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.
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.