An article was published yesterday by ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz that -- wait for it -- gave some credit to the Pacers. I know, someone from ESPN giving credit to a team from Indiana that doesn't involve a Tebow or a Te'o, crazy huh?
Anyway, the article discusses the conundrum that is this Pacer starting lineup. You see the names Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert, and you don't think anything special. Maybe a team that can win enough games to get a middle-of-the-pack seed, and maybe they'll even make a push into the second round. Other than that, it's nothing special. However, if you've been watching the games, you know that's absolutely not the case.
I like to call this lineup the underdog lineup. I mean, seriously, since when is a starting five that includes Lance Stephenson going to be good enough to lift a team to second place in the Eastern Conference?
However, we've seen something like this before. Maybe not in basketball, but sports in general. A coach, dealing with an injury to an important player, is left scrambling to find a lineup that is sufficient and can hold down the fort until that important player returns. Every once in a while, that coach will strike gold.
For some reason, this ragtag lineup of bench guys (Stephenson), young stars (George) and aged veterans looking for a ring before they ride off into the sunset (West), has been, well, kicking ass and taking names.
Scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions, the Pacers are competent on offense. However, what has perplexed most people is how this team has come to have the stingiest, most stifling and difficult defense in all of basketball. What makes them so damn good?
Size. Arnovitz eludes to this in his article:
Exceptionally well, which is an affirmation of some traditional truths about basketball. Even as the NBA undergoes a radical sea change with respect to size and position, being big is still an asset. Virtually every single night they take the floor, the Pacers' starters have an enormous advantage -- literally. With the 6-foot-2 Hill replacing the 6-0 Collison in the first unit, the Pacers have legitimate length at all five positions and tower over opponents. Logically enough, this group works its strength.
It's tough to move downhill against the Pacers in the half court because everywhere an offensive player turns, there are limbs blocking his path. For similar reasons, it's also difficult to shoot over the top, move off the ball and more generally, find open parking spots anywhere on the floor. As a result, defenses have to work hard to get clean looks against the Pacers' first unit.
Arnovitz immediately attributes the Pacers' defensive prowess to the advantage they have in size. The Pacers don't have to rotate on defense, because every player in the starting five is capable enough on defense and away from the ball to contain their man. Not to mention, there's incredible security in knowing that there are two beasts -- West and Hibbert -- waiting in the paint to slam somebody that happens to squirt through.
With how quick Stephenson, George and Hill are, West and especially Hibbert never have to leave the paint. We all know about Roy's struggles offensively, and a lot of people write him off just for that. However, anytime you stick a 7'2" player under the basket and tell him not to let anyone score, it's going to help you out.
Even through Arnovitz's beautiful description of what makes this defense so good, I wasn't buying it. There had to be something else that was attributing to Indy only allowing 93.6 points per 100 possessions. I think I found it.
They are the difference between a good defense and a great defense. Most great coaches, in studying film, will be able to find the passing lanes that open up, and more times than not, they're not being defended well. There are holes. Teams like the Heat, Knicks and Thunder crush teams, because they find open passing lanes and pass the ball so efficiently.
Not against the Pacers, though.
Every single player within this starting five has a wingspan that greatly exceeds the average for something their respective heights. Hibbert (7'4") is the only person who has a relatively normal wingspan considering his size. However, let's not act like a 7'4" wingspan is something to scoff at.
After that, you have the 6'8" Paul George with a 6'11" wingspan, the 6'2" George Hill with a 6'9" wingspan, the 6'5" Lance Stephenson with a 6'10" wingspan and the 6'9" David West with a 7'4" wingspan. Also, as a bit of a surprise, the youngster, Orlando Johnson, has a 6'11" wingspan. He's 6'4".
These long arms give the Pacers an unbelievable advantage against opposing players that try passing it over the top or through a small passing lane. Those passing lanes we were talking about? They don't exist. These insane wingspans turn into an insane amount of blocked shots and steals. They're incredibly disruptive to the offense, and it's something a good number of coaches don't realize until the game is taking place. The only teams that have a shot at defeating the Pacers are those who have players that consistently create shots for themselves.
With those teams being the Heat, the Thunder and the Knicks, things are looking good in Naptown.