A Horrible Brand Of A Wonderful Type Of An Awful Kind Of Really Good

Photo from johnsam via Flickr

The Indiana Pacers had quite a bright outlook coming in to this season. They were coming off a well-fought playoff series as your plucky young 8th seed. They made some really nice moves both before and after the lockout, bringing in a 3rd guard who is somehow both proven and youthful in George Hill, a former all-star at the tail end of his prime (albeit coming off major knee surgery) in David West, and even pulled off a minor trade that I really liked even though it will probably end up being completely inconsequential in the Brandon Rush for Lou Amundson trade.

And generally, it has worked out. The Pacers are sitting atop a fine 9-4 record after foolishly blowing a large lead to the Kings last night, and have developed upon the feisty persona that ultimately wasn’t enough against the superior Bulls. The Pacers rank an impressive 4th in the league at defensive efficiency, and it seems that Frank Vogel is doing a fantastic job at managing his merry men. With depth at every position, and such long-limbed luminaries such as Paul George, Danny Granger, and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are getting their hands on everything and everybody.

What’s truly been incredible, though, is the Pacers’ offense. Because as good as their record has been, a team so incapable of scoring should not be capable of winning at this rate.

The Pacers are shooting a remarkably bad 41.5% from the field. Just think about that. The Pacers, as a team – the entire team – can’t even make more shots than Chris Duhon. CHRIS DUHON!!! How does this even happen?! The only teams who have been worse in the entire NBA are the Kings (woof), the Wizards (wooooof), and the Knicks. Those poor, poor Knicks. They’ve actually been nearly as good at shooting from behind the arc, going 37.2% from 3 point range, which is good for 7th in the league, but because they haven’t been attempting many 3 pointers at all (25th in the league at 14.1 a night, though some of the teams directly above them play much slower), their effective field goal percentage is still an atrocious 44.7%. Again, only the Kings and Wizards are worse.

This is especially striking because the Pacers have quite a bit of players who should, on paper, be making their money on the offensive end. Granger leads the list, as the small forward who efficiently shot himself towards a 26 ppg all-star campaign just 3 years ago, is finding the bottom of the net on just 1 of three times, a truly appalling figure; David West’s surgically repaired legs clearly aren’t there yet – he’s making only half of his shots at the rim after standing tall at 66% last year, with his preferred 16-23 foot range seeing a drop from 47% to 42% as well; Tyler Hansbrough is really tired of hearing about how little Nick Young passes, apparently, as he’s posted just 5 assists in 13 games, instead choosing to barrel himself towards the rim in order to miss 61.2% of his ill-advised flings.

Luckily, the Pacers have been somewhat compensating for their utter inability to knock down anything with a strong combination of free throws and occasional glimpses of brilliance drizzled around their roster. Indy has complemented their bad shooting with a mediocre turnover rate, but they’re rebounding their own misses an insane rate 30% of the time (3rd in the league), and are 7th in the entire league in free throw rate; one has to think the two are related, as players often grab the caroms off their poorly missed chucks and go right back up into a poorly positioned defender. Hansbrough in particular has made an art out of this, shooting an impressive 5 freebies a night to his 9.3 field goal attempts (and making 82%). All in all, the Pacers are posting 98.3 points per 100 possessions; while this would be an atrocious mark in a non-lockout season, it’s good enough for 21 of 30 this year. And while that’s hardly a good mark, it’s not hard to delve into it and see good signs.

First and foremost, we are witnessing a second straight scorching start to the season from Hibbert. Hibbsy is using the same amount of possessions as last year, but his TS% is a full 5% higher. Why, you ask? Two words – Hook. Shot. Hibbert was always impossible to block with that 7’2″ frame in full sweeping motion, but the lack of defensive pressure was never enough for that baby to go in. So far this year, it looks beautiful, as Hibbert’s 54.7% from 3 to 9 feet (up from 42.5% last year) will attest. It makes one wonder why we don’t have more centers develop the mostly lost weapon – Kareem Abdul Jabbar didn’t become one of the greatest players of all time by perfecting a semi-effective shot, after all. The next step is maintaining this pace, after an MIP caliber November left the Georgetown product bending his knees and gasping for air through the entirety of January and most of the two months sandwiching it.

Next up, the Pacers have been getting help from other youngsters as well. Paul George still has to either stop dribbling or learn how to do so, but at 50% from 3 point land, the improved long stroke looks great next to those improved long limbs, and is posting a great “Messiah per minute” figure of “totally the Messiah”; George Hill was slumping just as hard as his teammates, but he snapped out of it to re-assert himself as a very strong bench scorer; and while Darren Collison’s numbers won’t exactly blow you away, he’s dramatically cut down his sky-high turnover rate while upping his assists closer to his New Orleans days, while making a scorching 50% of his threes himself.

This isn’t to say that the Pacers are guaranteed to experience a vast improvement in the short term. Despite situationally nice pieces, the offense not only fails the eye test, it makes the tester want to throw up. Vogel has yet to show an actual understanding of how to run an offense, and his insistence on giving actual minutes, no matter how few, to the likes of Dahntay Jones and Lance Stephenson can only be described as a blindly vitriolic attack on everything that is pure and Rubio.

But given what this squad has shown so far, for better and for worst, cautious optimism gingerly rises to the top of the emotional spectrum. The discouraging shooting from such stalwarts as Granger and West is bound to eventually rise back to their reasonable averages, or at least close to them and though this team was constructed with full knowledge that a combination of Granger and West in their primes isn’t enough without substantial internal improvement from the young core, that improvement seems to be coming. Slowly, yes, but it’s there, both individually and collectively. This team fights for each other and knows where to find each other. It’s hard to find a single basketball fan that didn’t salivate when this happened:

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEmAeHnOiWg&list=UUqeOiTn8d4rrMygdy6YoEWw&index=7&feature=plcp]

Hibbert is a rare specimen of a passing big man, and George is a supreme athlete. But there’s a big difference between fitting strengths on paper and truly playing to them. These two, so far, have shown it – this highlight has hardly been an isolated matter – and it’s something to be excited for.

This pairing shouldn’t be unique for this roster. Between West’s pick-and-pop game, whatever is still left of the deadly scorer in Danny Granger, the Collison-Hill waterbug routine and Hansbrough’s headfirst dives into players and floors alike, the Pacers posses quite a bit of seldom-found, fine-meshing talent. Though a glance at their record indicates a better team than we’ve seen so far, a glance at their numbers indicates a much worse team than they can very quickly become.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.