They’ve lost length, experience and last season’s stopper, but other than all that the Pacers’ defense should be just fine this season.
They hope, anyway. And it’ll need to be.
With three new starters and nine new players trying to get to know one another, chemistry is going to be a work in progress. The growing pains can be alleviated, however, and their offensive potential can be unleashed, if their defense shows improvement from last season, when it was positively mediocre.
“We’re going to have to be a better defensive team and a better rebounding team than we’ve been in the past,” coach Nate McMillan said. “Once we do that, we’ll be able to show our speed. It starts with us keeping the ball in front of us and us committing to getting down there and helping rebound the ball.
“There’s no lack of speed with this group this year. We’re certainly smaller than we’ve been in the past, but we are faster.”
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That’s true when the rotational reserves are included in the equation. The reserves, in fact, will be crucial to a team defensive effort that has shown promise in training camp practices leading up to Wednesday’s preseason debut at Milwaukee, but remains an untested and unproven.
Starting Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic instead of Paul George, Jeff Teague and whomever started at shooting guard last season will result in a loss of about four inches, total, in the opening lineup. That’s not a lot, but every inch counts on defense when it comes to contesting shots, getting a hand in a passing lane or grabbing a rebound.
And it is a lot when you consider the starters on the conference finalist teams of 2013 and ’14 – George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert – had 13 collective inches on the current group. Those teams had the best defensive units in the NBA each season, and probably provided the best defense a Pacers team has ever played. Hill and George smothered scorers on the perimeter, Stephenson and West were bruising competitors and Hibbert was such an effective rim protector that Sports Illustrated magazine dedicated a major feature story to him.
Dan Burke, the assistant coach in charge of defense then and now, isn’t expecting that level of defense from this team, but he does hope to surpass last season’s effort, which ranked at or near the middle of the league in all major defensive categories.
The improvement will come, he says “as soon as we understand as a group we’ll have to really rely on a tight team D and hold each other accountable in schemes – and be careful not to let guys go rogue on us,” he said. “The team D is going to be the true measure of how good we’re going to be.
“Sometimes when a guy’s a little smaller, he might be a little hungrier,” Burke added. “Pit bulls come in a lot of sizes.”
Burke, a video coordinator at the end of the Nineties, saw it done when assistant coach Dick Harter cajoled an aging, relatively slow starting lineup consisting of Mark Jackson, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, Dale Davis and Rik Smits into a solid defensive unit during Larry Bird’s first two seasons as head coach. Bird’s first team, in the 1997-98 season, had the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA, an astounding feat considering the personnel. It did it largely with smarts and communication, knowing where to be and telling teammates where and when to go.
Burke directed another superlative defensive performance with a far more athletic quintet in 2013 and ’14. One of his favorite memories from that group was players challenging one another. If George got beat a time or two, Stephenson would offer to switch off and take his man. George, in turn, would angrily wave off Stephenson and refocus.
That’s why Burke was encouraged in Monday’s practice to see backup point guard Cory Joseph ask to switch onto Oladipo after Oladipo had gotten by Stephenson a couple of times.
“The next step is for Lance to say, ‘No, I’ve got him,'” Burke said. “That’s what we had on those conference finalist teams. We get that going, we’ll be pretty good.”
If there’s anyone resembling a defensive stopper among the starting backcourt, it’s Oladipo. Burke says the 6-4 guard is quick enough to stay in front of his assignment, and strong enough to fight through screens. He’s also a believer in it, which is always a good starting point.
“He’ll be able to guard his position,” McMillan said. “He has the versatility to play (positions) one and two, and he competes. He doesn’t back away from challenges. I expect him to set the tone and establish us on the perimeter defensively.”
If there’s a weak link defensively among the starters, it’s likely to be Bogdanovic. Typical of European players, it wasn’t emphasized to him early in his career, and he’s struggled with it in his three NBA seasons. His reputation by now is set in stone: great shooter, poor defender.
He claims to be doing something about that, however, having assigned himself an off-season lower body weightlifting program to improve his quickness.
“I know I need to put some muscle on my body so I worked really hard this summer,” he said when his poor reputation for defense was brought up to him.
“I improved my footwork. I will show everybody that I am good defender, too.”
Burke has been encouraged so far. “He’s a pretty good glue guy,” he said. “He’s definitely in the right spot.”
Young and Turner will have a major say in the defense, too – literally. As the back line of the defense, they’ll be called upon to call out instructions to teammates, a job West in particular once performed well. Freed to show more leadership now that several veterans from last season’s team are gone, they’ve spoken up more in practice.
“The fact we’re communicating is the biggest thing,” Turner said. “You lose talent, but if you have a team locked in together and able to communicate and make that communication mean something, you don’t lose too much.”
It’s too early to know, of course. Bogdanovic will have to show the improvement he claims. Turner will have to learn to defend on the perimeter as well as around the basket. The team defensive concept will have to become ingrained and consistently executed, which is always a challenge over the course of a long season.
And, collectively, they’ll have to play larger than they measure with effort and execution. Burke is encouraged in that regard as well, saying he’s seen more “genuine spirit and passion” from this group than any since Bird’s first team, when a veteran collection of players were honored to be coached by a legend most of them had played against.
“I think we have eager guys with high enthusiasm,” Buke said. “The desire to work together and defend is there.”
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