After a hectic and stunning first week of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Indiana Pacers are the only team left standing without a blemish on their record. The 5-0 Pacers have picked up right where they left off last post-season, when they were a LeBron James lay-up at the buzzer away from getting to the NBA Finals, playing the best brand of defense in the league, suffocating opponents on a nightly basis and grinding out wins out that end of the floor.
The offense is still middling as a whole, but it appears to be functioning better because they are actually hitting threes this season (35% last year, 40% this year). Who knows if that trend will keep up, but there's no denying that this is a team that will rely on its defense to win games, and Lance Stephenson, who leads the team in assists right now, appears to have made some strides with his outside shot.
What's great about the Pacers is that, for a team with a defensive reputation that plays a relatively slow pace, they are still really fun to watch. Watching their team defense compete each possession is a nightly joy, and it's always fun to sit and diagnose how Frank Vogel has designed his schemes to best use Roy Hibbert as a rim protector. And while the offense isn't going to blow anybody away, the presence of the ever improving Paul George gives Indiana a lights out scorer and an electric superstar that has become must-see TV for all those with League Pass.
If we are going to draw any real conclusions from the first week of the season, we can assume that Miami is not going to take the regular season all that seriously (already resting Wade on back-to-backs and starting each game sluggishly) and that Chicago is going to take some time to gel before they are back to playing like the 2011 Bulls. This gives the Pacers a great opportunity to establish themselves as the best team in the conference. Outside of C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, Indiana's core rotation is the same as last season, so it's no surprise that they are already clicking.
While the Pacers have assembled a pretty solid roster altogether, it is the growth of Hibbert and George that has the Pacers in a position to dominate the Eastern Conference this season, and if Indiana is going to win a title this season, it will be on the shoulders of their two best players. So, let's take a closer look at what the Pacers have in Hibbert and George through the lens of advanced metrics with some film study mixed in.
Hibbert Is The Best Rim Protector In Basketball
Now, I don't think I'm ready to anoint him as the best defender in the league, because I think Marc Gasol does a comparable guarding the rim while also being able to go outside and defend pick-and-rolls, but it's very clear that Hibbert is the best in basketball at protecting the paint. That's why a lot of Indiana's defensive schemes involve Hibbert laying back in the paint and conceding mid-range jumpers to opposing bigs and point guards coming off of screen-and-rolls. Vogel is a supporter of the analytical movement and he has adopted the philosophy of allowing the opposition as many mid-range looks as they want in order to better lockdown the paint and the perimeter.
The Orlando Magic version of Dwight Howard was superb at defending the basket, but Howard has yet to fully return to that version of himself, and Hibbert has since surpassed him as the best defensive anchor in the league. It's funny, because Hibbert is essentially the inverse of Howard. Howard's elite talent was an incredible God-given ability to cover so much space, so quickly for a big guy with top notch athleticism to boot. He's actually more of a power forward size wise (around 6'9") but his leaping ability and timing allowed him to man the center spot as well as many of the legends of the game have.
Hibbert, on the other hand, is a plodding mammoth that prefers to be stationary for the majority of a given possession, only sliding from side-to-side when he sees a drive or cut coming. He's obviously not the athletic freak that Howard is, but he has shown the ability to move laterally quick enough to get in position when he sees something coming.
Take this possession against the Magic, for example. Hibbert starts the play off shading Nikola Vucevic, but once he sees Moe Harkless attacking on the baseline, he moves over and contests the shot perfectly.
No phrase was uttered more during the post-season than "law of verticality," and Hibbert as fittingly become the posterboy for this rule. He's mastered the art of defending the rim without fouling, and, perhaps more importantly, his reputation for being so good at it as led referees to give him the benefit of the doubt occasionally. The way that Hibbert is able to avoid fouls when he has to move to a spot in order to contest (as in the GIF above) is so spectacular, and happens in part because players know that going straight into him won't draw a whistle as it would with other bigs around the league.
Thanks to the new SportVU data that has been released by the NBA, we can actually take a look at some numbers that tell us how well a big man defends the rim. Here are the top five big defenders in basketball that average at least 20 minutes per game and that defend against an average of six shots per game at the rim (data does not include last night's action).
|Player||Opp FGM at Rim per game||Opp FGA at Rim per game||Opp FG% at Rim|
As you can see, Hibbert currently ranks second in the league in opponent's field goal percentage at the rim despite defending against the second most shot attempts per game in that area (Al Jefferson is first at a remarkable 16). This indicates that the Pacers are comfortable funneling some actions to Hibbert and allowing him to make the final stand for that possession. And this season, that stand has been successful 70% of the time.
Hibbert's ability to anchor the paint at such an elite level gives the Pacers a true anchor and someone that can make up for a lot of mistakes. Hibbert's presence as become so well known that some players won't even attempt to drive at the rim (as we saw for long stretches with LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals), which is about as big of an impact as any one player can have (Ian Mahinmi appears to be taking after Hibbert, as he's allowing just 38% shooting on shots at the rim.).
