When the Indiana Pacers underwent their strategic transformation this offseason, the team also experienced a positional power change.
Big men like Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola once made the Pacers a bruising, defensive-oriented squad that lacked firepower beyond the blocks, but this new-look Indiana squad will be powered almost entirely by the perimeter, especially their backcourt.
After years of shuffling through underachieving or uninspiring guard play, the Lance Stephenson era notwithstanding, the Pacers now have a versatile, experienced backcourt capable of catalyzing their new uptempo offensive attack.
Leading the attack will be the incumbent point guard George Hill, who Indiana welcomes back after a sneaky good season on a bad team despite injury limitations. He’ll be joined in the starting backcourt by Monta Ellis, the team’s free-agent signing from this summer. Both players are more combo guards than straight 1s or 2s, and the Pacers are hoping that their alternative skill sets prove complementary in holding down the backcourt.
On the bench, things are equally versatile. Both Rodney Stuckey –– re-signed following a surprising career-best season –– and rookie Joe Young –– drafted with serious plans to serve as a spark-plug scorer –– can play either guard spot as well, although only Hill would traditionally offer ideal size at the shooting-guard position. Indiana is embracing the NBA’s new style of “positionless” basketball, however, and this group’s lack of size represents part of the trade-off for their ideal versatility and playmaking abilities.
With only one ball to go around, learning how to coexist peacefully will be the key for this crew, especially since Paul George, no matter where he’s playing, will be handling the ball a fair amount as well. The pairing of the more passive Hill with the ultra-aggressive Ellis might seem like a bad recipe on paper, but Hill effectively tapped into a more assertive side of his game last season while Ellis spent the last two years as part of a team loaded with scorers in Dallas. Each of them appears to be at the perfect point in their careers for their scoring habits to meet somewhere in the middle.
Given Ellis’s drive- and jumper-happy ways, Hill’s post offense could offer an interesting vehicle for this to happen. The Pacers’ smaller, faster new style will inevitably run into teams that have been playing that way longer and are better for it. Post-ups will be a crucial way to take advantages of switches and mismatches on offense, and as pointed out by Brett Koremenos in RealGM’s season preview, Indiana doesn’t have many great post-up players aside from Hill.
Hill’s ability on the block could be a solution for both strategy and spacing, putting one of the Pacers’ most reliable players in a playmaking position while also occupying an area of the floor that wouldn’t crowd offensive sets, depending on the other personnel.
Indiana would love to see Stuckey, who’s among the strongest guards in the NBA, develop this ability as well, since he’ll most likely be the one sharing the backcourt with Ellis in bench lineups. Figuring out offensive positioning will be as important as learning how to share the basketball against the fast, amorphous defenses of today’s NBA.
Given the experience and versatility, the Pacers believe this group can come together quickly, and any areas where it might be lacking –– namely, spot-up three-point shooting –– can be filled in by C.J. Miles and Glenn Robinson III, each of whom will help pick up the leftover minutes from the shooting-guard spot. Miles is an important, multi-positional piece for this team, and Robinson could become the same, should he prove to be an effective 3-and-D role player. When Hill sat out Indiana’s recent preseason game against the Orlando Magic, it was Robinson who filled that starting role.
Young also saw big minutes in that game as well, and although he looked as green as his Oregon alma mater on defense, he nailed some clutch baskets in the fourth quarter, including a perfect display on a half-dozen free throws to seal it. There were doubts about his size and strength in the NBA, but considering his hard work, eagerness to learn and especially his offensive razzmatazz, he’ll undoubtedly be a factor for this team as an emergency scorer and fourth guard even as a rookie.
Mostly it’ll be on Hill, Ellis and Stuckey to make things work, with Hill acting as the middle-man since he’s the point guard and most experienced player off the ball on offense. Defensively, their lack of size will be a liability that they’ll surely try to make up for with their speed, which will increase the physical poll but potentially their transition opportunities as well.
It’s probably going to be messy at first; most serious strategic overhauls are. However, given the talent at guard as well as around it, the Pacers’ new backcourt is set up well to make the transition a quick-and-easy one. There certainly are plenty of combinations to play with.