I’m pretty sure this isn’t the kind of start Larry Bird and Pacers fans had in mind. Two wins, one against a mediocre Mavericks team and one against a bad Lakers team. Three losses, two of them blowouts against the Bulls and Bucks, and a loss to a Nets team who could end up being the worst in the league. All of these losses and even the wins have shown that the Pacers have turned what used to be their greatest strength into their biggest weakness, defense.
There are plenty of issues this defense. First let’s start with the fact they are giving up 110 points per 100 possessions, good for dead last in the league. A Mike D’Antoni coached Rockets team with noted defensive stalwart James Harden is performing better on defense, that’s just sad. It doesn’t help that all of the teams the Pacers have played so far will probably end up in the bottom half of the league in offense too. Seriously, what team there scares you offensively? If this is how the Pacers perform against these types of teams can you imagine the carnage when they play the Cavs or Warriors.
The problem begins up top where the Pacers are starting two small, but quick guards in Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis. Neither of who have been even average defenders in their career. Both of them are getting buried on screens, forcing a ton of awkward switches for no reason. In the past Pacers big men were able to sit back on pick and rolls protecting the paint because George Hill was so adept at fighting through screens. Before opposing guards could decide to drive or dish Hill was back in their face. Now it’s taking longer for Teague and Ellis to fight through forcing Turner and Thaddeus Young into an awkward dance of deciding whether to step up on the ball handler and hope the help defense will pick up the roll man, or sit back and concede space for either an open jumper or a driving lane.
There’s a play in the second quarter of the Brooklyn game where Brook Lopez comes up to set a screen for Jeremy Lin at the top of the key. Lopez sets a rather poor screen but Teague still falls behind as Lin begins to drive towards the basket. Al Jefferson who was guarding Lopez plants himself at the elbow to corral Lin. Lopez has begun to roll to the rim but Jefferson is unable to drop back to him because Teague is still trailing. CJ Miles then leaves Bojan Bogdanovic to bump Lopez. Lin picks up his dribble, Teague still behind him, and looks Bogdanovic’s way causing Miles to jump back out to prevent the three. This gives Lopez a free roll because Jefferson is too late to drop back and the result is a dunk.
That kind of play has happened to often. To try and prevent that scenario the Pacers are lazily switching to avoid fighting through the screens. While Turner and Young can hold their own occasionally against guards asking them to do it over and over is a losing proposition. Also constantly switching will put Ellis and Teague at a disadvantage against bigger players. The Pacers are also struggling to get back on defense giving up the 3rd most points off turnovers and the 8th most fast break points. Those both correlate with effort and intensity.
What’s the easiest way to stop an opponent’s fast break? Get back.
Don’t jog back. Don’t stare your shot down. Don’t wave your arms at a teammate if they messed up. Don’t complain to the refs. Just get back, complain later. The points off turnovers is especially frustrating considering the Pacers aren’t even in the bottom five in turnovers per game. Teams are also shooting the fifth highest percentage from the arc at 36%, and their rim protection has dropped to 16th best in the league.
There is seemingly no bad way to attack the Pacers defense, and as long as the defense is this bad this is a .500 basketball team no matter how good the offense is. One of the more common things after the Pacers give up an easy basket is all five guys looking at each other trying to figure whose responsibility that was. Miscommunication will kill any defense, even one of nothing but Kawhi Leonards.
A lot of these issues can be fixed by increased effort, and better communication. It’s questionable what the ceiling is for this defense as long as Teague and Ellis continue to start, but it has to get better otherwise that seat under McMillan is going to get prematurely hot.