The Indiana Pacers’ identity has centered around defense throughout much of the last decade. In that time frame, the Pacers had an above-average defensive season nine times. In six of the last ten campaigns, the team was in the top-ten in defensive rating league wide. The ethos of the franchise has been defense.
Until 2021-22. This past season, the Pacers finished 28th in defensive rating, far and away their worst defensive season of the last decade. In fact, it was the first time that Indiana finished in the bottom-ten in defensive rating since 1998-99, according to NBA.com.
“Defensively, we have to be a lot better,” forward Oshae Brissett said at the end of the Pacers 25-win season. “Not messing up so much on little things we know we can correct.”
What made the blue and gold’s defensive issues so perplexing is that for much of the season, the roster was similar to ones from past seasons. Few changes were made in the 2021 offseason, and Indiana finished 14th in defensive rating in 2020-21. Yet the team’s impact on defense fell off a cliff.
The Pacers did make a coaching change in the summer of 2021, but various players noted that they don’t believe there is anything about their new defensive schemes and systems that caused slippage on defense this past season.
“We have the right schemes,” Brissett shared, before adding that consistency is something the team needs on that end of the floor. Guard Tyrese Haliburton agreed. “I don’t think it’s a schematic thing,” he said of his team’s defensive issues.
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It’s not possible to assign the Pacers’ defensive struggles to only schematic failures or only personnel tweaks. But it is possible to contextualize the role that both played in the team’s lackluster season, as both factors led to a miserable campaign.
On the personnel front, several Pacers players saw their impact decline on the defensive end this past season. Veteran wings Justin Holiday and Torrey Craig weren’t as influential on that end of the floor as they were in prior campaigns, and guards Caris LeVert and Jeremy Lamb rarely affected the outcome of games with their defense. Those long-serving pros were often unhelpful on the less glamorous end of the floor — on occasion, they were a hindrance.
All four of those players saw their defensive box plus-minus drop from 2020-21 to 2021-22, and that played a big part in the Pacers’ struggles getting stops. Guards T.J. McConnell and Lance Stephenson also saw their defensive impact fall, albeit to a lesser degree. Indiana needed more from their older hands on defense this past season, but they didn’t get it.
Injuries also impacted the Pacers ability to defend well this past year, as was made clear by numerous players throughout the campaign. “A big part of [defensive correction] is having your best defenders out there,” floor general Malcolm Brogdon said in April.
Brogdon was one of the Pacers’ better defenders this season, but he played in just 36 games. Indiana was a much better defensive team with the six-year pro on the court, but he didn’t play enough for that to matter.
Myles Turner, the team’s best defender, missed the final three months of the season with a foot injury. Like with Brogdon, Indiana’s defense was nearly six points per 100 possessions better with Turner on the court than off, but the big man only played in 42 games, which limited his total impact. “Once we get Myles back, it’s going to be a lot better,” Brissett said of the team’s defense after the season concluded.
Domantas Sabonis and Isaiah Jackson, two of the few other positive-value defenders (at times) this season also missed time with injuries, and Sabonis was traded away in February. Between these injuries, trades, and other key vets regressing on the defensive end of the floor, Indiana’s personnel was not as strong defensively as it was in past seasons despite having numerous returning faces.
On the schematic side of things, the Pacers defense didn’t have any obvious issues. It never felt like the team was shooting themselves in the foot with any tactical or strategic choices, despite their failures on that end of the floor.
That said, the Pacers could still stand to improve their defensive schemes and principles. They conceded a ton of points in the paint this season. Opponents shot above their expected percentage versus Pacers’ defenders. Mishaps happened often. Indiana needs to improve their defensive blueprint.
“When you change personnel or when you’re constantly changing lineups or constantly re-introducing other concepts, I think that it can be a bit much,” Turner said of his team’s defense this season. Perhaps using a base scheme more often with fewer adjustments would help. “I think you get lost in the fact that defense is a mentality,” Turner added.
Mentality was a word used by numerous players this season. Turner used it in his aforementioned thoughts, and he then brought it up a second time during his exit interview. Haliburton shared a similar idea. “Defense, a lot of times, is the willingness to do it,” he said. “The willingness to be in the right spots and the willingness to play that side of the floor.”
But mentality can only help so much. An altered, less-complicated approach to defensive strategy that is more straightforward, as Turner noted, would help Indiana. Perhaps shifting their focus to keeping opponents out of the paint, an area where the Pacers gave up the second most points per game, would be a start.
Natural improvement will come for the blue and gold next season. Key defensive cogs will return from injury. Coaching staff continuity will help. New players will have an entire training camp to get acclimated, which will prevent a hurdle that negatively impacted the Pacers in the middle of the 2021-22 season.
“Everybody runs the same stuff… just different terminology,” wing Buddy Hield said after being dealt to the Pacers. The number of trades Indiana made often led to terminology struggles, and the team had the NBA’s worst defense from the trade deadline through the end of the campaign.
Any natural improvement must be met with improved personnel and revamped, more manageable strategies. Otherwise, the Pacers will continue to flounder near the bottom of the NBA defensively. They need to take their improvement on that end of the floor seriously.
It all starts with the offseason. Indiana will have a top draft pick and free agency resources to improve the squad. From there, it will be up to head coach Rick Carlisle and assistant coach Lloyd Pierce, who was often tasked with running the team’s defense this past season, to set the right scheme in place around that new team. Changes to the defensive approach must come from all corners of the organization.
Improved health and more time together will help this core grow defensively, too. “Be more together, honestly,” Brissett said when discussing what the team needs to do to improve defensively during the season. “Trust in each other, that’s the biggest thing that coach [Pierce] always talks about.”
That trust will be key for the Indiana Pacers next season. If it’s there, and it’s combined with better personnel and refined approach, the Pacers will be a strong defensive team in 2022-23. They will get their ethos back. If that trust isn’t there, or half measures are taken toward improving the defense, then Indiana may have a second consecutive miserable season. The Pacers need to improve on the less glamorous end of the floor, and that improvement starts now.