Coming into the season, not many knew what to make of Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. Not only was the team christening an entirely new playing style, but it was also (optimistically) anticipating the return of its franchise player from a horrific injury that nearly cost him all of last year. So there were a few variables.
Things didn’t look so good during a 0-3 start, but since then, George and his team have won 11 of their last 13 games, and their 11-5 record currently has them in second place in the Eastern Conference. In his return, George has not shown any hesitancy or diminished skills; instead, he’s come back better than ever. He’s improved both his shooting and playmaking on offense and has been spearheading Indiana’s new offensive attack, which, after some early struggles, has also come around.
The Pacers’ primary lineup so far has been their small-ball starting group of George Hill, Monta Ellis, George, CJ Miles, and Ian Mahinmi. Despite all the talk of George playing power forward during the offseason, it’s barely happened. Instead, he’s remained at his more natural––and more comfortable––small forward position on the perimeter while Miles has handled the rigors of playing the four on a nightly basis.
Still, the plan has effectively benefited George the same way the team had planned, by giving him plenty of space on the floor to operate with a bunch of talented shooters surrounding him. Miles has found new success on offense as well in being matched up against larger, slower players every night. After playing the two and three spots during the first ten years of his career, he knows how to score the ball, and it’s helped him feast on friendly matchups early in the season to the tune of 45 percent shooting from deep.
Offensively, the Pacers appear to have found their rhythm, and considering their sheer talent on that end of the floor, their performance on that end seems sustainable. Based on his past successes, George’s ascendance would appear to be the real deal, and Indiana has both the outside shooting and backcourt versatility to be able to get baskets in both the halfcourt and on the break, slowing it down or pushing the tempo.
The most important, and perhaps most difficult, thing for Indiana to keep up on offense will be their ball-moving harmony. Teams will eventually work harder and more effectively to take away some of Miles’ and George’s easier opportunities, and as that happens, other guys like Monta Ellis will need to fill that void without taking away from the offensive rhythm the Pacers have established.
This team has already faced injuries, and so far, all players have taken impressively selfless mentalities and continued to play their parts without disrupting anyone else. Hill and Ellis, for example, have been caretakers and catalysts first, then scorers as necessary, because that’s what the team needs and the matchups offer. As long as the Pacers’ great chemistry continues, it’s hard to imagine their charity on offense disappearing either.
On defense, however, Miles isn’t an ideal defensive matchup at the stretch-four spot, and he highlights the difficulties of defense in small-ball lineups. Teams will inevitably try to take advantage of that matchup in the post and/or wear Miles down during the course of the season. Defensive rebounding also needs to be an area of focus, as closing out possessions with a small frontline requires a total team effort.
Miles told NBA.com’s David Aldridge that he changed his body during the offseason to accommodate the switch, and although he certainly looks thicker, he’s still undersized for the position and would probably benefit from being able to share the load. The Pacers know all of this is coming, and they also talked to Aldridge about what they need to do to maintain their strong beginning:
The Pacers are third in the league in defensive rating (95.5), trailing only San Antonio and Miami, and are fourth in points allowed. They’re eighth in the league in opponent three-point percentage allowed (.328), 11th in overall opponent field goal percentage (.434).
But to become elite defensively, the Pacers will have to master switching, which Golden State does every night, seemingly without problems. There’s no way teams aren’t going to challenge Miles’ ability to handle bigger post players.
“We really pride ourselves on guarding straight up, and not relying (on) the switching,” George said. “But, it’s hard. Now, we’re working, on, we still want to be a straight-up, guard your man team. But there’s going to be moments when it’s just not possible, especially playing against a team like (Washington), where you’re trying to be in the gap, but they’re back screening, or they’re cutting. You almost have to switch everything. When the time calls for it, we’ll guard guys straight up, but when we’ve got to switch, we’ve got to go with it.”
Indiana is already starting to play to its needs on defense, using its newfound team speed and quick hands to get into the top-three in the league in steal rate. That kind of speed-based defense is what the Pacers will have to perfect if they hope to make a push in the postseason, with defensive rotations faster than opponents’ ball movement and seamless switches when necessary.
While this team could certainly use another big wing and even another big man, it does have the necessary versatile personnel to pull it off, especially with George, Hill, and Mahinmi being the sturdy defenders they are. With Frank Vogel’s defensive know-how, the Pacers appear to have the right foundation to become a new kind of elite defense.
The half-baked personnel might become the biggest issue for this year’s team, but so far, everyone has fit in admirably and done just what has been needed to make things work. That bodes well for Indiana’s ability to evolve and adapt, which could be a dangerous thing considering how quickly and effectively the team has adapted to start this season.
If the Pacers can continue to hone their new precision defense while sustaining their beautiful offensive barrage, they have the star power and scoring punch to stay relevant in April and beyond.