Because the Pacers have seemingly forced Paul George into being the glue that holds the team's small ball experiment together, Indiana's transitioning style has, for the most part, only been evaluated through the lens of whether his match-up advantages on offense will be worth the energy he will undoubtedly expend attempting to battle with bigger bodies on defense.
Lost in all the Paul George-specific analysis? The undeniable benefits his teammates will be able to reap from him moving from the wing to the power forward position.
"Everybody's talking about Paul George and what the 4-spot looks like for him," Vogel explained, following the team's preseason victory over the Orlando Magic. "Playing with space is good for all of these guys. It's not good just for Paul George's match-up, but the space that we're creating on the perimeter and opening up in the lane is great for Monta Ellis and George Hill to attack the basket with the balance, it's great for Chase Budinger, Solomon Hill, and C.J. Miles to curl on pin downs, and it's great for a guy like Ian Mahinmi to be able to have space to operate..."
Having space to operate is a must for Indiana's new starting center. During the 2014-15 regular season, Ian Mahinmi averaged a team-worst 16.9 turnovers per 100 of his own possessions, per NBA.com. Of the 59 total turnovers he committed, only 22 were offensive fouls. Working on his hands might cut down on some of those unneeded change of possessions, but head coach Frank Vogel thinks a change of system will lessen the root problem.
"...Those difficult catches and strips in the past were a lot of times because of traffic in the lane. It's just tougher to make basketball plays with traffic in there," said Vogel. "And with the lane opened up, it just gives him (Ian Mahinmi) a little more time and a little more space to operate."
Without a fellow traditional big by his side, Mahinimi is committing far fewer turnovers during the 2015-16 preseason, 9.3 per 100 of his possessions to be exact.
But the Frenchman just won't have more "time" or "space" to operate, he will likely also enjoy a moderate rise in opportunity compared to seasons past. When forced to choose between cutting off the driving lanes of pick-and-roll ball-handlers (George Hill, Monta Ellis), running a stretch-shooting pseudo-big off the three-point line (Paul George), or sticking with the roll man (Ian Mahinmi), the most palatable poison for help defenders is to momentarily leave the roller.
Early on, Mahinmi has already been the benefactor of those agonizing gambles. He is shooting nearly 11 percent better from the field, and in Indiana's 97-92 victory over the Magic, the 7-year NBA veteran connected on all four of his shot attempts, most of which were made easier by the relentless driving-and-dishing of Monta Ellis.
"His hands, he's worked on them hands this summer. I can say that," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner prior to the team's first preseason game. "Now we have that option to get all the way to the basket and if help comes, he has that momentum and that forceful crash to the basket where he's dunking those. It's been working so far for us."
Having a more mobile center on defense is also "working" for the Pacers' transformation. Mahinmi (45.5%) protects the rim only a shade worse than Roy Hibbert (42.6%), and he is better suited to making quicker rotations, a necessity if the Pacers plan on incorporating aggressive blitzing into their defensive arsenal.
"He's really a perfect center for the new style of play that we want to implement with his defensive abilities, his ability to guard big centers and be dominant in the spread pick-and-roll defensive coverages that we ask of our rim protector," said Vogel.
The Pacers allowed just 89.8 points per 100 possessions with Ian on the floor Thursday night. He also grabbed a team-high nine defensive rebounds.
So has Ian Mahinmi's strong play solidified his role as the team's starting center?
"Very much so," gushed Vogel. "He's been terrific, and that's no surprise."
He's put on muscle. He can alter shots. He can defend post-ups. He has the mobility needed to help-and-recover on defense as well as the speed needed to roll hard to the basket. He could be a more pivotal version of what Chris Andersen was to the Miami Heat during their first championship run. For all intents and purposes, he is, as Frank Vogel described him, "really a perfect center for the new style of play."
But the same nagging question remains: Is Paul George, Indiana's franchise player, the perfect player on which to predicate the creation of space?