistics available on shot locations. They break all shots down into five categories: At the Rim, Less than 10ft., 10-15ft., 16-23ft., and 3PTs. I have included the FG% and the FGA% for each of these categories. The FG% is what the Pacers allowed the other team to shoot from that area of the floor. The FGA% is what percentage of an opponent's shot attempts were taken from that area of the floor. For example, this season the Pacers' opponents took 9.4% of their shots from the 10-15ft. range and made 39.7% of those shots. These statistics are helpful because it lets us see if the Pacers defended a certain area of the floor well, and if they forced their opponents to take shots from inefficient scoring areas. A few highlights and low-lights from these categories:

    At Rim- The FG% decrease here is really impressive. For all the talk about needing to add an athletic, shot-blocking power forward, the Pacers had the 6th best defensive FG% in the league for shots taken at the rim. The problem is that the Pacers allowed more shots to be taken at the rim this season which means they essentially gave up the same number of points in the paint.

    3PT - The two most efficient scoring areas on the floor are at the rim, and 3PTs. Just like at the rim, the Pacers were able to hold their opponents to a lower shooting percentage on 3PTs compared to last year. Their opponents also attempted a smaller percentage of their shots frpm this area.

    Mid and Long Range Jumpers - In the other three areas of the floor I see indications of a troubling pattern. The Pacers did hold their opponents to lower shooting percentages in all three areas. The issue is that their opponents attempted a much higher percentage of their shots closer to the basket. I am not sure if this is an anomaly, or a symptom of poor pick and roll defense, or a lack of ability to deny dribble penetration. The bottom line is that although their FG% defense was better across the board this year, the team allowed opponents to shoot a higher percentage of their shots from the more efficient scoring areas on the floor.
  • OTOR stands for Opponent's Turnover Rate. This is the percentage of an opponent's possessions on which the Pacers were able to force a turnover. Again, we see a modest increase here.
  • DRR stands for Defensive Rebound Rate. Rather than looking at how many rebounds the team got per game, this stat measures what percentage of the available rebounds the team grabbed. This is one of the few defensive stats in which the Pacers regressed. The decline in this number is significant as well. The team went from 10th in the league in DRR to 22nd in DRR this season. Obviously, losing Jeff Foster and Tyler Hansbrough hurt in this area, but Hibbert, McRoberts, Granger and the backcourt players bear a lot of responsibility as well.
  • BLKR stands for Block Rate, and represents the percentage of an opponent's shots that the Pacers block. This was basically the same as last year.
  • OFTR stands for Opponents Free Throw Rate. This stat is calculated by dividing the number of Free Throws the opponents attempted by the number of Field Goals they attempted. A OFTR of 1.00 would mean the opponents attempt 1 Free Throw for every Field Goal. There was certainly some improvement here, but we need to put this number into context. The Pacers OFTR was 27th in the league, which is simply terrible. The Pacers can't be a good defense team when they foul so much. Whatever increases are made in FG% will be off-set by the number of free throws their opponents get.

Looking at these statistics as a whole, you have to admit the defense was better this season. It would seem the team moved from being a below-average defensive team to an average defensive team. The Pacers held their opponents to a lower shooting percentage, and turned them over more; but still give up too many easy shots and offensive rebounds. If the offense hadn't regressed so much maybe they could have had the privilege of getting swept out of the playoffs by Cleveland.

The next logical question is, What's next? What does the team need to do to become an above-average defensive squad? The ideal way to answer this would be to use some complex formula to weigh the importance of these various statistics and isolate the components that are most important to having good overall defense. The bottom line is that we want to allow fewer points, so improving which of these areas will give us the most impact on Defensive Efficiency? Unfortunately, any formulas or equations which could accomplish that are beyond my math capabilities. What I can do though, is put more numbers into more tables! I looked at the same statistics for the top ten teams in the league in terms of Defensive Efficiency. I did split out the shot location numbers so that I had space to add the league rank for each stat. The idea is to look for patterns. What do all the really good defensive teams do well?

Top Ten Teams For Defensive Efficiency
ORL 100.2 43.8% (1st) 12.22 (26th) 77.38 (1st) 5.9 (5th) 27.2 (4th)
CHA 100.2 44.8% (7th) 14.70 (3rd) 74.15 (10th) 5.8 (6th) 26.2 (2nd)
MIL 100.9 45.1% (9th) 14.60 (4th) 76.42 (3rd) 4.9 (22nd) 34.8 (29th)
MIA 100.9 43.9% (2nd) 13.91 (8th) 74.89 (6th) 6.0 (2nd) 32.6 (23rd)
LAL 101.1 44.6% (5th) 13.20 (19th) 74.44 (9th) 5.1 (18th) 26.0 (1st)
BOS 101.1 45.1% (10th) 14.88 (2nd) 73.83 (13th) 5.2 (15th) 33.7 (25th)
CLE 101.5 44.2% (3rd) 12.27 (25th) 77.22 (2nd) 5.5 (9th) 28.8 (14th)
OKC 101.6 44.8% (6th) 14.00 (7th) 73.56 (17th) 6.1 (1st) 30.0 (17th)
SAS 102.0 45.2% (11th) 12.06 (28th) 76.30 (4th) 4.9 (21st) 28.3 (11th)
CHI 102.6 44.2% (4th) 12.31 (24th) 74.78 (8th) 6.0 (4th) 28.4 (12th)
League Average 104.9 46.1% 13.30 73.7 5.1 30.1
IND 104.2 45.3% (13th) 13.43 (14th) 72.99 (22nd) 5.4 (11th) 34.1 (27th)


