Pacers Hoping to Maintain Historic Defense (Part 1)

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 19, 2013

Part 1 of a 2-part series on the keys to the Pacers' league-leading defense.

The numbers speak for themselves, but they don't tell the story.

86.3 — the average number of points the Pacers have allowed opponents this season, still best in the NBA despite Chicago's 110-point barrage on Saturday.

.398 — the Pacers' opponents' average field goal percentage, also still leading the league despite the aberration in Chicago.

Defense clearly has been the primary generator of the Pacers' 9-0 start to the season, the longest regular season win streak in the franchise's NBA history, but how it came to be is far more complex than a couple of obvious statistics. As with any intricate machination, it is made up of an assembly line of components, born of multiple masterminds, that have meshed to operate in sync. Most of the time, anyway.

It could turn out to be one of the better defenses in NBA history. It's certainly on its way to becoming the best in franchise history. No Pacers team has allowed fewer points per game or a lower field goal percentage. Perhaps even more tellingly, no Pacers team has enjoyed a greater per-game points differential. This one is scoring a league-best 9.4 points per game more than its opponents – it was 10.6 points before Chicago happened.

The statistics are significant when put into historical context. Larry Bird's best team as head coach, which won 58 games in the 1997-98 season, allowed 89.9 points and a .432 field goal percentage, and outscored opponents by an average of 6.1 points. The 2003-04 team, which featured Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest and won a franchise-record 61 games, allowed 85.6 points and .432 field goal shooting, and scored 5.8 points per night more than opponents.

The current group has been better than those teams because of its length, athleticism and devotion to the cause. The focus comes from coaching emphasis, sure, but also the mature realization that a consistently elite defense will give it a chance to win on nights when it shoots poorly, and bring a legitimate shot at a championship.

Says Paul George: “We understand defense wins games. Point-blank.”

A defense such as this doesn't come along often, nor does it happen overnight. For the Pacers, it was years in the making.

Assistant coach Dan Burke is the current defensive coordinator. Coach Frank Vogel half-jokingly throws out the G-words – “genius” and “guru” – that make Burke cringe. Regardless of what he is, he gets most of the credit for it, and Vogel gets credit for giving him a wide latitude to implement the plan. Some head coaches – Larry Brown and Jim O'Brien, for example – insist on being the lone voice in the locker room, which brings mixed results.

Burke joined the Pacers as a video coordinator for the 1997-98 season after working eight seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers as a video coordinator and scout. Larry Bird had hired Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter away from Portland as his (only) assistant coaches after taking the Pacers' head coaching job, and Burke followed them after the season began.

If Burke is the guru of this defense, Harter is the godfather. He's a legendary defensive coach within NBA circles, and was never more effective or recognized than when Bird gave him free reign for the three seasons that culminated with the Pacers' trip to the NBA Finals in 2000. A former officer in the Marine Corps, Harter was the classic ruddy-faced, leatherneck type, a congenial but genuinely tough man. His success as a college coach had been built on a swarming, physical defense – his teams at Oregon were known as the “Kamikaze Kids” – and he brought that mentality to the NBA as much as was practical. That was especially true under Bird, and while some of the Pacers players resisted him at first, his defense was a major element of their success.

It was a byproduct of strategy, sure. But it was also a mindset. Burke recalls a practice when Harter, who was in his late sixties at the time, tripped and fell after turning away as the pre-practice huddle broke up. The players laughed and began making jokes. “You think that's funny?!” Harter shouted. “I'll show you how to get on the floor!” He then rolled a ball onto the floor and dove on it.

There also was the time in the 1999 lockout season, when the Pacers – a popular preseason pick to win the championship – started 2-2 and then struggled to beat a weak Vancouver team. Heading into Los Angeles to play the Lakers, the team was in a bit of a funk. So, the day before the game at The Forum, Harter had the players line up, roll out a ball and dive on it – or at least slide and pick it up – one after the other, all the way around the court. Reggie Miller started yapping, everyone else joined in, and the mood changed. They beat the Lakers the next day, their first win in L.A. since 1992.

Harter's specialty was team defense. Players worked together as a unit, even more so than on offense, rotating to help and cover for one another, a system that required nearly as much mentally as physically. That's how he was able to wring the most out of an aging and relatively non-athletic lineup that included Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Dale Davis and Rik Smits – none of whom, with the possible exception of Davis, was a strong individual defender.

