In the 29 games since the All-Star break, Indiana has posted a net rating differential of minus-2.7 (according to NBA.com). That makes them roughly equivalent to the New Orleans Pelicans, who have maintained that differential over the course of the entire season. New Orleans, by the way, will finish under .500 and miss the playoffs.
The root of the problem, as has been the talk of the NBA landscape over the past two months, is the offense. It has slumped from an already middling 101.4 to a below average 99.8. If Indiana had kept up this ineptitude on offense throughout the entire season, only Boston, Orlando and Philadelphia would rank worse.
The defense, meanwhile, is actually struggling even more. Indiana's 96.8 defensive rating over the entire season still ranks first in the league; since the All-Star break, that number has crept up to an alarming 102.5.
In simple terms, that would seem to suggest that poor defensive play is behind the extended skid. But in practical terms, offense can be a negative trendsetter. Poor shots lead to frustration; frustration leads to poor hustle getting back on defense; poor hustle getting back results in easy opportunities.
And that's what's really going on in Indiana: The offense is essentially sabotaging what was, when the season first kicked off, a historically great defense.
Transition defense is often the primary focus of defensive-oriented teams because it's the second-easiest way to score the basketball (putbacks off of offensive rebounds being first). Teams that run the break and get shots up quickly tend to sport higher offensive ratings. Mike D'Antoni's Suns, for instance, were masters of this.
It will always be easier to score amidst the chaos of cross-matching and odd-man breaks than in organized, half-court chess matches.
One of Indiana's hallmarks, besides stopping teams in transition, was denying transition opportunities in the first place. So it's not exactly a matter of playing better defense in transition so much as it's about slowing down an opponent's tempo in the first place.
There are two primary ways to limit opponents in transition: hustle back on defense or score the basketball yourself. Though many teams in today's NBA try to squeeze out fast-break plays even off of makes, it's noticeably more difficult. The time it takes to retrieve the basketball out of the net, step out of bounds and hit a ball-handler is often enough for a defense to recover into its own half court.
Indiana, as we've seen throughout this season and especially lately, struggles with putting the ball in the hole. So it's relied on the second method, which is simply a matter of hustle: sprint, instead of jog, back on defense.
Poor offensive possessions make this difficult for plainly human reasons: It's no fun to sprint up and down the floor without touching the ball. Even role players, who understand their jobs as pick-setters, corner three-point shooters or cutters, need to see the ball every once in a while. Things can go awry when poor decisions are made instead of rewarding this type of dirty work on the offensive end.
What makes San Antonio and Miami so successful is their fluid engagement on offense. The ball constantly swings, both to keep the defense off-balance (it's easier to play offense when everyone is at least perceived as a threat) and everyone involved. Therefore, when it does come time to knock down that big three or make the extra effort on a rotation on defense, it's more likely to happen.
This is where the breakdown in Indiana is happening. Grantland's Zach Lowe does a nice job analyzing the nitty-gritty offensive problems, from spacing to miscommunications to other statistical minutiae, but the broader analysis touches on a more comprehensive truth surrounding this team: Everything is falling apart at the seams on offense.
In most cases, that's what's so intriguing about basketball: The delicate balancing act between offense and defense, how each triggers the other in different proportions and via different team-specific angles. It's also why tiny breakdowns can seep everywhere, causing multisystem failure. We're seeing that with the Pacers.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), 13 percent of Indiana's shots allowed have come in transition. That ranks them eighth in the league, which is a drop-off from their top-five status all season. While the decrease might seem slight, those extra two or three opportunities per game could account for a fistful of points to swing the game.
But again, it all comes back to the offense. The Pacers of late have been showing a tendency toward selfishness and in particular gravitating toward the basketball to cramp spacing. In short, everyone wants the basketball.
Whether it's Roy Hibbert posting up at inopportune times, Lance Stephenson sliding toward the basketball on the perimeter or Paul George isolating a little too often, it's commonplace in Indiana's offense for its players to drift.
While this is natural for any basketball player, it has reached its breaking point: Players are literally running into each other to receive the ball.
Too often, we're seeing plays like this:
Indiana runs a mid-post iso for George, with David West setting a screen on Hibbert's man. The idea is for Hibbert to flash to the ball in the mid-post area, hoping to get a quick bucket at the rim.
Miami's bigs switch, negating the effectiveness of the play. Yet George pulls up for a jumper right as the switch occurs, giving the play no time to develop. Even though Chris Bosh denies Hibbert the ball, West is actually wide-open underneath the rim if he's able to release from the contact and face the ball.
On the weak side, Stephenson weirdly creeps in toward the hoop to cramp the spacing even more. Now there are four players working toward the ball and all underneath the rim. When the shot goes up and George misses, Miami is off and running the other way. The Pacers defenders are trapped under the rim and unable to play transition defense because of the poor execution on offense.
Here's another example, this time with both George and West finding themselves being guarded by smaller defenders. Both players sense the mismatch and want the ball in the post, except it's George who's actually in position. West is still on the perimeter, and George Hill therefore throws it to George.
Still, West continues cutting toward the block. Even after George makes the catch, you'll notice a momentary hesitation by West as if he's still waiting for the ball. Never mind that he and his teammate are fewer than five feet away from each other.
West's proximity allows for an easy double-team without the added benefit of an open teammate for George to throw to. Though Mario Chalmers ends up falling down and George has a nice jumper, it's only a matter of luck.
And, once again, Miami flies down the court the other way.
Is Indiana doomed in the playoffs? By no means. The playoffs usually mean slower pace and a greater focus on defense, which favors their style of play. But given how things have been going for sometime now, Indiana's chances don't look great.
The real sign of trouble is that the Pacers' inability to exist cohesively on offense has impacted their defense. Because if Indiana's defense isn't functioning properly, it certainly doesn't stand a chance.
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