In one year, Vogel transforms defense into one of NBA's best
Jan. 30, 2012 - This marks Frank Vogel's first anniversary as head coach of the Pacers. I'm not sure what gifts are appropriate in this kind of relationship but perhaps a stone wall would work.
In the 12 months since Vogel took over, he has overseen a remarkable transformation, taking a team built on the shifting sand of 3-point shooting and anchoring the Pacers firmly to the rock of defense.
Indiana has a 13-6 record this season almost exclusively because of the NBA's most improved defense. The Pacers are yielding just 90.4 points per game, fifth in the league and 10.4 points better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.8 percent, second in the league and a substantial improvement over last season's 44.9. They rank second in rebounds (44.8), eight in rebound margin (plus 1.9) and eighth in both steals (8.7) and blocked shots (5.4).
The Pacers have done this without a substantial roster makeover. Adding tough-minded veterans like David West and George Hill certainly helps, but not unless everyone else buys in. A team must not only have the ability to defend, but the commitment.
"I think David West has brought a level of toughness. Having guys like George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough coming off the bench as solid defenders and tough guys, there's just a collective toughness and spirit to this team," Vogel said. "And quite frankly, this team is determined to be great and those are the biggest keys for that."
Still, even Vogel admits the defense has been "probably a little better than I expected."
Consider their last three road wins, all over strong veteran teams.
- In Los Angeles, they held the Lakers to 18 points on 7 of 23 shooting in the fourth quarter -- 12 points in the final nine minutes. They limited Kobe Bryant to one fourth-quarter bucket, none in the final three minutes, to wipe out a seven-point deficit and win 98-96.
- In Chicago, they held the Bulls to 16 points on 6 of 28 shooting in the fourth quarter as Derrick Rose scored just one basket, none in the final five minutes, to hold on for a 95-90 victory.
- In Orlando Sunday, the held the Magic to 34 points on 41 percent shooting in the second half and finished with 11 steals in a 106-85 blowout.
"They're playing hard but the biggest thing, I really think when you look around the league, size is a major factor," Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I keep saying it and I probably always will. Certainly your intensity and having a solid system that guys are disciplined to, but size is huge in this league defensively and they've got it all the way through, positions two through five they've got great size and so they're going to be tough to score on."
To be sure, with lightning quick Darren Collison at the point, 6-9 wings Paul George and Danny Granger, burly power forward David West and 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, the Pacers do have the tools. They also know how to use them properly.
Another critical factor is experience. Though they still are a relatively young team, their core players have familiarity not only with the defensive scheme, but one another. Defense is a symbiotic relationship, with all five players on the court feeding off each other. It takes time to develop.
"I think we're all just in tune to what we have to do," Granger said. "We've got a lot of veterans. I'm a veteran, Roy's in his fourth year, David West is in his fifth year. A lot of defense is being in position and it takes years to learn how to do that -- where everybody reacts to each other. "
Vogel refers to it as "a lack of inexperience."
"There's a determination and a toughness," the coach said. "It's all coming together. (Assistant coaches) Dan Burke and Brian (Shaw) and Jim (Boylen) do a phenomenal job understanding teams' weaknesses and how to beat them, how to stop them."
It also is quite possible the postseason experience with Chicago was enlightening. The Pacers played the Bulls dead-even through three periods throughout that series, but were dominated in the fourth as Chicago tightened the defensive screws.
That lesson not only has been learned, it is being applied to other teams.
"It's not something we've emphasized or driven home, 'Look at Chicago and what they do.' But, sure, these guys know they've got to defend to win," Vogel said. "We've got guys that have been learning how to be good defenders for a number of years, finally maturing to the point where they can all do it. We don't have any rookies so you're minimal with the mistakes that you're seeing out there. Chicago's a great model for what a strong defense can do for you."
Ever the coach, Vogel is not about to let his defense rest. He sees holes that need to be patched, tweaks that must be made for the team to continue its ascent.
"We're not perfect," he said. "We're 27th in defensive rebounding and we're still fouling a little too much. We've got a long way to go. There are still areas of improvement. But if we keep playing hard and with determination like we are, we'll be alright."