The Indiana Pacers have struggled on defense in recent years. For the past three seasons (including the current season), the team has finished no better than 17th overall in the defensive standings.
This season, the Pacers’ defensive failures have become increasingly detrimental — compounded during the team’s current seven-game losing streak. Head coach Rick Carlisle has repeatedly stressed the importance of the team improving defensively as a collective, but results so far have been pretty abysmal.
Of course the staff is different now. Still, Indiana was regularly one of the association’s best defensive teams in the not-so-distant past, when Nate McMillan, now on the sideline for the Atlanta Hawks, was at the helm. In this article, let’s take some snippets from the Pacers’ defensive front under the veteran coach that might provide some insight into what the team needs to do to improve on the less glamorous end of the court.
Through the lens of Nate McMillan’s Pacers: How can the 2022-23 Indiana Pacers improve defensively?
The 2018-19 Indiana Pacers finished third in defensive standings and were very good at limiting chances in the paint. One of McMillan’s (and then-assistant Dan Burke’s) longstanding defensive principles is to mark the pick-and-roll aggressively and block the lane to impede the ball-handler. Just look at how Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, two players not known for their defense, made Myles Turner’s block more possible by simply occupying the lane.
In that game, Trae Young was open in the corner but Thaddeus Young was in a good assist position to make what seemed an easy pass look harder due to his threatening anticipation. Ditto for Victor Oladipo, positioned to intercept a possible pass into the other corner.
These two defensive tenets lead directly to two of the most prolific scoring sources in the current NBA: on the edge and in the three-point line. The 2022-23 Pacers place 18th and 28th in their respective divisions.
In comparison, the Pacers similarly mark the pick-and-roll here, and the weak side is poised to grab lane, but TJ McConnell is too late to switch to the open-wing shooter or pressurize the pass . At the same time, Chris Duarte seemingly does the right thing by leveling open jock Landale and recovering, but a lack of communication had the two double up on the big man and leave Duane Washington Jr. open for the easy three.
In a similar play, the Pacers correctly tag Jrue Holiday, who now has to navigate a taller Aaron Nesmith to get a shot. Bennedict Mathurin was in the right assist position to assist Nesmith (which he needed) but his passive stance on the pass allowed Holiday to swing the ball easily to the open Pat Connaughton, who calmly swung the triple.
Conversely, on the strong side, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield were in correct angular positions and positioned to keep Holiday from passing.
What does that tiny little bit matter? Defense today is the art of making timely concessions. With how offense is bolstered in the game today, defense needs to be smarter than ever. Of course, it’s much easier to take the right, calculated risks when players anticipate and communicate better. Unfortunately, teams that embrace small-ball wholeheartedly – particularly those who are taking the trend to the extreme like the Pacers – need to be on the ball.
While the 2022-23 Indiana Pacers don’t have the necessary physical resources to make their lives easier defensively, effort and communication are things they can control. Luckily these should eventually come with the ups and downs of a young team still finding their feet in the league.