Pacers’ defense a big concern through five games

Nate McMillan is 480-455 in his 13th season as an NBA head coach.

Nate McMillan is 480-455 in his 13th season as an NBA head coach. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

A week into the NBA season, it’s become crystal clear that concerns for the Pacers’ defense are very real. The good news is that they’re just five games in, but what’s also clear is that they have a long ways to go.

This is a very different story line in the team’s recent history, where defense wasn’t a concern. They were consistently a top defensive team in the league, both under Frank Vogel’s guidance and the personnel that matched the style.

Through five games, the Pacers (2-3) have given up at least 103 points in every game, an average of 115 points per game. And an even smaller sample of the last three games elevates their opponents’ average points per game to nearly 117.

That’s a whopping 27 points higher than had become the norm.

“It’s just little stuff,”  C.J. Miles said after the team’s 125-107 loss in Milwaukee Thursday night. “I can’t say we’re not playing hard, but we’re just not playing the way we should be playing as a group.”

Added head coach Nate McMillan: “I don’t think we were aggressive at all. I thought they were able to run their stuff. They pretty much got what they wanted.”

Pacers President Larry Bird wanted to see his team score between five and seven more points per game. They averaged 102.2 per game last season. Going on the high end of that, to be generous, and the Pacers, who have averaged 109.4 per game, would still be below their opponents by several possessions (5.6).

Trying to solve it is not as simple as correcting an issue or two. There are several factors in play here.

First of all, Bird constructed a roster that is more offensively focused. George Hill, a solid and underrated defender, was traded away. Ian Mahinmi, an outstanding rim protector, left in free agency. Solomon Hill, who also proved to be reliable on the wing, got paid in New Orleans.

Then, after a change was made in leadership to execute their new philosophy. That meant coach McMillan, who isn’t known as a defensive head coach, not only would be taking over but also would be tasked with giving the offense an energy and point boost while also trying to maintain a defensive efficiency that was at least in the top tier of the league.

There are six new players on the Pacers’ roster, including four rotation players and two starters, so there are obviously going to be growing pains.

Wonder why Indiana so often had early success while some of the teams expected to contend would struggle early in the season?

Continuity.

After they took the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2012-13 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers’ entire starting lineup returned the following year. That played in a big part in why they sprinted off to 18-2, 25-5, and 33-7.

Rim protection has been poor, communication is a work-in-progress, and they have allowed multiple below-average teams to find success against them.

Opponents are shooting 49 percent, second-worst only to the Washington Wizards (49.8). Less than six feet away from the hoop, opponents are converting at a 67.6-percent clip. (For comparison, that was 59.5 percent last season.)

Some of it is on hustle. They’ve recovered the third-fewest loose balls (2.8 per game) in the league and have struggled in transition when they don’t have time to setup. (They have, however, done a good job contesting 3-pointers.) Since they don’t have multiple quality defenders, they have to rely more on playing defense as a group. And right now, they are not tied together.

Defensive rating is considered the best evaluation of team defense. Well, the Pacers rank 29th (out of 30) with a 110.3 rating. The 0-3 Wizards check in a 112.1.

It doesn’t matter how much better the offense is if said team doesn’t defend at the league average — at the least.

Whatever numbers you want to look at, they back up the premise that the Pacers have not been any good on the defensive end. It’s a strange sight; there’s no doubt about it.

And, just as I’ve had to do with dozens of fans on Twitter, I caution you reading too much into such a small sample size. In this case, though, the numbers don’t lie. They tell the story.

“Our defense is nowhere near where it needs to be,” said Paul George, who added that effort has been an issue are well.

This 2-3 Pacers team has been poor at the defensive end. Otherwise, they’d probably be feeling good with a 4-1 record and 10 of their next 13 games at home.

2 Responses to Pacers’ defense a big concern through five games
  1. MLB
    November 5, 2016 | 9:18 am

    EVERY review of our moves and new lineup expressed doubt about the lineups playing defense.
    There is no news here and if LB thinks he’s going to take established NBA players and get them to play more defense then they have before, ain’t gonna happen……..

    • Scott Agness
      November 5, 2016 | 2:09 pm

      It was understood that the defense wouldn’t play at the level we were accustom to seeing — top three in the league. But nobody expected this large of drop off. Sure, it’s early.

      But it’s been horrible to this point. And a lot of it is on effort.

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