Last season, the Indiana Pacers surprised pretty much everyone in taking the defending NBA champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Conventional wisdom pointed to the Pacers enjoying a natural progression and improvement in 2013-14, but there were reasons to be skeptical of such an assumption.
Often, teams that are as impressively smothering on defense as the 2012-13 edition of the Pacers historically regress back towards the mean. Sudden defensive success in the NBA is often short-lived and unable to be prolonged over a long period of time. Additionally, Indiana would be counting on Lance Stephenson continuing his late-season and playoff improvement from the previous season, while hoping for somewhat of a bounce-back season from Roy Hibbert, who scuffled a bit on the offensive end of the floor after signing his max contract extension.
Through the opening third of this year’s schedule, all of the above have held true. The defense has actually performed better overall, Stephenson has played easily his best basketball of his young career, and Hibbert has done the same. It’s impossible to push the Pacers’ 22-5 start to the side and say that there is any large measure of luck or random variance involved, but are they really that good? What are their weaknesses, and how do they match up against the best of the best and namely, the Heat?
Any conversation about the Indiana Pacers inevitably starts with Paul George, who has established himself as a top-five or six player in the NBA, almost without question. He’s cooled off a bit after a ridiculous start to the season, but there’s no doubting his superstar status. We’ll have a piece focusing on his game and his impressive season later in the week, so we won’t spend too much time on him right now. Just know that he is the bees’ knees, and far and away the main reason for the Pacers’ early season success.
Roy Hibbert is the second-most talked about Pacer, and for good reason. He’s been fantastic thus far this season on both ends of the court. All of his shooting numbers are up over last year’s disappointing performance, and a big piece to his improved contribution has been his ability to get to the free throw line at a much better rate than last year’s pace. His defense has been better than ever, and the ever so slight upward tick in blocked shots isn’t the only reason. The Pacers give up just 93 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert on the floor, according to Basketball Reference. That’s right. Ninety-three.
And the often forgotten man, David West, has been the third cog in the Pacers’ version of a ‘big three’. West’s numbers have dipped slightly from last season across the board save for his career-best assist rate of 18.1%. The Pacers offense, while still not always a beautiful sight to behold, is best when West touches the ball, usually in the high post or on the wings. His mid-range jump shot is still one of the best in the game, and is a necessary tool for a team that employs guards that can get to the rim but not a ton of long-range sharpshooters.
Which brings us to the Pacers’ weaknesses. It’s really a 1A and 1B situation, as they’re certainly linked — point guard play, and outside shooting. The Pacers’ point guard play has improved dramatically since acquiring George Hill from San Antonio prior to the 2011-12 season. But the nature of the Pacers’ offense involves a lot of driving to the hoop by Paul George and Lance Stephenson and a lot of post-ups by Hibbert. In other words, there isn’t a ton of point guard-initiated offense.
And that’s fine, except for that outside of George, Hill is the only truly consistent three-point shooter on the squad. The Pacers offense, in contrast to many other NBA offenses, is rather stagnant. It relies largely on penetration by George and Stephenson, and secondarily on high screen-and-rolls from Hibbert and West. There isn’t much else going on.
Because of this, Hill and either Stephenson or George end up standing and spotting up on the perimeter and occasionally not moving for entire possessions. Hill and George are both very good long distance shooters; Stephenson is not. Which means that Stephenson acting as the ball handler on the pick-and-roll is best-case scenario for the Pacers’ floor spacing and play-making possibilities.
But Stephenson also turns the ball over at a much higher rate (on 17.8% of possessions) than any of the Pacers’ other rotation players, save for backup center Ian Mahinmi. As improved as he’s been so far this season, and as much attention as his three triple-doubles in just 27 games has gotten, his decision-making still leaves much to be desired. Despite starting at shooting guard, much of the Pacers offense is initiated through the turnover-prone Stephenson, including a number of their fast breaks.
Clearly, the better option would be Paul George, allowing Hill and his 37.4% career three-point shooting average to spot-up on the perimeter. To have another sharpshooter to play off the ball would be huge for the Pacers, and that would reduce the reliance on the largely unreliable Stephenson in both the open floor and the half court offense.
Additionally, for as much attacking of the basket as Stephenson does, his free throw rate is much lower than what would be ideal out of a player that is getting into the paint to initiate the offense. Despite shooting 48% of his field goal attempts from within eight feet of the basket, Stephenson only attempts two free throws per 36 minutes. That’s almost uncanny, and is certainly cause for concern.
Finally, why has the Pacers’ offense found success this season, other than George’s dominance and Hibbert’s overall improvement over last season? Well, this one has a little bit to do with random variance. Take a look at last season’s team shot chart for the Pacers:
The yellow is league average, so they were good enough from the floor to ensure that they wouldn’t waste their shutdown defense with offense that was too inefficient. In other words, they did just enough. This year?
Yeah…they’re shooting 193 for 422 (45.7%) from 16-24 feet so far this year. That’s really, really good. And based on last season’s performance (and how regression to the mean/league average works), it probably isn’t sustainable. This is also partly why George’s offensive number have slide just a bit of late, as he’s only attempting a little over 25% of his field goals at the rim this season. At the same time, he’s hoisting up more than 20% of his attempts from 16-24 feet. Not exactly a distribution of shots that will lend itself to the epitome of efficiency.
Yes, George a good shooter, and there’s no denying that. But he’s actually shooting just 3 of 14 from the top of the key, below the three-point line, and just 3 of 12 from mid-range on the left baseline on the season. As is the case with the majority of players, George is most effective when getting to the rim. Here’s hoping he doesn’t stunt his growth by continuing to settle for mid-range jumpers, Carmelo-style.
Of course, we’re nitpicking here. This is a fantastic team that is the only thing close to a challenge for the Heat in the Eastern Conference. In fact, the Pacers actually match-up fairly well with Miami. Neither team has a ball-controlling, fast-break running point guard. Both team’s best player is a dual-threat that primarily plays on the wing. And the Heat don’t have anyone that can check Hibbert for 36+ minutes. (Chris Andersen is a fantastic defender, but asking him to play that many minutes + foul trouble means that Hibbert spells trouble for Spoelstra’s bunch in a long series.)
The Eastern Conference Finals should again be Miami vs. Indiana. I would expect the Heat to win yet again, as the Pacers are still due for some regression throughout the season while the Heat should hit their stride come February/March, as they seemingly do every year.
The Pacers are clearly the second-best team in the East, and are a top-three or four team league-wide. They certainly have a shot to knock off the Heat come spring, just as they had a real chance to do so last year. But don’t necessarily buy into the idea that the team is rapidly improving. There’s a bit of luck involved, some slight holes in the squad, and a fellow by the name of LeBron James standing in their way.