The Indiana Pacers are a team built on defense. Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson are all elite stoppers at their respective positions, and David West and George Hill are well above average.
Recently, however, the Pacers have struggled. Despite a 95.6 overall defensive rating on the season, according to NBA.com, that number has regressed to 102.9 over their last 10 games—including a 5-5 win-loss record overall.
So what's going wrong? Quite simply, transition defense.
The good news is that Indiana doesn't need to be all that concerned with its recent struggles. Their individual defenders are still performing relatively well, which would be less solvable; no set of defensive principles can replace a defensive player's ability to stay in front of his man.
On some level, the struggles in transition, and with their overall win-loss record, have seeped into the half-court defense. When a team is struggling, it's only natural for all parts of its game, both offensive and defensive, to take a step backwards.
Transition defense, however, isn't a matter of skill; it's a matter of effort. Sprinting back after a missed shot and cross-matching—guarding someone who isn't necessarily your assigned man, but who is open and needs to be picked up—has actually been one of Indiana's strengths.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Indiana is still the best defensive transition team in the league. But this statistic is a bit misleading: Great transition defenses stop these opportunities from even happening. This metric only calculates the points per possession scored by opponents in transition opportunities.
The real metric capturing a team's transition defense is the percentage of opponent scores that come in transition—which is to say, how often is the opponent running on the Pacers?
The Pacers, who give up the least amount of points per possession in these opportunities, still concede 1.053 PPP in transition, according to Synergy. An average NBA possession is worth approximately one point, which means that even the worst transition-scoring teams are still above average.
Limiting transition shots, then, is really the key. Indiana is only the 10th-best team at this, according to Synergy, giving up 13.3 percent of its total points allowed in transition. Compare that to league-best Charlotte, who's at 10.9 percent.
And it's in this respect that Indiana has struggled as of late. In the half court, offenses still struggle to score. But once their opponents rebound the ball, the Pacers have done a poor job limiting teams' ability to run.
Most of that blame can be assigned to the bigs, and in particular Hibbert and West. To be fair, neither player is particularly fast. But both are smart players and fully capable of reading the development of plays to get a head start.
It all starts because West doesn't sprint back. Instead, he buddy-runs (running side-by-side) with Jose Calderon, who twists and turns with the ball and eventually runs right by West at half court.
Indiana's defense goes into scramble mode as a result, and West is left guarding no one. Eventually he finds himself closing out hard on Nowitzki, biting on a pump fake and fouling him.
Why West confronted Calderon at half court is a mystery; West knows that he's not quick enough to stay with him in the open court. But more than getting blown by, it sets off a chain reaction that throws Indiana's entire defense into chaos.
One of Indiana's hallmarks both this season and last is its defense of the three-point line. Opponent's are only shooting 19.3 three-point attempts per game this year, according to NBA.com. With their overall length and team speed, its no surprise that they're able to both heavily contest or even deny attempts from deep.
Over their last 10 games, however, things haven't gone as well. Whereas for the season they are forcing teams to shoot 34.1 percent from distance, over the last 10 games that number has risen to 37.0 percent—to go along with 20.8 attempts per game.
When's the easiest time to shoot threes? Transition. Here's an example of that against the Houston Rockets, when Indiana's poor awareness on offense hurts them on defense.
It all starts when George attacks the rim, with Hibbert allowing himself to get trapped underneath the rim, as West cuts through to George's side of the floor via the baseline.
Though both players could potentially grab the offensive rebound, they're not in a good position. What's more important, however, is that they've completely compromised their ability to get back.
When Houston secures the rebound, they're off and running. Moments later, James Harden nails a three-pointer.
Here's another example, this time against the Charlotte Bobcats. As Hibbert battles for the offensive rebound, he taps the ball in the air. Stephenson is in a good position to possibly snag the ball.
West, however, is standing and watching. Hill, who is somewhat back in transition defense, decides to go for the ball. While his hustle is admirable, it's a bit misplaced: He has little chance to actually gain possession and only takes himself out of the play by going for it.
All of these oversights leave Indiana undermanned, and Gerald Henderson is wide open in the corner to bury a corner three-pointer.
Indiana's problems are certainly troubling because they haven't been isolated to a few games here and there. They've struggled for quite a while now, nearly relinquishing their Eastern Conference lead to Miami. It was only a matter of luck that Miami's recent skid coincided with Indiana's, and that the Pacers are still hanging on by a thread.
If the Pacers do end up facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals again, their transition defense will be a huge key. Miami loves to run, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are arguably the two best open-court players in the entire NBA.
Luckily there's still time to clean it up, but it's on the players to show better floor awareness and hustle at the beginning of defensive possessions.