The Pacers have stumbled a bit of late, losing horribly in Phoenix and coughing up a game while struggling with the thin mountain air in Denver on the second night of a back to back. Throw in the clutch four-point play they needed to best the lowly Kings in Sacramento, and it seems as if there could be some reason for concern.
However, in short … chill.
At 34-9, Indiana still has the league’s best record. With this in mind, we focus on the positive while reaching out to a few of the regular contributors to 8 Points, 9 Seconds for some perspective on the season so far.
1. Which Pacer has surprised you the most this year so far?
Tim Donahue: Lance. I expected him to keep his starting job, but I did not expect the kind of production he has given this year. He has improved as much from last year to this year as he did from the year prior to last year. That’s saying something, as he had no business being on an NBA floor without a mop in 2012.
Ben Gibson: Improvement in Lance Stephenson’s game was expected, but this is more than just a “more minutes means more stats” thing. He went from 29 to 36 minutes a game and improved from 8.8 to 14.2 points a game. His shooting has improved to 49.2% (up from 46.0% last year), thanks to a small improvement in his shooting at the rim, and his 3-point shooting hasn’t been bad either. His usage is up from 15 to 19 percent and he’s been improving his assist rate both in raw numbers (+2) and percentage (+8 percent) without having to big of a surge in turnovers (+3 percent). He’s improved every part of a game, leads the league in triple doubles and is a legitimate All-Star while still showing the ability to be a one-man fast break.
Jon Washburn: Is it fair to say Paul George? I expected him to settle into a nice little groove while he made a possible argument for a repeat appearance on the 3rd Team All-NBA list. He was great against Miami, but I thought he would surely drop off a little bit — possibly even focusing less on defense while he became the go-to scorer. Boy was I wrong. He is easily the second best two-way player in the league on a nightly basis and should be considered in any MVP conversation. I was stoked for George to cement himself as a top 15 player in this league. I never dreamed he would already be in the top five.
Kyle Grand: The most surprising Pacer has definitely been Stephenson. Paul George could easily be the answer to this question, but I think his rise to stardom was more expected. He showed he had the tools to be great a season ago, he just needed another offseason to hone them. I don’t think the general public had any idea Stephenson could play the way he has. He sometimes is still like a bull in a China shop, but he’s become much smoother with the basketball and has improved his decision making. The fact that he leads the team in assists, is second in rebounds and points, and is first in the NBA in triple doubles speaks for itself.
Mark Evans: It has to be Lance, right? He went from being a Danny Granger fill-in to a legitimate All-Star candidate. His ability to play on the ball gives Indiana two wings who can create, taking some pressure off George Hill. Paul George’s rise to stardom is far less surprising than what Lance has done. It’s gotten to a point where the Pacers have to be worrying about how they can figure out a way of keeping Lance long term.
2. Which Pacers will make the All-Star team?
Donahue: George was voted as a starter, and you have to believe that Hibbert will get an easy nod as a front-court reserve There’s probably a 50/50 chance that there will be a third Pacer voted to the team by the coaches. Lance appears deserving, but coaches are a wild card.
Prior to last week’s game vs. the Clippers, Doc Rivers acknowledged that how a player is perceived, or carries himself on the court, is considered when voting for All-Stars, and that could hurt Lance. Then, Doc also said, “I just don’t really think about the All-Star Game that much.” David West is a darkhorse for a “best record in the league” nod. West has zero interest in going, but Vogel has been actively campaigning for him for two weeks, often in responses to questions about Lance being an All-Star.
Gibson: George and Hibbert are locks and Stephenson has earned a spot, but we’ll see if Sir Lancealot swayed enough voters.
Washburn: I assume this question is really just, “Will Stephenson and/or West make the All Star team?” since Hibbert is a lock and George is already in. While my thoughts on whether Lance is an All-Star are clear, I think the coaches will wrongly leave him off of the team. However, I think they “do the Pacers a favor” and vote in West, a guy who actually hasn’t played as well this year as he has in the previous two years, but still deserves a strong look due to his intangibles. In all, I think the Pacers put three guys into the exhibition, leaving a very deserving candidate off the team.
Grand: George and Hibbert and in and I think Stephenson will make it as well. Stephenson has proven himself this year, and deserves to be there. Finally, he represents what the All-Star game is all about. This game is for fun and entertainment and that’s exactly how Stephenson plays.
Evans: Hibbert and George are locks. Stephenson probably gets in, giving the best team in the East three selections. The Heat and Pacers combine to have a huge chunk of the roster, which is fitting in the lackluster East.
3. The Pacers have nine games left before the All-Star break. What record will they have at the midway mark of the season?
Donahue: Forty wins sounds like a nice round number. That would put them at 6-3 over the next nine.
Gibson: A loss in Fortress Phillips in Atlanta and one either against Portland or out of nowhere makes me think the Pacers will go 7-2 in this stretch, making them 41-11 and ending all hope of tying the 72-10 mark set by the 95-96 Chicago Bulls. Hubris aside, that’s an impressive way to start the season and much better than even the most-optimistic Pacers’ fans might have expected. If they keep up that win rate, Miami is going to struggle to earn the top seed back even if they do play well down the stretch.
