In last year’s playoffs, the Pacers had the eventual champion Miami Heat on the ropes. Headed into a Game 4 in Indianapolis, Indiana was up 2-1, Chris Bosh was ruled out indefinitely and Dwayne Wade had to be restrained from his head coach during timeouts. Then, of course, LeBron James happened — the game’s best player dropped 40 points in a 101-93 win, and the Heat rolled off 3 straight to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
This Indiana team is a lot different than last year’s, but still very likely Miami’s main threat in the East. Indiana, 32-21, is currently the East’s No. 3 seed, trailing the Heat by 5 games, and leads Chicago by 1.5 games for the Central Division lead. The Pacers are a dominant 21-5 at home, trailing only Miami for the East’s best home record, and 20-12 against conference opponents. Defensively, there’s none better than Frank Vogel’s bunch, who only allow opponents a league-best 90.1 points per game. Indiana is also tops in opponent field goal percentage, 41.9%, and 3-point percentage, 32.5%. (Last year, the Pacers spotted opponents 94.4 points per game, good enough for 10th in the Association.) Indiana’s 2nd in total rebounding, only trailing the fast-paced Denver Nuggets, and their +4.4 advantage is No. 1 overall.
And the Pacers have done all this without the services of Danny Granger, who’s yet to play this year with a bum left knee but is expected to return after the All Star break. Granger’s been the team’s leading scorer each of the last 5 seasons, averaging 18.7 points per game in 2011-12. But where Granger fits in is another question, as Paul George, an All Star reserve, has emerged, faster than most expected, as the organization’s new franchise guy.
George, who happens to be most comfortable playing the same position as Granger, is averaging a team-high 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds in (also a team-high) 37.7 minutes. Both are similar inside-out isolation players on offense (and creepily, both are 6’8″ with Granger weighing 228 pounds, George 221), and both are career 44% shooters, with Granger a shade better from distance. In almost every other statistical category, though, George has the edge — in rebounding, assists, steals and (fewer) turnovers. Granger is 29, and George is 22.
If I’m Vogel, I would integrate Granger back into the rotation as a reserve, rather than pull Lance Stephenson from his starting 2-guard spot; that way, I can pack a little offensive punch off the bench, a unit that happens to rank 29th in the NBA in scoring. This could also take pressure off Gerald Green, who’s, thus far, had a disappointing debut year in Indiana, averaging 6.7 points per game on sub.-35% shooting, including 28% from 3, and a 7.6 PER that ranks 317th out of 333 NBA players. Sam Young and D.J. Augustin are also newcomers this season, with neither averaging more than 5 points a night … and Young accumulating the league’s 329th-ranked PER.
Aside from George’s ascendance, the primary reason for Indiana’s success has to be David West. Playing on the latter half of a 2-year, $20 million deal he signed in 2011, West, 32, knows he very well could sign his last NBA contract this offseason, and he’s certainly earning himself some serious coin. West, 33.6 per night, is playing almost 5 more minutes per game than in 2011-12, and his scoring has increased from 12.8 a game to 17.2; his 20.0 PER is a team best and ranks 36th in the NBA. This year’s David West is reminding a lot of folks of the guy who put up 6 consecutive 17-points-per-game seasons in New Orleans alongside Chris Paul before he tore the ACL in his left knee in 2011.
This past summer, Indiana’s biggest storyline was Roy Hibbert, a restricted free agent coming off an All Star season. Portland offered Hibbert a max 4-year, $58 million deal, which Indiana then matched, but many in NBA circles are wondering what happened to that Hibbert. Indiana may very well be playing it safe with its prized investment, but Hibbert’s numbers are down, from 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds last year to 10.0 points and 8.3 boards, and his 41% field goal percentage, well below average for a 7-footer, is almost a 9-point dip from 2011-12. Hibbert remains a strong interior presence defensively, averaging a team-leading 2.7 blocks, good enough for 4th in the NBA, in less than 29 minutes a night, but he frequently looks stale offensively — slow in the post with a bland back-to-the-basket skill set.
With Darren Collison now playing in Dallas, it’s George Hill’s show at the 1-guard, and he’s averaging a career-high 14.8 points and 4 assists per game. His field goal and 3-point percentages still demand a defense’s respect, but are at their lowest levels since Hill’s 2008-09 rookie year in San Antonio. Should Indiana feel compelled to make a deadline deal, improving upon the team’s 19th-ranked 3-point attack could be a priority, but Granger’s return and the team’s relative lack of young assets render a move for a guy like Orlando’s J.J. Redick unlikely.
Elsewhere, Tyler Hansbrough is still a fireball of energy and a nice change of pace from the stiffer Hibbert and West, and Ian Mahinmi, the return of Indiana’s trade of Collison and Dahntay Jones to Dallas, is an above-average backup center. Jeff Pendergraph has struggled to find the floor, but did notch a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double in 17 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, meaning he could see increased time moving forward.
Financially, Indiana only has $48 million committed next year, but has a decision to make on West, who could easily command $8-10 million per in a weaker free agent market. Augustin, Pendergraph and Young all come off the books this summer, and with $8 million per year owed to Hill through 2016-17, I’d guess Pendergraph is the only of the 3 worth re-signing. George, still playing on his rookie contract, is in line for a major pay raise by 2015. Indiana’s also stuck with Mahinmi’s $4 million per season through 2015-16 and Green’s $3.5 million per through 2014-15. Should Granger still be around heading into next season, though, his $14 million expiring contract will be an excellent trade deadline asset.
At least in the interim, Pacers fans should be excited about this team. I would not hedge my bets on Indiana topping Miami and advancing to the Finals, but the pieces are in place for a nice run. And, you know what, you never know.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.