You wouldn’t know it from the stat sheet, but within the Pacers’ offense and locker room, it is immediately clear: David West is Indiana’s most important player. Danny Granger is probably still their best player. Roy Hibbert is their defensive anchor. Paul George is their x-factor. The two-headed point guard monster of George Hill and Darren Collison is what can make them incredibly tough to beat.
But it is the play of West that, as they say, stirs the drink.
When he is demanding the ball and unleashing his physicality, this offense is a handful. We saw this often towards the tail end of the regular season when he was at his most aggressive ever in a Pacers uniform. It was especially apparent during his back-to-back games of 21 points, 14 boards and 7 assists (in a dominant Indy win over Milwaukee) and 32 points, 12 boards and 22 FGAs (in a key 3-point win over Philly and his only game of the year taking 20 or more shots).
Sure, he had pedestrian stats all season long, but don’t be fooled. Part of this was coming back from offseason ACL surgery. Part was him just trying to fit in. And the biggest part was the fact that his role in the offense is more of a facilitator than a finisher.
Even maintaining this role, he lifted his scoring up to 15 ppg on 54.6% over his final 15 games and had a bunch of nights where he was clearly taking over. Head coach Frank Vogel recognized, embraced and is now trying to harness this new-found aggressiveness.
After West’s big Game Four to help the Pacers escape Orlando with an overtime win over the Magic, Vogel said that he wants the team running upwards of 40% of the offense through David. This is quite a jump considering that the team strategy throughout the regular season was closer to 20% usage goal for everyone.
Before you go thinking that West will be launching a Kobe-level of shots against Miami, however, realize that he will still be finishing far fewer plays than he facilitates. For Indiana, he, rather than the point guard, is often the guy who forces the defense to react. His pick-and-roll action and just general ability to thrive in space is the team’s greatest weapon. His ability to square up and draw attention allows the weakside action to overcome the help-side defenders who are left to scramble to cover two other players, who are almost all capable of hitting the jumper, driving all the way to the hoop, pulling up in the mid-range or making the right decision to make one more pass. The two caught-off-guard defenders have trouble protecting so much space. And if they do manage to contain the damage, a gap usually opens up somewhere else.
This is why and when the Pacers are so hard to cover when the ball is moving around fluidly.
And it is when their weakside so often becomes their strength.
While other teams rely so much on their best players — their so-called stars or, worse, their so-called “closers” — the Pacers make their hay by not caring who takes the shot. They are just as happy tossing the ball to West and then having him make a read on whether or not it is he that has or the weakside that has the advantage. Because that’s the secret to Indiana’s attack: it’s weakside
Zach Lowe, a basketball mind wiser than I, has some additional thoughts to offer on why West is so key to the Pacers’ attack.
Indiana could use an ace point guard — any team could — but it doesn’t really need one, because it’s built to create offense in a different way. The Pacers are not all that different from the Lakers, both the Phil Jackson and Mike Brown versions, in that they use their big men instead of their point guards to get into the teeth of the defense and create shots.
Among playoff teams, only the behemoth Lakers devoted a higher percentage of their possessions to post-up plays than the Pacers, per Synergy Sports. Roy Hibbert will have a huge height advantage over every Miami big man in this series, and how he responds to the quickness of Miami’s bigs and help defenders will be a key factor in how this series goes.
Again, one way to penetrate a defense is simply to toss the ball to a tall person close to the hoop. But over the last 25 games or so, the Pacers have gotten very good at creating penetration through a second method. And with that in mind, I present the player who gives Indiana the best shot at giving Miami an honest run: David West, and his passing skills.
West has been slipping screens for nearly a decade in the NBA, which is a fancy hoops guru way of saying that when West sets a screen in a pick-and-roll, he cuts straight toward the basket almost before he actually sets the pick. He is not interested in lingering there or nailing an opposing point guard with a cement wall pick. He wants to get in the way for a second and then leave, hoping to catch the ball in an open space somewhere just below the foul line and to the left of the paint. This is penetration via the pass.
As Indiana’s starting point guard, Hill is the one running those pick-and-rolls and throwing that initial pass to West. And it is in that moment, with West holding the ball in open space, where Indiana can give itself a chance against Miami. The Heat’s defense is built on speed and aggression. They love to have the big man involved in pick-and-rolls jump out hard on the opposing guard — Hill in this scenario — confident one of their ultra-athletic wing players can crash down on the big man rolling to the hoop (West) if need be.
That creates the briefest chance: three Miami players guarding two opponents, with one skilled big man (Hibbert) and two shooters (Danny Granger and Paul George, or Leandro Barbosa) surrounding the central Hill/West action. And this is where Hill, that non-traditional point guard, is weirdly a better fit for this Indiana offense than Collison. He’s at least two inches taller than Collison, making it a bit easier to throw those initial entry passes to West over the top. That height, plus some experience as a combo guard rather than a pure point guard, also makes Hill a more natural spot-up shooter against defenders running out at him.
And that’s the thing: Once West has the ball inside, every Indiana guard and forward essentially becomes a spot-up shooter, whether they are in the corners or on the wing. They can all shoot, pass or drive by a scrambling defender, and late in the Pacers’ season — and against Orlando in the first round — the Pacers did serious damage having West pass out to one spot-up shooter and swinging the ball from there.
Pacers fans have seen this before, if on a much less effective scale.
A few years ago, Mike Dunleavy, Jr. did a lot of these same things.
Sure, TJ Ford and Jarrett Jack brought the ball up the floor. But Lil Dun ran the offense. He generated so much of the (meager) side-to-side movement that helped the offense thrive. Granger was by far the best player on that team. (This was his breakout, 2008-09 All-Star and Most Improved Player Award-winner year when he scored 25.8 ppg). But Dunleavy was actually more important to the offense.
That team really sucked, so it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. But there are some similarities that Pacers fans, those who could stomach watching those late 2000s offenses, should recognize. Neither MDJ nor West are piling up assists or anything in the stat sheet that shows just how much influence they have in making the offense flow. But it’s there on the court and you can tell how much Vogel now and Jim O’Brien then appreciate the subtle skills that each has brought.
To compete with the Heat, the Pacers are going to need Granger to knock down shots, Hibbert to improve his post scoring, Paul George to be aggressive and get into transition, and the bench to show up every game. But more than anything else, they need David West to continue to do what he has increasingly done all year when this team plays at its best: be the offensive focal point.