The Indiana Pacers play their final game before the All-Star break tonight when the host the Dallas Mavericks. The Pacers come into the game riding high at 40-11, 3 ½ games ahead of the Miami Heat for the #1 seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and percentage points of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the league’s best record overall. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at how the Pacers are doing it as we get set for the weekend festivities in New Orleans.
Indiana’s success in recent years has been built on tough defense and cleaning up the glass, and this year’s team is no different. The Pacers are the best team in the league when it comes to defensive efficiency—which is points allowed, adjusted for the tempo play—and they are tops in rebounding.
The problem—at least if there is going to be a problem before all is said and done—lies on the offensive side. The Pacers are only 18th in offensive efficiency. A subpar offense combined with great defense and rebounding is fine if you want to just win a couple of playoff rounds before losing to the league’s elite. But this year’s Indiana team wants more.
Roy Hibbert is this team in a nutshell. A terrific shotblocker and solid rebounder, he’s a true center in an era where a lot of teams have to dress up power forwards and play them at the 5-spot. But Hibbert can also be inconsistent offensively. He’s only averaging 12 ppg, in spite of having a good enough turnaround jumper to go higher.
Last season, in the Eastern Conference Finals, against Miami, Hibbert brought his offensive game with consistency and the Pacers stretched the Heat to a seven-game series. If Hibbert does the same this year, Indiana would beat what is a Miami team that’s not quite what they were in 2013. That’s an issue to talk about when we start previewing playoff series here at TheSportsNotebook, but you’d like to see Hibbert develop the mindset of demanding the ball now.
Hibbert might be the Pacers in a microcosm, but Paul George is the best player. The small forward is knocking down 22 ppg, and is a reasonably consistent shooter—44 percent from the floor, and 38 percent behind the arc, even as he attempts six treys a game. George will likely finish in the top three of the MVP voting, behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
David West continues to be one of the league’s quiet and steady power forwards, averaging 14 points/7 rebounds. Indiana made a nice veteran pickup in Luis Scola to back him up and give more rebounding help off the bench. And finally, the Pacers rolled the dice and signed temperamental and oft-injured center Andrew Bynum to further augment the front line.
Bynum’s addition is a risk to what appears to be excellent team chemistry—Bynum has been hated in every locker room he’s been in. But I think it was worth the risk for the Pacers. Bynum also has two championship rings, as a starter with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009-10, so clearly it’s at least manageable. If he’s interested in playing, he’s a force. And if nothing else, at the very least, the Pacers kept him away from Miami, who might have used Bynum to mitigate Hibbert’s effect in a playoff series.
Indiana ultimately lost to Miami lost year because they were inferior in the backcourt. The Pacers are still not as deep as the Heat, but George Hill and Lance Stephenson are each having good years, particularly Stephenson who averages 14 points/7 rebounds/5 assists per game. Stephenson has steadily progressed over the last couple years, and when you’re two-guard grabs seven boards a game, it’s not hard to see why the team does so well in this category.
The Pacers were the team I liked to win the NBA championship at the start of the year. I liked them straight-up at a time when the Las Vegas odds still said it was a 14-1 shot. Those odds are now down 11-5. They’re no longer good value at the betting window, but if you just want a team that looks ready to win a championship on the basketball court, Indiana seems to have the eye of the tiger and all the pieces in place.