After losing Luis Scola, Roy Hibbert and David West in the offseason — or, put another way: the team’s three leading rebounders — few had high expectations for the Indiana Pacers. Last season, after all, the Pacers missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, and the offseason had ostensibly yielded exclusively detrimental moves.
More than halfway through the regular season, though, Frank Vogel’s outfit is squarely in the playoff picture (28-24), with a point differential (plus-2.7) that ranks fourth in the Eastern Conference.
While the franchise’s success in recent years — four playoff appearances and two conference finals appearances in the past five seasons — has been predicated on elite defensive units, it wasn’t until this season that Vogel started turning his defense into offense.
With a motley crew of tepid to below-average defenders, elite wing defender Paul George and burgeoning rim-protector Myles Turner, the Pacers are generating a league-leading 20 points off turnovers and 14.2 fast-break points per 100 possessions, after averaging 16.2 and 11.6, respectively, over the last four seasons. Since Vogel took over head-coaching duties late in the 2010-11 season, Indiana has ranked no higher than 14th in either metric; this season, Indiana ranks at least seventh in both. Even quick napkin math spots the disparities between recent seasons and what the Pacers are churning out nightly this year.
This is a defense that, at least for the past few seasons, had come to resemble a fortress in the half court but a malaise in transition, something that could be exploited. For example, when the Miami Heat bounced Indiana in consecutive seasons in the conference finals, LeBron James and Co. were able to get out on fast breaks seemingly at will and torch the Pacers, who didn’t have the personnel to stay with or in front of them. It seems Vogel has learned from the experience and adopted a new mantra.
“We use our defense to lead our offense,” Monta Ellis said after a win last month.
The Pacers work expertly to prevent defensive isolation situations, having allowed just 268 points in one-on-one defensive matchups this season, the third fewest of any team. Instead, the team moves the action toward the middle of the court or away to the wings, giving some of its less-than-spectacular defenders more support. They also work to prevent cuts to the basket, having allowed just 464 points on the play type this season, the third fewest of any team.
Offensively, the Pacers are amassing 102.1 points per 100 possessions, and a league-leading 19.6 percent of that total comes via turnovers.
This offensive unit, which ranked no lower than sixth in frequency of shots taken with four seconds or less on the shot clock each of the past two seasons, when it isn’t turning takeaways into baskets on the other end this year, is getting shots off quicker, ranking second in percentage of shots taken with an average amount of time remaining on the shot clock (15-7 seconds).
In a season in which they were projected to be background noise, the Indiana Pacers are contending — and it’s with no surprise that Vogel has turned to his oft-elite defense to spark what became a lethargic offense last season. Indiana is flourishing, generating takeaways and finding points that were unavailable in recent seasons.