NBA Coverage: Indiana & Chicago Do It With Defense

There’s a lot of maneuvering going on as the NBA trade deadline approaches on Thursday, but two teams we can reasonably be sure are getting significant upgrades won’t need a trade—the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls have played without their stars for the entire season. Now Danny Granger is expected back for the Pacers any day. And while we get mixed messages about Derrick Rose from the Windy City, he did participate in a full 5-on-5 workout yesterday and you have to think that heightens the odds of an imminent return.

What’s most noteworthy about these teams though, is the success the Pacers and Bulls have each had without their stars, especially given the emphasis the culture of the NBA places on the star system. Indiana is in third in the Eastern Conference at 32-21, while Chicago is fifth with a record of 30-22. Both are squarely in the mix of teams that are tightly packed from 2 thru 6 and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals is eminently realistic even if Granger or Rose never saw the court this year. Both teams are built on tough defense, each hits the boards hard to close out those defensive possessions and both control the pace with a slow tempo. Beyond these core similarities, TheSportsNotebook’s NBA coverage will break down each team a little further…

Indiana: 22-year-old small forward Paul George has stepped up with a big year, averaging 18 points/8 rebounds/4 assists per game and emerged as the go-to player on the offensive end. He’s also a respectable three-point shooter, hitting 39 percent from behind the arc. The Pacers continue to be tough on the blocks, with David West averaging 17/8 from the power forward spot, and Roy Hibbert at 10/8. Hibbert is somewhat of a disappointment—he has the talent to be the best center in the game, but he only shows it on the offensive end in spurts. I’m not suggesting Indiana fans throw him back or anything—he still blocks shots, is a great defensive presence and at least chips in offensively, but the 26-year-old could be much better.

The backcourt doesn’t have the same depth as last year with the loss of Darren Collison, but they get solid offensive work from George Hill at 15 ppg. Overall though, head coach Frank Vogel can’t be comfortable with Lance Stephenson having to get so much playing time. Furthermore, George and Hill are the only decent three-point shooters and neither one exceeds 40 percent. That’s not a killer flaw—in a seven-game series it’s more important to defend and rebound, and Indiana ranks at the top of the NBA—including the more heralded Bulls—in both areas. But still, in a tough playoff series it would be nice to have a one game where some hot shooting from the outside might bail you out. We’ll see if any moves are forthcoming over the next couple days in that regard, although to date there are no major rumors.

If the playoffs started today and form held in the first round, Indiana would play New York in the second round. It would be a rematch of the great matchups these teams had in the mid-1990s when Reggie Miller lit up Madison Square Garden or Patrick Ewing went toe-to-toe with Rik Smits in the low post. The Pacers and Knicks will meet on Wednesday as the joust for seed position heats up . Indiana then plays consecutive games with Detroit on Friday and Saturday, before playing home games with Western Conference contenders Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers in the early part of next week.

Granger’s return represents both promise and pitfall—he’ll allow Stephenson to take on a more reduced role, but at the same time Granger could take shots away from George. We’ll have to see how well Vogel can get the new lineup clicking. But he’s got 29 games to do it and a team that’s done a tremendous job overcoming an injury that by rights should have relegated them to the playoff borderline.

Chicago: It’s a credit to quality of the Bulls’ frontcourt and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau that this team has managed to keep winning. The depth in the backcourt is woeful. It’s not that Nate Robinson isn’t having a decent year at the point—he is, with 12 ppg and shooting well both inside and outside the arc. But Rip Hamilton’s best days are well behind him at the two-guard spot and Kirk Hinrich has a reputation that exceeds his actual production—he scores seven points a game and shoots sub-40 percent from the floor and from three-point range.

If you put Rose into the mix it obviously changes the dynamic—Robinson would be one of the best backup point guards in the game, or you could play the two side-by-side and push the pace. Hamilton is still a good shooter, it’s just that at 35 years old the durability isn’t there. But in a framework that includes Rose, the veteran fits in much easier. It’s easy to see why Chicago has been tied to trade rumors surrounding Orlando sharpshooter J.J. Redick.

The Bulls went through a recent losing streak, in large part because Joakim Noah missed some time, but the center is back in the lineup. He averages a 12/11 each night, and is a tremendous defensive asset. Luol Deng scores 17 ppg, although at 31 percent from behind the arc, he might want to consider not jacking up so many treys. Carlos Boozer is at 16/9, though the 31-year-old is a part of a lot of trade rumors and a lot of NBA observers don’t expect him to be in the Windy City come Thursday night when the Heat come to town. If Boozer is moved for backcourt help, Taj Gibson is a good rebounder and defender that can step into an increased role.

Chicago plays New Orleans tonight to get ready for Miami’s arrival in two days (8 PM ET, TNT). Then the warmup-showdown sequence is replayed over the weekend when the Bulls use a trip to Charlotte on Friday night to warm up for a Sunday night date in Oklahoma City (9:30 PM ET, ESPN).  The Thursday night game with the Heat comes a few hours after the trade deadline, so the team we see take on Miami and OkC is the one Thibodeau will go into the stretch drive with.

No one’s going to deny the NBA is a star-driven league, particularly in the playoffs. But the Pacers and Bulls have both shown you can go a long way with some effort and teamwork on the defensive end and they deserve a tip of the cap for what they’ve done without their big guns.