Indiana is off to the best start in franchise history, and at the time of this writing, it's hard to find an NBA team that looks better than the Blue and Gold. What's helped the Pacers be so successful, and what are some obstacles to sustained success? Time for an old-fashioned like/dislike, with detailed thoughts on both the pluses (like Paul George) and the minuses (like turnovers). Proceed.
Things I like:
This one doesn't require much in the way of explanation. I've consistently expressed concern on the ICC podcast (shameless plug: most recent episode available here) that Paul George had been prematurely anointed a ‘superstar' during last year's postseason by a media that hadn't watched more than a handful of his games. Did he play well in the playoffs? Yeah... but that wasn't the Paul George who played most of the season for the Indiana Pacers.
‘Superstar Paul George' put together a nice string of games against LeBron and Melo two of the best small forwards - and players, period - in the NBA. Paul George opened the 2012-2013 season as a hit-or-miss offensive player. Even after he supposedly turned the corner offensively, he wasn't much of a creator and didn't shoot well from anywhere besides at the rim and beyond the arc. Even his playoff numbers bear this out. He had 43%/33%/73% shooting splits during last year's postseason and turned the ball over four times per game. He was versatile, but a superstar pedigree based on his clutch three-pointer in Game One of the Eastern Finals and a couple highlight reel dunks is a thin one.
George has taken on a higher volume of the offensive load than at any other point of his young career, and has been more efficient at the same time. Plus, he's hitting ‘superstar' shots. You know? The shots J.R Smith tries and fails to hit on a regular basis? The ones that good and middling guys don't hit and 'Melo and Durant do? The 20-footer-off-the-bounce-with-a-defender-right-there? It's been awhile since a Pacer could hit that shot, and I'm not sure of the last time Indiana has had a guy who could do that AND play elite defense. This is neat.
You do you, Paul George. You keep doing you.
Ian Mahimni's rotation slot
This one's a little more under the radar. When the Pacers added both Chris Copeland and Luis Scola, I was concerned about what that meant for Ian Mahmni. It would not have broken my heart to see his hideous sweeping hook - that results about 60% of the time in a travel - banished to the pine, but Ian's a valuable rotation player in most other things he does.
He hits the boards, isn't an awful shooter, and ... ok, got greedy with that one, but - this is the big part - he ‘s secretly not a huge drop-off from Roy Hibbert at the law of verticality. When Roy came off the floor, Indiana's defensive numbers dropped off, but a lot of the time, that had to do with the OTHER defensive players the Pacers trotted out (looking straight at you, D.J Augustin.) Ian has started the year slowly, but is still averaging more than 1.25 blocks per contest in less than 20 minutes of action, and is a decent rebounder.
More importantly, neither Scola or Copeland are great defenders - Scola was actually found by Kirk Goldsberry to be one of the worst interior defenders in the NBA - and Indiana playing them in the same bench unit would have meant shifting the defensive mentality when Roy Hibbert comes off the floor. With Ian in the lineup, the Pacers play defense the same way throughout the game; aggressively guard the perimeter, put a padlock on the rim, and force tough midrange shots. Speaking of which...
The Pacers have been super-good on defense, guys. Like really, really good. Opponent shooting percentage, rebounds, blocked shots, forced turnovers; you name it, Indiana's done it. The 7'2, 290 pound Roy Hibbert has been at the middle of the action. As expected after his postseason, he's been getting DPOY hype from the season's opening tip, but it doesn't hurt that Indy has three other above-average to stellar defenders joining him in the starting lineup.
Paul George's status as one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA is covered above, and Lance Stephenson has capably guarded the wing player more dangerous than George Hill's man, but less dangerous than PG's. David West's communication, muscle and 7'4" wingspan doesn't hurt. That all adds up to a unit allowing 85 points per game, and 92 points per 100 possessions (PAP100), both of which lead the league by a wide margin (the Bulls and Spurs are tied with 93 points allowed per game, and the PAP100 gap between Indy and #2 Golden State is roughly the same as the gap between Golden State and the #8 New York Knicks.) The Pacers just execute well on defense, which shouldn't surprise anyone based on how they played last year, but is still worth mentioning.
Things I don't like:
This is probably the biggest bugaboo facing this team. George Hill and C.J Watson aren't pure point guards. I've been of the opinion (I'm not sure how popular or unpopular) that the Pacers don't really need a pure point guard, and may be better off without one.