Burke uses many of the same team defensive concepts as Harter, but with some tweaks, such as how the center defends the pick-and-roll. Smits had to jump out and defend the ballhandler until he got help – a “hard show” – and then run back to find his man. Roy Hibbert doesn't have to do that. Burke also incorporates concepts from other coaches, such as Mike Brown, who joined Rick Carlisle's Pacers coaching staff in 2003 after working for Gregg Popovich's staff in San Antonio.

“Every element is a five-man fundamental, whether its post defense or pick-and-roll defense,” Burke said. “When we get to the point all five guys are in sync, where one guy moves and the other four move at the same time, and our talk is at a premium, then we're where we want to be.”

Burke has a far more athletic group of starters to work with than Harter did, and a more disciplined group than the team from 2003-04. Hibbert leads the NBA in blocked shots, and Paul George is one of the league's best perimeter defenders. Vogel considers both of them among the top five defenders in the game. Both have stated their goal of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award someday. George Hill is one of the league's better defensive point guards. David West has great hand speed in making deflections and is the group's best communicator. Lance Stephenson is raw, but physical and willing.

As Stephenson improves and the unit continues to build chemistry and learn nuances, they should improve on what's already the league's best defense. And if they maintain their current standard, they will become the best in franchise history, something Burke grudgingly acknowledges.

“I would say it might be better in that I feel really comfortable when we need a stop late in the game we're going to get a stop,” he said. “We have more guys capable of making game-winning plays.” As an example, Burke cited the Pacers' win at Brooklyn, when both Stephenson and West made game-saving defensive plays in the final minutes.

One of the crucial elements of the Pacers' defense is contested shots – the percentage of times a defender crowds a shooter and gets a hand up to distract him. Under Bird and Harter, the goal was about 37 percent. This season's team has challenged about 40 percent of shots. The only times it failed to reach 40 percent was in the win at New Orleans, when it trailed by 14 at the half, and Saturday's loss at Chicago. It challenged 43 percent of Memphis' shots in a 16-point win. Burke considers that stat and the percentage of offensive rebounds an opponent grabs (25 percent or less is the Pacers' goal) to have the greatest correlation to winning.

What counts as a contested shot is open to interpretation, but the Pacers keep track during games and go back and check again on video to count them. Generally, Burke says, a defender has to be within a couple feet of the shooter and have a hand up for it to qualify as a contest. Rarely do they lose when they contest 40 percent or better of an opponent's shots.

The Pacers also chart deflections, but do not value steals. One might think steals would be an important element of a strong team defense, but not so. Burke believes players trying to make a steal usually start a ripple effect that leads to an easy shot. The Pacers don't keep stats on “gambles,” but note them when watching video, and discourage them unless the opportunity is obvious.

The NBA standings support the argument. The Pacers rank second-to-last in steals, at 5.9 per game, ahead of only Portland, which has a 9-2 record. Detroit and Dallas are tied for the league lead at 10 per game.

The bottom line of the Pacers' team defensive approach is consistency of its principles. Burke won't make changes in strategy whenever a player hits a few jump shots early in the game. He cites the example of their win in New Orleans, when they fell behind in the first half and players were wanting to start switching on pick-and-rolls. Burke grew angry in the locker room, and said: “Do what we do first. Let's just do it better. If they keep beating us, we can adjust.”

The Pacers came from behind to win by five points.

Maintaining strict defensive principles enables the players to hold one another accountable, because they all know what's supposed to be done. This group does that without much prompting. When Stephenson allowed O.J. Mayo a couple of quick 3-pointers early in the game against Milwuakee, he heard about it from Hibbert. When he failed to block out on the weakside moments later and gave up an offensive tip-in, he heard about it from Hill. Players can often be seen talking to one another during dead balls on the court to clarify assignments. They also are shown video of first-half plays in the locker room at halftime, and have further discussions then. (Those halftime sessions, by the way, have been a major factor in the team's third-quarter success.)

“They make it fun,” Burke said. “They're coachable and they ask questions.

“I don't want to get too greedy with our talent, though. You think, These guys are so smart, we can do this and we can do that … no, let's just do what we do.”

Part 1 of a 2-part series on the keys to the Pacers' league-leading defense.

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