8 games into the NBA season and the Indiana Pacers sit at a somewhat disappointing 4-4. What is contributing to the Pacers' defensive struggles?
The identity used to be "Blue Collar, Gold Swagger."
That was the Pacers' motto for 5 and a half seasons under the defense-first mind of Frank Vogel. This was a team that would grind out the first half of games to the point where their opposition simply could not maintain their energy in the second. It was built around a collection of premiere perimeter defenders and an All-Star rim protector whose presence deterred anyone from driving the lane.
8 games into the Nate McMillan era, that team is long gone.
So far this NBA season, the Indiana Pacers rank as one of, if not the worst team in the league defensively. Through 8 games, Indiana is surrendering a league-worst 113.3 points per game, a figure that is nearly 13 points per game greater than the worst defensive season in the Frank Vogel era. That's right- just once during Vogel's tenure did the Pacers allow over 100 points per game, but so far this season, only one Pacers opponent has scored fewer than 100 in a game. On a per-possession basis, the Pacers are not much better, either. Currently, Indiana's defensive rating sits at 108.6, third-worst in the league, ahead of only Boston and, ironically, the Vogel-led Magic.
While the offense is performing at a more efficient rate than before, it is astonishing to see what was once the focal point of a team now be its Achilles' Heel. Larry Bird's offseason shakeup of the Pacers has definitely improved the offensive chemistry, but those same pieces also contribute to the defensive trade-off.
The Backcourt Switch
The first and most drastic change to Indiana's defense has been the 3-team trade that sent George Hill to Utah and brought in Jeff Teague at point guard. While Hill was just 6'2" tall, his lengthy wingspan and quickness allowed him to seal off the point of attack and competently defend guards that were much taller. This versatility allowed Hill and Monta Ellis to routinely switch defenders on the perimeter with little to no drop-off. Now, however, Ellis is paired with Teague who lacks the defensive prowess that Hill possessed, so switching is no longer a viable option. On Monday in Charlotte, Ellis was forced to guard the much larger Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who subsequently scored 13 points in the first 7 minutes of the game with all of his points coming on layups, driving runners, or free throws.
With a Teague-Ellis backcourt, there are simply no solutions to defending bigger lineups like the Hornets employ. Switching on the perimeter would mean moving the even smaller Teague onto a bigger opponent, or, even worse, moving Ellis onto whomever Paul George is guarding. Fans have clamored for C.J. Miles to enter the starting lineup, as Miles has looked comfortable guarding multiple possessions on defense, and is currently on a hot streak to start the season. That would move Monta Ellis to a bench role, but again, he would be playing alongside smaller players Aaron Brooks and Rodney Stuckey. Neither of those players are especially good defensively, either, so teams that roll out big lineups against Indiana would be able to exploit them eventually.
The New Anchor
Former Pacer center Ian Mahinmi shipping off to Washington paved the way for second-year big man Myles Turner to step into the starting 5 role. Already gifted offensively, Indiana is hoping that he will continue to develop on the defensive end as well and become the rim protector they once had in Roy Hibbert. Back in the 2013-14 season, Hibbert's size and use of the "verticality" rule led to multiple blocks and altered shots any time an opponent drove into the lane. His presence was such a game-wrecker, it caused LeBron James to develop his running floater shot so that he could use it exclusively against Indiana. Hibbert's efforts resulted in Indiana surrendering just 46.0% made field goals at the rim. Fast forward to this season, and Indiana now allows opponents to convert 55.0% at the rim.
As it stands, Turner's opponents are averaging 52.2% from inside 6 feet, putting him in the top half of the league. His block rate of 8.0% is also the best mark in the league by a significant margin; the margin separating him from Anthony Davis is the same margin between #2 Davis and #8 Clint Capela.
So Turner is not necessarily the problem inside. As he continues to develop his defensive potential, he may exude the same aura which made Hibbert one of the more feared defenders at the rim, leading to an even bigger drop in opponents' field goal percentage.
It's clear that perimeter defense is the biggest concern so far for Indiana. It seems wrong to make a roster change or trade just 10% of the way into the season, so the Pacers will likely see if there is any improvement from the backcourt pairing of Ellis and Teague. It is unlikely that their awful per-possession numbers will continue, as a 13 point drop in defensive efficiency is too drastic to be the norm. With a few more weeks of games, the Pacers' should improve at least slightly towards average.