I’ve been looking forward to this profile because I love the construction of this team and the way they play ball. The Indiana Pacers have thus far been the winningest, most defensively dominant, and overall best team in the league. I think this is basically in keeping with projections. Some prognosticators thought that a healthy Chicago Bulls team adding former MVP Derrick Rose back to the mix with an improved Jimmy Butler could surpass both Miami and Indiana in the East, but the more conservative view had the Pacers as the front runners for the regular season record. The surprise has been just how far in front of the Heat and most of the Western Conference powers the Pacers have pulled.
Statistically the Pacers have jumped the Spurs as the team with the best Simple Rating System score factoring their strength of schedule and margin of victory numbers. What’s really impressive about that distinction is that Indiana has had the third easiest schedule in the league. Their margin of victory is so great (over 10 points per game) right now that the relatively weak schedule wasn’t enough to undermine their lead on the rest of the league. In fact the Pacers’ MOV is super-elite, top 5 since 1980 behind only three Michael Jordan / Scottie Pippen Bulls teams and the 2008 Celtics with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and directly ahead of both Larry Bird’s 1986 Celtics and Magic Johnson’s 1987 Lakers. This doesn’t guarantee anything in the playoffs, but it’s awfully good company to keep.
The Pacers are basically an average offensive team. They are exactly league average in points per possession, slightly above average in effective field goal percentage and slightly below average in offensive rebounding, turnover rate, and free throw rate. However, on the other side of the ball, the 2014 Pacers are one of the all-time great squads. They lead the league in defensive rating (points allowed per possession), opponent effective field goal percentage, and defensive rebounding percentage. That is to say that they allow the fewest made baskets and the fewest offensive rebounds on a per possession basis. Their advantage in opponent eFG% is really impressive. The separation between the #1 Pacers and #2 Thunder is greater than the separation between the #2 Thunder the #13 Bobcats. The Pacers also rank top 5 in lowest opponent free throw rate. There’s no easy way to score against them.
How does Indiana manage such an impressive defense? First and foremost they have great defensive players. All of their starters are big and physical at their positions. They have great wing quickness with Lance Stephenson and Paul George and tremendous rim protection with Roy Hibbert. George Hill is a lanky point guard defender with great fundamentals and discipline, and David West is a tough power forward who can hold position and has great anticipation and quick hands. Schematically they play a locked in man-to-man system with conservative hedging principals that allows them to shrink the lane (again they are both quick and big) while remaining close enough to contest three point shooters. They have a few different strategies for dealing with pick and roll actions including forcing the dribbler baseline into help from the bigs, strong show and recover from the screener defender, and even the occasional late clock switch to force the ball handler to shoot over a big. They don’t gamble for steals, and as mentioned in the stats, they completely dominate the defensive glass (top 5 all time).
Offensively, they don’t get a lot of easy points. They aren’t a fastbreaking team or a big time three point shooting team, and they don’t get to the line at a high rate. But they do run a nice pick and roll into other actions, and they have good one on one scorers all over the floor. Their size allows them to operate in the post from basically every position, not the most efficient method, but a reliable option to get a shot up and get back on defense. Paul George and Lance Stephenson are both developing into dynamic attacking wings, but without a great penetrating point guard, they will continue to lag behind the more aggressive offenses in today’s drive-and-kick dominated league.
The projections for the Pacers are excellent. The East is so weak that, barring some remarkable recovery by the Knicks or Nets, they should be able to pencil themselves into the Eastern Conference Finals. They have addressed the major issues they had last year, primarily their bench which was very thin and has been bolstered by the recovery of Danny Granger and the additions of Louis Scola and C.J. Watson and their propensity for unforced turnovers. The one major concern I still have for Indiana is their lack of offensive explosiveness. We know that the Miami Heat can ramp up the defensive pressure and unleash LeBron James to go on big runs and play better than their average regular season team stats indicate. I’m not sure if the Pacers have that same ability to raise their game when it matters. Still they have to be considered a top 4 or 5 contender league-wide right now, and the MOV numbers put them in company with some of the best teams of all time.