8p9s Roundtable: Are the Pacers the Best Team in the NBA?

With the Thunder taking an L against the Nets last night, the Pacers once again sit atop the league’s leader board. Still, they are coming off a loss to the lowly Raptors and they have a few issues that stand out.

As we flip the calendar to a reveal new number, where does Indiana stand?

paul george lance stephenson

The Pacers have the NBA’s best record. Are they the best team in the NBA?

Tim Donahue: No, probably not. Miami and Oklahoma City are at least as good, and Portland may be, too. Also, they are susceptible to matchup issues — especially against quicker teams with athletic bigs. On the whole, Miami probably remains the best team in the league, while OKC may be better than Indy, or they may just be a tough matchup.

Jon Washburn: The Pacers are not the best team in the NBA; that remains the Miami Heat. Indiana is not consistent enough offensively to sit atop the league by themselves. They are, however, the worst possible matchup for the Heat, making them capable of beating the best team in the league.

Jalen Bishop: Not quite. However, it’s tough to decipher who is the best at a particular moment and it’s especially tough right now to make sense of it with Russell Westbrook’s injury and Miami resting Wade on back-to-backs. Peak for peak? I still regard the Miami Heat as the premier team of the association.

Ben Gibson: Without sounding like a homer, I think Indiana is the league’s second best team, with Oklahoma on top and Miami just below. Indiana’s style worked well against Miami last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Pacers have gotten better. They had a chance to win in Miami even with Hibbert’s limited minutes. But is hard to know for sure what to expect of Miami until the playoffs. Neither them or Indiana are trying to give away too much in the regular season even if they do play hard against each other. Oklahoma handed a Indiana a loss at the end of a long road trip, but they get the top slot until Indiana can slow their attack. All that said, none of it really matters until the playoffs. I think the Pacers have looked better than Miami so far this year, but until they knock them out of the playoffs it really doesn’t matter who looks better now.

The Pacers’ loss to the Raptors was only their second defeat this year (including losing to Detroit) to a team most wouldn’t consider elite. Is this concerning or can it be chalked up to complacency and playing on the road in the second night of a back-to-back?

Donahue: No one game performance can or should be considered concerning, but the games against the Raptors, Detroit, and even Cleveland do show exploitable weaknesses for the Pacers. They are, by and large, a slow-footed team. However, it’s difficult to actually make them look slow. In most games, they offset the general lack of footspeed with length and discipline. In the three aforementioned games, the discipline was lacking, and it hurt them. The damage showed up on the defensive glass and in turnovers. Fortunately, this is the type of issue that is more likely to manifest in single games, not as much over the course of a series or a season. If it becomes a trend, however, it’s time to be worried. That being said, I was not remotely happy with either Lance Stephenson or Paul George in that game. It’s one thing to have an off night. It’s another to repeatedly make mistakes that both players should be better than.

Washburn: Losing on the road to a much improved and inspired Raptors team isn’t a problem in and of itself. What is concerning was why they lost: turnovers. Toronto isn’t capable of ratcheting up the defensive pressure like Miami or Memphis, yet the Pacers turned the ball over 23 times. That type of carelessness should always be a concern against a mediocre defensive unit.

Bishop: No. This stuff happens all the time. Inferior teams will get the better of superior ones throughout the season. Players will take “nights off” and perform grimly, as Paul George did on Wednesday while turning it over six times and picking up five personal fouls. Indiana was mauled by Detroit on the glass 55 to 40 while George and Hibbert struggled to put the ball through the hoop. These losses would be concerning if there was an East team besides Miami that looked remotely like a contender, but there aren’t any out there.

Gibson: One or two games here or there don’t concern me too much. I wasn’t happy to see such lax performances by Paul George and Lance Stephenson, but I’m not worried if the Pacers face them in the playoffs.

Other than defense, what is the Pacers’ biggest strength?