Washburn: I expect the Pacers to go 7-2 in their remaining nine games with losses at Atlanta, where they always play like garbage, and at Orlando, in a trap game sandwiched between Portland and Denver. This would leave them 41-11 at the All-Star break with only one home loss. Wow.
Grand: It’s reasonable to think Indiana will go 7-2 through this final stretch. The second game of a back-to-back has been the Pacers’ Achilles heel this season and they face another of those in the near future. It also doesn’t help it is on the road, in Atlanta, where the Pacers notoriously struggle. Finally, the game to watch is when Brooklyn comes to Banker’s Life. No one is playing better in 2014 than the Nets (8-1). I know the Pacers have been nearly unbeatable in their own building, but the Nets are finding their way and Indiana is due for a home loss.
Evans: Nine games from now until the All-Star break, and Portland is the only elite opponent. There are some quality teams in Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta, and maybe Brooklyn. Indiana should win about seven of these nine, giving them a 41-11 record. Not too shabby.
4. Indiana’s bench is much improved this year. How does it stack up against the reserve units of the other title contenders?
Gibson: Indiana’s bench is around league average in point differential with +0.5 per 48 minutes, and that’s a huge improvement from last year’s reserves, which hemorrhaged -6.0 points per 48. It is obvious that C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, Danny Granger are upgrades over last year’s lead killers. Still, in the East that number is behind Miami (2.1), and it is well behind Western Conference contenders San Antonio (8.6), Oklahoma City (5.0). So they aren’t the best, but the fact that the bench is just competent this year puts them in position to beat the Heat and compete with whoever emerges from the West.
Washburn: For clarity, let’s crown the Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Trail Blazers, and Clippers as the five contenders with the Pacers for the Championship. (Apologies to the Warriors and Rockets — I just don’t think they are in this top tier.) Also, let’s look at this from a playoff lens when rotations tighten up and good teams only realistically play eight guys for real minutes, barring foul trouble and injuries.
The Pacers bench core of Granger, Watson, and Scola is clearly better than both the Heat and the Trail Blazers. I also think they are better than the Clippers’ core of Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and … Hedo Turkoglu? The Thunder and Pacers are pretty equal, once Reggie Jackson goes back to the bench. In reality, Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and Stephen Adams may actually be better players than guys starting over them. That leaves the Spurs as the only contender with a bench that may be superior to Indiana’s. Manu Ginobili is back to shooting at a high percentage this season, and Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills give the Spurs a lot of athleticism and versatility.
Grand: The Pacers bench is solid and should be able to hold its own against teams such as Miami and Oklahoma City. The X-factor with Miami is Greg Oden. If Oden can give the Heat solid minutes, it could completely change the way a potential series is played. For OKC, once Russell Westbrook returns, its bench will get Reggie Jackson back. He’s been playing superb basketball as of late and would really strengthen their second unit. Combine him with Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison, and Steven Adams and you suddenly have a group with size and scoring that could pose problems for Indiana.
Evans: Scola/Granger/Watson/Mahinmi is head and shoulders above last year’s unit. There are two legitimate contenders in the East, so by default, Indiana has the best bench unit. Sliding Reggie Jackson to the bench, after the eventual return of Russell Westbrook, will give the Thunder a nice unit, but it’s a young one without much experience in Adams and Lamb. It’s hard to definitively point out a bench squad on a contender that is better and more experienced than Indiana’s.
5. Is there any reason to think Indiana won’t face Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals again?
Donahue: Yes, if for no other reason than the fact they actually have to get there first. Seven-game series favor the better team — and the Pacers clearly will be the better team in all but one pairing — but matchups can make things harder than they feel like they should be. The East is getting better — well, less inept — and a team like Brooklyn could still be dangerous.
Gibson: The NBA ceasing operations is about the only way we don’t get Indiana/Miami again. No one else in the East has shown the ability to to string together a real winning streak, much less look like they could win a seven-game series. Both the Heat and Pacers might have a few hiccups along the way, but I can’t think of a conference finals that’s felt more inevitable.
Washburn: I’m a pessimist by nature, and a resurgence from Brooklyn scares the daylights out of me. I’m also mildly terrified of John Wall going crazy in a playoff series or an awful matchup against the Hawks, which always play the Pacers tough. But let’s be real: The answer to this question is no.
Grand: No. Indiana and Miami are far and away the two best teams in the conference. When I look around the East I don’t see anyone with the horses to win four games against them. The Nets are coming into their own, but their age will be a problem. Atlanta plays well against both squads, but winning in Miami or Indiana, even once, is asking a lot. Chicago can obviously play defense, but without an offensive punch, their D won’t be enough. I know it’s only January, but the stage is already set for an Eastern Conference finals rematch.
Evans: A heroic Derrick Rose comeback is probably the only thing standing in the way of an Indiana/Miami Eastern Conference finals. Even with Dwyane Wade’s health issues, LeBron will drag the Heat through the first few rounds. A team like the Wizards or the Hawks could steal a game in a series, but that’s where it ends. It will be Indiana vs. Miami to get to the NBA Finals. Maybe a few teams in the East make some moves to get more competitive now, but nobody seems close enough to be a serious threat to either team.
Tags: Five Questions