Something happened last Friday that has never once happened before in the last four seasons. For one game only, Ian Mahinmi was the best two-way player for the Indiana Pacers. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he recorded a double-double while blocking a season-high four shots. With Paul George going 3-of-13 from the field and Monta Ellis committing six turnovers, Mahinmi's performance served as a beacon of pure effort in a sea of what was otherwise a victory of the ugliest variety.
"Ian was good," Vogel admitted after admonishing his team for committing 25 turnovers. "He gave us good rim protection, (he) was strong with the pick-and-roll defense, and knocked down some free throws in the fourth quarter. He's really strong in the pick-and-roll game. One of our best screeners, and he played a solid game."
Another solid game in what has been a solid start to the New Year. Since January 1, Mahinmi is averaging 10.4 points and 8.4 rebounds on 61 percent shooting, far above his career averages of 4.7 points and 4.1 rebounds.
But Mahinmi should be credited for more than just a career-month, here are some visual aids which depict exactly how much better the team's now starting center has been this season.
His efficiency has been Magnifique:
Ian Mahinmi averages the fewest minutes of anyone in Indiana's most-used starting lineup and his usage percentage (14.8%) is the lowest among that same group, yet his current career-best PER (17.82) trails only Paul George and his team-high true shooting percentage (60.5%) is the best of any season since he arrived in Indiana.
So, why has the 29-year-old's efficiency suddenly spiked eight seasons into his NBA career?
First and foremost, he's thriving as the roll man. With opponents glued to Paul George in the half-court and forced to follow C.J. Miles beyond the arc, help defenders are forced to choose between cutting off the pick-and-roll ball-handler's driving lane or sticking with the roller. Thus far, Ian Mahinmi has far and away been the biggest benefactor of those split-second gambles.
So much so that he scores 1.27 points per possession (PPP) when he crashed hard toward the basket, placing him in the 91st percentile league wide.
"Monta's a great decision-maker, and Ian's a forceful roller," Vogel explained following Friday's victory. "He sprints to the basket after the screen and there's great speed to his rolls, so he becomes a threat that way."
Taking only high-percentage shots as the team's roller, garbage man (74th percentile), and rim runner (95th percentile) within a system designed to open up the lane, Indiana's overhaul has propelled Mahinmi into being the team's second-most efficient player.
Bad hands? Au contraire:
Of course, having Mahinmi as an extra punch on offense would only be a glimmer in the eye of Indiana's small-ball experiment if he hadn't worked on his ability to catch the ball.
Last night in Houston, Paul George looked dead set on taking the ball hard to the rack before he met up with Dwight Howard on the way there. Increasingly turnover prone, Indiana's star left his feet before delivering an ill-advised, last-ditch pass over his right shoulder. Mahinmi's ability to handle the sloppy pass is perhaps the biggest testament to his overall improvement.
With less traffic in the lane, Indiana's 6-foot-11 center has more time to catch and gather the ball before making a move to the basket than in seasons past when he shared the painted area with another traditional big.
During 2014-15, the 29-year-old committed a team-worst 16.9 turnovers per 100 of his own possessions. This season? That number has dropped dramatically to 11.4.
"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."
He's providing plenty of French Resistance:
Another thing that has been "working" for the Pacers this season is Ian Mahinmi's defense. The Frenchman gives up just 0.699 points per possession (PPP) on post-up plays, making him the Pacers' stingiest interior defender by a sizable margin.
But Mahinmi's defensive impact isn't just limited to the post. Per Nylon Calculus, the Frenchman saves more raw points per 36 minutes (4.52) at the rim than any other qualified member of the Blue & Gold. ESPN's DRPM (defined as a player's estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions) ranks Mahinmi as the third-best defensive center in the NBA, behind only Tim Duncan and DeAndre Jordan.
Since the start of the New Year, the Pacers are giving up just 91.4 points per 100 possessions, good for tops in the NBA. The best defensive trio over that same span of time: (no surprises here) George Hill, Paul George, and Ian Mahinmi (minimum 75 minutes played).
Whether disrupting shots at the rim, holding his ground on the block, or covering the ground necessary to be dominant in spread pick-and-roll coverages, Mahinmi has played as big of a role as anyone in helping the Pacers rediscover their defensive roots.
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By January of 2014, the Pacers were one month away from signing Andrew Bynum and burying Ian Mahinmi behind a glut of interior, physical depth. Taking into account that he was once considered enough of an offensive road block that the Pacers found it necessary to pursue an oft-injured replacement, the Frenchman's journey from supplanted backup to starting center in two short years is as revolutionary as it is unexpected because he boldly took on the task of not merely improving his performance but transforming it.
His stat line, which lacks the dramatic improvements in production of past winners, will likely eliminate him from Most Improved Player contention, but it is hard to imagine the Pacers being where they are, floating between second and seventh in the ever-changing Eastern Conference Standings, if Mahinmi wasn't, arguably, the team's Most Improved Pacer.