Remember Darren Collison, and how he struggled so often to get into a rhythm because the ball spent so much time in the post with Hibbert and West working as playmakers? Remember how George Hill was so successful as a starter because he was comfortable as a scorer THEN as a facilitator? I think that's how this team best operates; a pure point guard wouldn't be comfortable with working in the Pacers offense that focuses so heavily on feeding the post, and since so many teams are perimeter-oriented - both offensively and defensively - I think that style of offense plays to Indiana's strengths in a way that a more conventional offense would not.
All that said, the turnovers are concerning. They were concerning all last season, and through the postseason. Indy has shooting, rebounding, defense and free-throws, but turnovers remain a red flag. They had 20 and 16 turnovers the first two games and are averaging more than 17 per game so far. They need to find a way to cut those back.
Role uncertainty when Granger returns
This is sort of a ‘First World Problem', but I still see it as the most complicated issue facing this Indiana team. This'll get a little lengthy.
The Pacers are off to their best start in franchise history, all without the guy who led them in scoring for five years. All offseason, Granger's return was the primary storyline surrounding this team because the theory went that everything last year's Pacer team was missing, Danny Granger could provide this season - more three-point shooting, a deeper bench and an extra veteran presence. Somehow along the way, everything that Danny Granger was expected to provide now looks like it can come from somewhere else.
Last year's starting unit with Lance Stephenson was one of the best lineups in the league. The most glaring shortcoming of that group was that opponents didn't have to respect Stephenson's ability to beat them from beyond the arc. Based on Lance's early returns, that's no longer the case. He's no Ray Allen, but he's hitting at a higher rate than he ever has before and he brings more than Granger on defense, handling the ball and pushing the fast break.
Likewise, the bench and lack of veteran presence is no longer an issue. The Pacers are possibly the most experienced young team in the league - last year's core group is all back and veterans like C.J Watson and Luis Scola have been added to the mix. Even without Danny Granger, Indiana can give burn to 6-8 guys who can play their role in a playoff series (depending on how you feel about Lance Stephenson and Ian Mahimni).
If Danny Granger could grow that number to 7-9 guys, that'd be cool! But he looked bad last year when he tried to come back, didn't look much better this preseason before getting shut down again, and hasn't had an important basketball moment in 18 months and ... there are just so many red flags! He's a notoriously slow starter. He's always been more of a volume guy than a marksman. How will his lower body hold up after so much time not playing NBA basketball? Is the upside to having Granger in the lineup still there?
When Danny comes back, the Pacers will be rolling the dice that Good Granger is still in there somewhere and that it won't take him long enough to get back up to speed that it costs Indiana one or two games that they need to make a run at the #1 seed in the East, which has been their stated goal since the beginning of the season.
Because here's the deal - I'm not sure the Pacers need Danny Granger to win the NBA championship this year, if they the #1 seed in the East. Paul and Lance have both been better (in the VERY early going) than any rational Pacer fan could have dared to expect, and Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill have looked at least capable as stopgaps when the starters need a couple minutes of rest. SAM YOUNG AND D.J AUGUSTIN WERE KEY ROTATION PLAYERS LAST YEAR, AND THAT TEAM WAS ONE WIN AWAY FROM MAKING THE FINALS! WITHOUT HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE!!!!
I'll stop yelling now.
That homecourt question is the most important one. Obviously, 2011-2012 Danny Granger is a better option than O.J and New Solo (I'm sorry, Solomon Jones. You were never good enough.) If the Pacers can get 2011-2012 Danny Granger back, I like their chances against anyone - even on the road - if the rest of this team stays healthy. But O.J and New Solo might be good enough to not hurt the Pacers in a Game 7 at The Bank, just like Danny Granger might not still be Danny Granger. And if Danny Granger isn't Danny Granger, it won't have been worth trying to get him worked into the rotation, and I'm not so bullish about the Pacers' chances.
Make sense? My head hurts.
Luis Scola's Vujacic-style headband
I'm a slave to symmetry, and I'm not really upset about anything else. YOU'RE A ROLE MODEL, LUIS! DO YOU WANT TO SEE THOSE SHOESTRING HEADBANDS EVERYWHERE?! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!