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Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are reinvented, and it feels so good

Trevor Ruszkowski / USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to forget this now, with the story long concluded and many of the principal players long gone, but the Indiana Pacers were one of the most consistent teams in the NBA during the first half of this decade. For a few years, the three certainties in life were death, taxes and the Pacers winning 60something percent of their games powered by the stingiest frontcourt defense in the NBA. The heart of that team was the three-man core of Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George. With that troika up front, the Pacers were guaranteed to be bigger, tougher and better on the glass than just about all comers. That was their identity, and it made them an absolutely grueling out in the Eastern Conference playoffs every spring.

Two of those three men have departed now, and with them, the old Pacer way has gone to pot. Hibbert is in Los Angeles, West is in San Antonio and George is surrounded by a supporting cast that’s unrecognizable when compared to the Indy team that won 56 games and the East’s No. 1 seed just 19 months ago. This group is new, it’s funky and it’s not what we’re used to seeing come out of the Hoosier State. The new collection of talent is surely a challenge for the Pacers internally – it’s not as though Frank Vogel can simply take his old Hibbert- and West-powered system, insert new personnel, plug and play. This 2015-16 roster is too oddly constructed for that.

And yet it’s also working really well. These Pacers are 11-5, the second-best mark in the East so far this season, and every metric both advanced and otherwise suggests they have the staying power to retain that position for a long while. There’s reason to believe that Indy’s early success is more than a November fluke. George is back and playing as well as ever – and while the cast around him is different, it’s surprisingly effective in its own weird way. This team makes a deceptive amount of sense. And oh, by the way, its M.O. is not what the national media narrative would have you believe.

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Word on the street this summer about the Pacers, who had gotten their superstar George back in April after a speedy eight-month recovery from a broken leg, was they planned to shake things up by moving PG13 to the power forward spot. This story dominated all discussion of Indiana’s future throughout the late summer months – “George at the 4,” “George at the 4,” “George at the 4” was all you heard, and there were plenty of takes on both sides.

Some opined that George was the perfect fit for the power forward role considering the direction of the modern NBA – teams all around the league are putting versatile 3-point shooting guys at the position, and the Pacers have one of the absolute best. Others argued that the “undersized power forward” role was too precarious a spot for your franchise player, especially one just coming off of serious injury. The bigger guys you play against, the more wear and tear you take, and the less sustainable your team’s long-term future becomes. Cynics hinted that the George move smacked of desperation – that the Pacers were in rough shape at the big man spots in the absence of West and Hibbert, and they were really reaching for a solution by moving George.

A month ago, I’d have hedged my bets and told you there was merit to both sides of this argument – that versatile power forward play is important and franchise sustainability is too, and that I could see both viewpoints. After watching George and the Pacers play for a few weeks, though, I’d argue that the more reasonable take is it’s wrong to have a take. “Moving” George was hardly a move at all. George is the same player he’s always been – just better.

Look at it this way. In today’s NBA, the most typical scenario that requires power forwards to take a beating is when they team up with point guards in the 1-4 pick-and-roll. The big man screens the opposing point guard, he rolls to the basket and the collides with whatever huge dude is waiting for him at the rim, resulting in a whole lot of stress to the player’s feet, knees and ankles. In Indiana, though, that’s not what Paul George does. Watch this:

This play begins innocently enough like most NBA possessions today do – with the “power forward” screening for the point guard and rolling. But after George screens Chicago’s E’Twaun Moore and watches Moore and Jimmy Butler lunge out at George Hill to trap him on the wing, watch what George does. He could roll to the rim, where Chicago’s resident huge dude Pau Gasol would be waiting for him to contest any attempt anywhere near the basket, but George is too smart for that. Instead he pops out to the corner, and he’s wide open. No one to contest his 3-point look, and no one to put wear and tear on his body, either. Nothing but net.

Watch the Pacers play sometime, and you’ll see plays like this unfold over and over again. That’s why, according to basketball-reference shot data, George is taking only 14.7 percent of his shot attempts within 3 feet of the basket, a career low by far. He’s replaced those close-range shots with a steady diet of 3s (36.5 percent) and jumpers between 16 feet and the arc (25.7 percent). George is more productive than ever, and yet his physical danger has never been less.

What the Pacers have subtly done in the post-David West era isn’t to replace West and continue on their merry way – that West replacement doesn’t exist on their current roster. Instead, they’ve transformed into a more perimeter-oriented team than they’ve ever been. It’s not just George leading that charge, either.

pacers stats

These numbers are bonkers. This doesn’t just happen. For a frame of reference, the average NBA player this season checks in at just a hair under 35 percent from 3 (34.8 percent through Sunday’s games); Steph Curry, who’s viewed by everyone and their mother as the god of 3-point shooting and rightfully so, is at 44.3 percent. George so far this season is even better, and he’s got three teammates who are damn close as well.

The Pacers are right now, along with Golden State, one of only two teams in the NBA shooting 40-plus percent from long distance. You could argue that it’s an early-season fluke, but they’re at 375 attempts already and the sample is only getting larger. The Pacers seem to be doing this for real. It certainly doesn’t hurt that their perimeter weapons work together so, so well:

That’s just beautiful. Aside from the beginning of this clip, in which George very nearly leaves John Wall with two literal broken ankles, the way he toys with the Wizards’ defense after that is perhaps even more impressive. He knows just how much pull he has with Kris Humphries as he threatens to attack the lane, and by drawing Humphries just one step too far away from C.J. Miles on the wing, he’s able to create a wide-open 3 for Miles. George and Miles combined to shoot a godly 15-for-17 from long range in this win last week over the Wizards, and there’s a reason why. It was impossible to guard both men at once, and the Pacers had an impeccable way of finding the open man.

