"Better offense beats better defense every time."
On the surface, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was describing his three-point dagger that sank the Golden State Warriors Wednesday, via Geoff Lepper of NBA.com. Read between the lines, though, and you wonder if the four-time MVP might have been fueling the Eastern Conference's hottest (only?) fire.
If great offense trumps great defense, James and the Heat should have no worries in their march through the East. The Indiana Pacers, Miami's biggest intra-conference threat, don't have an offensive gear that remotely approaches greatness.
Serviceable would be a more apt description. On the good days, at least.
Head coach Frank Vogel's team embodies the proverbial immovable object, terrorizing with toughness and suffocating with size.
Pick whatever defensive metric you want, and you'll find these Pacers sitting at the top: points per game (90.3), points per 100 possessions (93.6), field-goal percentage against (41.0).
The Pacers allow 4.1 points per 100 possessions fewer than the second-ranked Chicago Bulls. That's a larger gap than what separates the No. 3 defense (Oklahoma City Thunder, 99.3) from the No. 16 team (Phoenix Suns, 103.3).
"We have defensive talent, but we also have guys that want to play defense, that really enjoy playing defense and that are capable," Vogel said, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "Put all those factors together, and you get what we have now."
What exactly do we have now?
A lifetime subscriber to the defense-wins-championships theory it seems. If the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy is truly awarded on that end of the floor, the Circle City's parade committee better start mapping its celebration route.
What happens if that cliche is more catchy than credible, though? What if the Pacers built a defensive power in an offense-driven league?
Is the same group that dominates defensively actually capable of thwarting Indiana's championship plans at the opposite end?
How offensive does a team need to be to finish a successful stroll down the path to the podium?
Luckily, the hoops history books have helped shine a light on that question.
Different eras yield different truths, as changes in officiating and style of play have led to dramatic peaks in valleys in NBA scoring.
To find the current solution to that inquiry, there's no need to go back further than the 2004-05 season. That's when the league tightened the restrictions on "hand-checking" and ramped up the enforcement of those calls, curtailing the amount of physical contact defenders could make with offensive players.
There have been nine titles awarded since. Let's see if there are any statistical similarities between those teams.
|How Do Today's NBA Champions Look?|
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Two trends immediately jump out of that table.
Defense is unequivocally a major piece of the championship puzzle. Even in this offense-friendly era, all nine championships have boasted a top-10 defense, with six of those title winners sitting inside the top five.
What's equally impossible to ignore, though, is the fact that defense isn't the only puzzle piece. Eight of the past nine champs had a top-10 offense (with the ninth sitting at No. 11), and six of them have employed top-six scoring units.
What does that mean for these Pacers? Nothing good, I'm afraid.
Indiana sits 19th in offensive efficiency, pouring in just 102.2 points per 100 possessions.
Seven teams enter the All-Star break with a winning percentage above .600. The Pacers are the only member of that group without a top-10 offense. In fact, those other six teams all sit seventh or better in offensive efficiency, including James and the top-ranked Heat (109.5).
There is no offensive safety net to speak of for Indiana.
This team relies heavily on All-Star starter Paul George, a player obviously coming into his own but still learning the ropes as a 23-year-old centerpiece. He averages nearly six more shots (17.3) and eight more points (22.2) than anyone else on the team. He also holds Indiana's third-highest assist average (3.4).
When he's not shooting well, this team collapses. He has a .446/.390/.860 shooting slash in Indiana's 40 wins and just a .414/.308/.841 mark in its 12 losses.
Indiana struggles to generate easy offense, a byproduct of giving the offensive keys to combo guard George Hill (3.6 assists in 31.3 minutes). The Pacers have a top-five isolation attack (0.90 points per possession), but they sit outside the top 10 in post-up plays (0.86, 12th), pick-and-roll sets (0.80 for the ball-handler, 11th, and 0.97 for the roll man, 17th), spot-up shots (1.00, 13th) and off-ball cuts (1.22, 11th), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
"We've got to improve on the offensive end," Vogel said, per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star (via USA Today). "We know that that's the biggest thing we have to do."
What the Pacers have to do first is get George back on track. He's shooting just 39.3 percent from the field and 32.8 percent from distance in the calendar year.
They need Roy Hibbert to become a two-way force. He's put up just 11.8 points on 46.4 percent shooting this season after tallying 17.0 on 51.1 percent in the playoffs last season.
David West and Lance Stephenson have to help ease the load George is carrying. Both are averaging better than 13 points and are converting more than 49 percent of their field-goal attempts. Yet, neither is taking even 12 shots a night. If Hill's not going to be distributing, he needs to enforce his will as a scorer.
Maybe Vogel can find more playing time for sharpshooters Rasual Butler (51.9 three-point percentage, 5.7 minutes per game) and Chris Copeland (38.2 and 5.4, respectively). Maybe Danny Granger will shake his shooting woes (.360/.330) over time.
Something needs to happen.
The Pacers have a championship-caliber defense, quite possibly one of the best we've ever seen.
But NBA teams don't win titles with defense alone. Not anymore.
The King knows that. We'll see over the coming months if the Pacers do, too.