The Pacers are the Seattle Seahawks of the NBA. In an offensive era, they are an emerging defensive juggernaut. They have yet to win a title, but this may finally be the year, and if it is, they will have their defense to thank. Like the Seahawks’, the Pacers’ defense is more than good. Statistically, it’s the best defense in the league by a mile.
Indiana has held opponents to a paltry 93.9 points per 100 possessions. Not only is that the best in the NBA, it’s not close. This season, there have been four kinds of defenses: bad defenses, average defenses, good defenses, and the Pacers. Their defensive efficiency is a ridiculous outlier among the rest of the league.
The Pacers’ front office has patiently built a roster full of large players who seem to enjoy playing defense as much as offense, which remains a fairly rare quality in the NBA. Their starting lineup consists of five guys who each guard their position very well. The coaching staff has designed on-court schemes that take full advantage of the attitudes of the players. The results are frightening.
As of Monday, the Pacers have faced almost 3,600 shots from opponents. Maybe the rims are crooked at the field house, because opponents are shooting terribly whenever the Pacers play defense.
The Hibbert Effect
The Pacers’ freakish defensive success starts with Roy Hibbert and his ability to protect the most important space on the basketball court: that little swath of the floor near the basket. Hibbert’s massive presence does two things: It obviously reduces the opponent’s shooting efficiency near the basket, but it also actively discourages them from even trying, which in turn inspires them to shoot from less effective zones. The Pacers currently rank second in the NBA in shots allowed inside eight feet and rank first in opponent field goal percentage near the basket. In fact, they are the only team in the league holding opponents below 50 percent from inside of eight feet. Also, per SportVU, when the Pacers have a single rim protector present (often Hibbert), they have given up the fewest baskets in the league.
So … that’s pretty good.
When teams attempt to drive to the basket on Indiana, they have little success. In fact, per SportVU data, the Pacers defend drives better than any other team in the league. They are currently ranked first in points per drive, and opposing drivers only shoot 37 percent when they attempt to score. That’s the lowest mark in the league by far. As a result, the Pacers have given up the fewest points on drives in the NBA.
Lots of Midrange Shots
Midrange shots are generally the least efficient scoring option in the NBA, and no team forces opponents into taking those shots more than the Pacers. As a whole, NBA shooters take 33 percent of their shots in the midrange, but Pacers opponents take 40 percent of their shots in the “dead zone.” Furthermore, opponents hit only 38 percent of those shots, which is the third-lowest rate in the league.
The 3-Point Arc of Horror
Unsurprisingly, guys like Paul George and Lance Stephenson also make life miserable for 3-point shooters. No team gives up fewer 3s per game than Indiana. This is due in part to its league-best 32.9 percent opponent 3-point field goal percentage, but also because it gives up only 18.2 3-point attempts per game, second only to Portland.
The Pacers’ defense seems to turn every shooter they play against into some combination of Josh Smith and Ricky Rubio.
In 2014 the NBA is a drive-and-kick league. In the absence of hand checks, attacking guards and wings run wild, slashing into defenses, wreaking havoc, and either scoring or pitching it out to an open shooter. That formula might work reasonably well against 29 NBA teams, but it doesn’t fly against Indiana, which, like the Seattle Seahawks, has built a modern-day defense that effectively stops teams from scoring the ways modern-day offenses love to score.