These are the Pacers now. This is what they do. They still have George doing his thing, but the players around him are shining in a way no one anticipated. Miles, an 11-year veteran that many casual fans had never heard of before seeing him on SportsCenter last week, is having the best year of his life. Hill, in his fifth season with the Pacers now, continues to evolve, combining a much-improved 3-point shot with a sharp eye for playmaking in the pick-and-roll. Chase Budinger, a solid role player that the Pacers got from Minnesota straight up for Damjan Rudez, is playing a minimized role but playing it really well. The crazy thing is that Larry Bird put all his eggs in the Monta Ellis basket this summer, signing the well-traveled guard for four years and $44 million; Ellis has kinda stunk and the Pacers’ corps of perimeter guys has dominated anyway. What a strange world we live in.

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And then you have the defense. Just like on the other end of the floor, Vogel and the Pacers have had to adjust to a new reality, as everything changes without their big men in the middle. The difference is perhaps even more stark on this end. For the longest time, the Pacers drew their identity from Hibbert’s presence in the paint. Multiple GMs told ESPN’s Zach Lowe, back in the Pacers’ heyday, that Hibbert’s rim protection alone was worth $25 million – in other words, he was a max player even without a lick of offense. This claim was justified. In 2013-14, when the Pacers were at the peak of their powers (sorry for the alliteration), they allowed opposing shooters to convert just 55.8 percent of attempts at the rim. That stat, more than anything, defined the Pacers of two years ago. They were impossibly stingy around the basket, they forced you to settle for jumpers and they punished you on the defensive glass when said jumpers weren’t falling.

With Hibbert gone, Vogel has handed his minutes off to Ian Mahinmi, the former Hibbert backup, who’s gone from a paltry 16.2 minutes per game during the ’13-14 season to 24.5 now. Mahinmi is a respectable rim protector in his own right, and he’s kept the Pacers afloat in that area. But that’s not the only thing the Pacers have working. They’ve also succeeded defensively this season by doing the same thing they’ve done on offense – controlling the perimeter as well as just about anyone. They’ve held opponents to 32.8 percent shooting from 3, largely by
using their quickness to rip through screens and stick to their man like glue. George, Miles, Budinger, Hill and even Ellis have all been solid defensively this season, and it’s paid off.

The Pacers’ defense also shares another key similarity with the offense – it has a knack for keeping George out of harm’s way.

If you thought the defensive end was where “George at the 4” would come back to bite the Pacers, then think again. Vogel has done a fantastic job of hiding George from muscle-bound power forwards who might present a problem for him. Watch the above play twice – first watch George do a masterful job at the thing he’s always done in his NBA career, chasing a skilled wing guy around screens and keeping him covered, and then watch again to see the job Miles does on Utah’s Derrick Favors. Miles is a considerably smaller guy than George, at 6-foot-6 versus the latter’s 6-foot-9, but he nonetheless does an excellent job against the bulky interior player. The Jazz attempt to exploit the size mismatch with a Favors post-up, but Miles is having none of it.

Miles’ willingness and ability to cover bigger guys in the post adds a ton of flexibility to what the Pacers can do defensively. In the old days, they were extraordinarily reliant on Hibbert; now, they can remove their primary rim protector in Mahinmi and still thrive. Per NBA.com’s lineup data, the Pacers allow just 78.7 points per 100 possessions when they surround Lavoy Allen with Miles, George, Ellis and Rodney Stuckey. They’re at 86.5 per 100 with Jordan Hill anchoring Miles, George, Ellis and George Hill. These lineups are small but versatile. They’re not the Golden State “death lineup” or anything, but they work.

It’s funny. Those Pacers teams from the golden age of 2012, ’13 and ’14 had a formula. They were tough, they collaborated seamlessly, they played impenetrable defense and they cobbled together just enough offense to work. These current Pacers? They’ve gone about it a different way, but they’re kinda sorta the same thing.

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What it all means, I can’t really tell you. In the moment, this Indy team looks mighty good, but whether Bird or Vogel has a plan beyond the moment is a tricky question to answer. The problem with that 2014 Pacers team is they were good, but they didn’t really have a plan for kicking it into another gear against top competition. That group won 56 games, but no one considered them a serious threat to topple the mighty Heat or, crazier yet, win a championship.

This current team may be in the same boat. The Pacers might have the staying power to remain in the East’s upper echelon – and seeing as they’re currently third in the NBA in defense and 12th in offense, they may well do so – but their path from here is still largely unknown. Does this Pacers team have any hope of being better than Cleveland over the long haul? Are they even better than the Chicago/Atlanta/Toronto tier they’re currently staving off for the conference’s No. 2 spot? And if the answer to either of the above questions is no, what’s Bird’s strategy for changing that?

I’ve got no answers. I mean, perhaps George continues improving and emerges in the next year or two as a legit top-3 NBA player. (Based solely on the last month, it seems he’s already there.) And/or perhaps he attracts another star to join him next summer in free agency. (Good lord, can you imagine how scary good he’d be next to Al Horford?) Or maybe, just like Dallas until 2011, the Pacers are content just to stay very good for as long as possible, hoping that one year things fall right and they’re able to sneak into the title conversation.

Who knows? Any of the above could happen, or none might. But regardless, this story is heartening. George’s comeback story is amazing, the role players around him are intriguing and the Bird/Vogel brain trust deserves all the credit in the world for battling through a nightmare 2014-15 season to return to where they are today. No matter what happens from here, the Pacers have that. The future is unknown, but the present is already pretty cool.

Evans Clinchy