Opponent Shot Locations - Top Ten Defensive Teams
Team At Rim FG% At Rim FGA% <10ft. FG% <10ft. FGA% 10-15ft. FG% 10-15ft. FGA% 16-23ft. FG% 16-23ft. FGA% 3PT eFG% 3PT FGA% OeFG%
ORL 57.4% (2nd) 29.4% (3rd) 39.6% (2nd) 11.0% (17th) 39.5% (13th) 10.9% (29th) 38.6% (7th) 27.3% (28th) 54.5% (22nd) 21.3% (9th) 47.7% (1st)
CHA 59.0% (9th) 34.2% (25th) 40.5% (4th) 9.5% (6th) 39.7% (16th) 7.3% (1st) 39.3% (12th) 23.1% (6th) 50.7% (2nd) 25.9% (30th) 49.1% (12th)
MIL 58.1% (4th) 33.0% (16th) 42.7% (10th) 9.5% (5th) 43.6% (30th) 11.1% (30th) 38.6% (8th) 25.7% (22nd) 51.5% (8th) 20.1% (4th) 48.6% (8th)
MIA 58.1% (5th) 29.8% (4th) 43.7% (15th) 12.4% (24th) 36.5% (2nd) 9.6% (21st) 39.0% (10th) 24.2% (9th) 51.3% (4th) 23.9% (24th) 48.0% (2nd)
LAL 59.8% (11th) 32.3% (13th) 40.8% (5th) 9.8% (7th) 41.7% (26th) 9.5% (20th) 38.8% (9th) 24.5% (12th) 49.2% (1st) 23.2% (21st) 48.4% (6th)
BOS 58.5% (8th) 29.9% (6th) 47.6% (6th) 12.2% (22nd) 39.4% (12th) 10.1% (26th) 39.7% (17th) 26.2% (24th) 51.3% (5th) 21.5% (11th) 48.8%(9th)
CLE 58.3% (7th) 29.3% (2nd) 43.6% (14th) 10.4% (12th) 37.5% (3rd) 10.0% (24th) 39.6% (16th) 27.1% (27th) 52.0% (11th) 22.8% (19th) 48.2% (3rd)
OKC 60.1% (13th) 36.1% (29th) 38.1% (1st) 11.3% (19th) 36.3% (1st) 9.4% (18th) 37.0% (1st) 22.1% (2nd) 51.0% (3rd) 21.0% (8th) 48.3% (5th)
SAS 58.1 % (3rd) 31.1% (9th) 43.3% (12th) 13.5% (28th) 42.4% (29th) 10.7% (28th) 39.8% (18th) 26.8% (26th) 51.5% (6th) 17.9% (1st) 48.3% (4th)
CHI 56.8% (1st) 33.2% (19th) 44.3% (17th) 8.7% (1st) 39.7% (15th) 8.8% (14th) 38.3% (6th) 24.8% (16th) 52.1% (12th) 24.4% (27th) 48.4% (7th)
League Average 61.0% 32.5% 44.1% 11.2% 39.8% 9.1% 39.6% 24.9% 53.2% 22.2% 50.1%
IND 58.3% (6th) 29.8% (5th) 45.1% (19th) 11.4% (20th) 39.7% (14th) 9.4% (19th) 40.1% (22nd) 28.9% (30th) 54.5% (21st) 20.4% (5th) 49.0% (10th)
  • The FGA% data in this graph is a little misleading. For all five categories the ranks are determined inversely by a greater quantity of shots from that area. The 1st ranked team gave up the smallest percentage of shots from that area. That makes sense for At the Rim shots and 3PTs because those are high efficiency zones. But it would be to a team's advantage to give up a large percentage of mid-range jumpers, so in those mid-range zones being ranked in the 20s and 30s would actually be considered a good thing.

After putting all these numbers together, there didn't seem to be a pattern at all. Some of the great defensive teams force a ton of turnovers, some hardly force anyway. Some teams block a lot of shots, some don't. All of the teams, including the Pacers, hold their opponents to a low FG%, but they accomplish this by buckling down in different zones. Apparently different combinations of defensive strengths can add up to the same results: holding your opponents to a smaller number of points.

Compared to the top defensive teams the Pacers seem to stand out in two categories, DRR and OFTR. The team's field goal defense was much improved, but after 27% of the missed shots they forced, the other team was allowed to extend the possession with an offensive rebound. If the team is going to take the leap next season into an above-average defensive team, this number has to improve. OFTR is the other glaring area of weakness. Too often Pacers defensive possessions ended with the other team at the line shooting free throws. This needs to be a focus from everyone. The guards need to deny penetration without fouling, the frontcourt needs to defend the basket without fouling, and everyone needs to stop with careless loose ball fouls.

To answer the original questions, Was the Pacers defense better this season? Yes. By how much? We went from being one of the worst defensive teams to being an average defensive team. Where was there the most improvement? The team did a good job of defending the rim, chasing teams off the three point line and challenging shots. Where do we still need to improve? Rebounding, Rebounding, Rebounding, and defend without fouling.

Defense might not be talked about as much as last summer, especially with the way the offense regressed. However, it needs to remain a focus in practice, training and personnel decisions if this team is going to return to the upper echelon of the NBA.

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