When your have fourth-best point differential in the Eastern Conference (+1.2), are only 1.5 games behind of the three seed and have compiled a 10-4 record in the month of January - all in a predicted “down” year - it means a lot of things are going right.
Even in the most generous of preseason predictions, the Pacers were a bubble playoff team, where winning 35 games would be considered a success (they have already won 29 and February just started).
Indiana was able to trade one all-star for another and in the process pick up a young hybrid forward-center. They were able to resurrect the career of a player who burned them once and was on his way out of the league. Most importantly they hit on both their free agent signings.
The Pacers believed Nate McMillan - who had was widely mocked when hired - could win given the right roster. But his greatest strength has been the team’s most valuable asset: the roster’s versatility.
Indiana’s success starts with building around Victor Oladipo, who is currently one of the best two-way guards in the NBA. He has the fourth-best net rating amongst starting guards ahead of Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and Kyrie Irving.
Oladipo is so critical to the Pacers’ success that they haven’t won a game when he doesn’t play. They are 28-17 with him and 0-6 without him. Just watch the last 30 seconds of Indiana’s December matchup against the Mavericks so see what happens to the offense when Oladipo isn’t on the floor:
Oladipo is the Pacers only true shooting guard which makes it critical who Indiana plays at point guard.
If the Pacers are in need of steady hand on offense they use Darren Collison. But if the opposing team has an especially lethal point guard they bring in Cory Joseph for his defense.
Collison isn’t a great defender, especially because of his size, but he’s great around the rim (67 percent field goal percentage inside three feet) and has the best assist rate on the team.
Every advanced offensive stat Collison ranks in the top ten amongst point guards. His numbers are on par with All-Star Kyle Lowry and are better than Ben Simmons and All-Star John Wall.
Collison’s defense is his liability, but luckily McMillan can easily replace him with Joseph. Part of Joseph’s success this season is playing off the ball, which he can do partly thanks to Oladipo’s decision-making showing remarkable improvement from previous seasons (2.6 turnovers per game is the lowest in his career).
Joseph isn’t nearly as good of a passer as Collison, but he makes up for it with good three-point shooting.
The two of them though share an uncanny ability to slip under screens and nail the mid-range jumper.
Collison is shooting 52 percent on mid-rangers:
And Joseph is shooting 45 percent:
The Pacers technically have another guard on their roster in Lance Stephenson. He even started at shooting guard in Oladipo’s absence.
Stephenson is often on the court in a unique three-guard lineup with Oladipo and Joseph. But Stephenson has been shifted into a backup for Bojan Bogdanovic ultimately because of Glenn Robinson III’s injury.
Bogdanovic’s offensive game, up until recently, was significantly better than Stephenson’s. Since December though Stephenson’s had a slightly better shooting percentage from the field and three-point range. But against the Grizzlies last night Bogdanovic did score 21 points.
At his best, Bogdanovic can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, scramble transition defenses and create separation off the ball for easy in the lane buckets:
Stephenson is the complete opposite of Bogdanovic; he isn’t a great three-point shooter, but he’s a tough defender and way better with the ball in his hands. Both players fit the role McMillan designed for them, though.
Bogdanovic thrives around good ball-handlers like Oladipo and Collision because his spacing creates driving lanes, while Stephenson is great at creating shots in an offense with less talent.
Stephenson tends to play with the back of the bench guys like Joe Young, T.J. Leaf and Al Jefferson more than Bogdanovic. Their contrasting play styles allow McMillan to rotate them at the end of games based on need.
Stephenson also has the ability to fire up a crowd and lead a comeback in a way that few players in the league can. McMillan likes to combine his strong defense on small forwards with Joseph’s defense against guards at the end of guys.
This allows Oladipo to guard a weaker offensive player and rove around on defense closing passing lanes with his quick hands and creating turnovers.
The last piece to McMillan’s puzzle is finding the right combination of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young while trying to sprinkle in a little Leaf and Jefferson.
Turner, Sabonis and Young’s game styles are completely different from each other. Young is the most experienced and consistent of the three. He’s been a constant 13 points/five rebounds per game player for his entire career.
Young’s a little undersized for the power forward position but he’s by far the best decision maker of the three. Oladipo and Young are the two players McMillan trusts the most. That’s why, despite being almost 30 years old, Young has played 35+ minutes 21 times this season.
Compared to Young, though, both of the Pacers’ young centers are more explosive. While Young is consistent, Sabonis and Turner have the ability to go for a 20pt/10rb game almost any night. But what separates the two young men is how they score.
Sabonis is a pick and roll player:
While Turner is a pick and pop player:
Turner and Sabonis can’t play on the floor together because they can’t guard in space like Young can. Turner though is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA with 78 blocks this season.
Sabonis might be the better center for this season’s Indiana Pacers because he has a more polished post game. He’s 18th in the league in overall field goal percentage (53.9 percent) and is shooting 68.1 percent around the rim.
But Sabonis has roughly the same win percentage as a starter as Myles Turner. The Pacers are 11-8 when he starts and 18-13 when Turner stars.
Turner and Sabonis’ real value comes from the lack of depth the Pacers have at center and power forward. Neither Leaf or Jefferson can play significant minutes for the Pacers because they have glaring weaknesses.
There have been flashes of 2013-14 Jefferson especially in the low post but his defense isn’t close to the level of Turner or Sabonis.
McMillan tends to end games with Turner when he’s healthy because his rim protection is critical in close games. He deterred Wayne Sheldon from the rim in Indiana’s 105-101 win against the Grizzlies on Wednesday.
The potential and flashes of greatness are what makes Turner so valuable. Against Charlotte, on Monday he shot 8-11 from the field and 4-6 from three for 22 points. Sabonis, on the other hand, has attempted 24 three’s all season long.
But you can’t really go wrong with who you play at the end games the Pacers have so many different styles of plays they can throw at you they are a nightmare for opposing coaches. Its what also makes them an intriguing playoff team.