Donahue: This is a team that thrives on continuity and relies on its players being smart and disciplined. The culture — spearheaded by Coach Frank Vogel, David West, and George Hill — fosters the environment that allows them to succeed, and that is something that arguably includes the defense.

Washburn: The Pacers’ biggest strengths this year are their versatility, intelligence and chemistry. Each player is willing to give up his points in order to exploit better matchups. Paul George is the leading scorer, but he will often “disappear” for five or six minutes in order to feed the post or let Lance run the pick and roll. While some might call this a weakness or lack of a killer instinct in George’s game, it truly is the way basketball should be played. And in the long run, this is how the Pacers have to play in order to beat guys like LeBron, Durant, or CP3 in the playoffs.

Bishop: This is unconventional but free-throw shooting. Indiana ranks fifth in free-throw percentage and 10th in free-throw makes per game. All five starters shoot above 70% from the stripe. At the top it starts with George Hill and Paul George — both shoot over 83 percent and that’s not to mention C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, and Danny Granger who are competent free-throw shooters.

Gibson: Compared to last season, the arrival of a competent second unit. I think the emergence of Lance Stephenson as the transition player to the second unit has been big. The extra minutes haven’t hurt his performance at all. His number have improved over last year both in the raw form and per-36 minutes. Now, I’m nowhere near ready to say the bench in a strength, but t bench is at least holding the line this season. The fact that when coach Frank Vogel put the bench in is no longer a snuff film, I consider than an improvement.

What is the Pacers’ biggest flaw?

Donahue: Indiana remains an average-to-slightly-above-average offensive team, and that’s good enough — provided the defense remains elite. They are a little light on knock-down shooters, but the biggest issue is the tendency to turn the ball over in bunches. That could be a fatal flaw in the matchup that matters in the East — against Miami.

Washburn: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. No matter how good the Pacers are on defense, the simply aren’t efficient enough offensively to be able to throw away so many possessions. Teams like Miami can also turn these turnovers into easy baskets, nullifying Indiana’s biggest strength without even letting them set their defense up.

Bishop: Turnovers. Offense is an issue at times but the starting five’s scoring output is good enough to win games. It comes back to what will falter against Miami. The offense was fine in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, but when Miami turned it up defensively Indiana gave up the ball hand over fist. Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and Roy Hibbert are biggest culprits so far through 31 games; each turn it over twice per game, George being the highest at 2.7 per contest. At least D.J. Augustin is gone, right?

Gibson: Turnovers, turnovers, and turnovers. The offense is average and it works when the defense is in lockdown mode, but dumb plays equal easy points. A team like Miami is particularly good at destroying teams when they make mistakes. The Pacers commit the 8th most turnovers in the league at 15.7 per game. After two straight years of this, I don’t know if you can expect improvement at this point.

The Pacers are currently 25-6 and only three of their next 10 games are against opponents above .500 (NO, CLE, TOR, ATL, WAS, SAC, NY, LAC, GSW, PHX). What will their record be after those 10 games?

Donahue: I don’t really know. They could lose to each of them, but I figure they get at least 5, at most 8.

Washburn: Although I think this stretch is tougher than the above sentence indicates, I think the Pacers will go 7-3 during this stretch. New Orleans, Atlanta, and Washington, are all competitive teams that have matchups (Anthony Davis, Al Horford, John Wall) they can exploit against the Pacers. Meanwhile, the Clippers, Warriors, and Suns are all playoff teams out west. I expect the Pacers to be 32-9 after this stretch with losses to New Orleans, LAC, and the Suns.

Bishop: I’m bad at predictions but with Cleveland, Atlanta and Washington in the mix those appear like trouble-free wins. It gets tricky with Los Angeles, Golden State and Phoenix who are potent offensive and defensive teams. I say Indiana goes 7-3 over the next 10 and will be 32-9.

Gibson: Looking at the schedule and just thinking head to head, they could win all 10. But more realistically, with a pair of back to backs and games against the Clippers and Warriors, 7-3 seems like a reasonable expectation. The Western Conference road trip after that may be a bit more tricky.

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