Hibbert also seems more comfortable on the block this season and has shown a really nice touch with his post moves. Hibbert can also anchor the offense for stretches, as he commands a lot of attention when he establishes deep post position. Indiana runs some nice sets intended for Paul George that have built-in options for Hibbert to set a couple of screens, which puts him in great positions to post-up. With his offensive game becoming incrementally better, Hibbert has put himself in the conversation with Gasol, Duncan and Howard as the best big man in the game.
Paul George Is A Top 5 Player In The NBA
Calling Paul George an elite player last season was a bit of a stretch because his overall efficiency was around league average. That doesn't mean he was a league average player, and PER doesn't factor in defense, but he shot just 42% from the field and 36% from three as he began to carry more of an offensive load. This season George has seen yet another increase in usage rate (18.2% in 2011 to 22.4% in 2012 to 27.4% right now), but his efficiency has actually skyrocketed (his 27.17 PER ranks 8th in the league).
We can certainly expect some regression as the season goes along, but there is no doubt that George is playing the best basketball of his career right now, and when George is at his peak, he's one of the five best players in the league.
This summer I talked to George about the upcoming season and he told me he was focusing on becoming a leader for this team and on creating an example that his teammates could follow. So far this season, he has definitely accomplished that, setting a tone on both ends of the floor with tenacious defense and determined off-ball movements on offense.
What we are seeing from George right now is also a byproduct of his tireless work during the off-season. On top of spending time with Team USA Basketball, George spent a lot of time working on his outside shot, and it's paying off big time for the Pacers. Not only is George making open looks in the flow of the game, his improved outside shot has opened up Frank Vogel's playbook, and he's added a Ray Allen-like package of plays to get George moving across the floor and to get him open looks from the perimeter.
Here is a loop set that runs George off of three screens, taking him from the left wing to the right wing and creating enough space for him to make a move on the trailing defender.
Here is a similar weakside motion play. With Hibbert getting wide in the post and attracting the attention of Greg Monroe, Monroe doesn't realize that there is a double pindown happening for George to his right, and George is able to get a wide open look from deep from the top of the key.
Against New Orleans, the Pacers ran a nice strongside flare screen. They started the play off with a pindown action for George to pop to the top of the key, with the result being a post-up for David West. Once West got the ball, George Hill went from the wing to the elbow to set the flare screen for Paul George, who popped open for another great look.
Indiana has also done some cool things with their sideline out of bounds plays for Paul George. Take a look at this beauty that Vogel called against Detroit. There is nothing fancy going on pre-play, it's simply George entering the ball in and getting a backscreen from C.J. Watson. Hibbert makes a great pass for the alley-oop.
In the next game against Chicago, the Pacers ran almost the exact same play, but Luol Deng sensed the backdoor cut and went under the screen. Seeing this, George went to the counter move, making a strong V-cut back towards the wing for the wide open three.
According to the SportsVu data, George is one of the best shooters off the catch in the league right now. Of players that play at least 20 minutes per game and take at least three spot-up shots per game, here is where George ranks (data does not include last night's action).
|Player||C&S FGA per game||C&S FG%||C&S 3FGA per game||C&S 3FG%||C&S eFG%|
George's ability to hurt a defense by moving without the ball is a great development for the Pacers and for himself. Now that he seems very comfortable shooting off the catch, the Pacers can add a whole new package to their playbook and George's load as a scorer is lightened somewhat. George doesn't have to rely on as many isolation or pick-and-roll plays now that he's able to play off the ball. Instead he's able to function as Ray Allen on some plays and Kevin Durant on others on top of mixing in his own unique offensive skills.
Essentially, he's not having to pound the ball into the floor each play in order to get himself a good look. Being able to run George off of screens and implementing other actions not only gives him more efficient scoring chances, it improves the overall flow and continuity of the offense.
And then, of course, there are those times when the well-designed play goes wrong for one reason or another, whether it be solid defense or a mistimed pass. Even then, George is still able to make something happen, because Paul George is a superstar.
Paul George and Roy Hibbert have played 141 minutes together so far this season. When they are on the floor together, the Pacers are scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions and are surrendering just 75.1 points per 100 possessions. That's good for a bonkers +29.1 net rating over 100 possession. The only duo in the league with better numbers is Andre Iguodala and David Lee, and that's mostly because the Warriors starters are the offensive version of Indiana's defense.
The Pacers have constructed a strong team built upon one of the league's strongest foundations. George and Hibbert combine to make the Pacers an elite defensive unit, and George's offensive versatility and improving skillset makes them competent on that end of the floor while Hibbert gives them a true lowpost threat. With these two star players leading the team, it's easy to see why the Pacers are commonly considered the biggest threat to Miami's thrown in the East.
And when I spoke to Paul George this summer, he reinforced just as much.
"We should be there (at the top of the East)," George told me. "We went through the battles, we went through the tough losses. We went through that feeling of denial and rejection. And I think now, we're fired up coming into the season."
Fired up is a good way to describe the way the Pacers have started this season, and if they manage to close things out the 2013-14 season the way they've begun it, we'll be watching a Finals matchup that doesn't include the Heat for the first time in three years.