At this time last season, the Pacers had a respectable record of 0.571. One season later, Indiana is tied for the best record in the league with a win percentage of 0.828. Why?
Offseason Roster Changes
First, let’s consider the roster changes between last season and this season. Though there were no blockbuster moves, there were some notable changes. Of players currently in the league, here is a summary of the Pacers’ continuations (cream), additions (green), and subtractions (red):
With the core team intact, the changes this offseason made room for a deeper bench in Indiana. The biggest addition was bringing Luis Scola on deck. In comparison to Tyler Hansbrough last season, Scola gives the Pacers greater offensive versatility from the bench, proving to be a better scorer both in terms of volume (number of shots) and efficiency (field goal percentage).
Though only 25% of Scola’s made field goals this season have been unassisted versus Hansbrough’s 47% from last season, this could actually be a signal that he is a better fit for the overall Pacers system. Roughly 68% of Hansbrough’s shots last year were from point blank range, many of which were likely the result of put-backs and broken plays. This is in contrast to Scola’s shot selection; roughly 42% of his shots have been around the basket, with about 45% of his attempts also coming from mid-range. Frank Vogel would probably also take Scola’s current 53% field goal percentage to Hansbrough’s 43% last season. (Scola is not particularly strong on the defensive end, but he has proved to be a good enough defensive rebounder to not leave gaping holes in Vogel’s rotation.)
In addition to having a deeper, more reliable bench, the Pacers have also seen strong improvements from core players—Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson in particular.
Paul George has had a dramatic year over year increase in both offensive efficiency and volume. His field goal percentage went from 42% to 47%, and his average points per game have increased from 17.4 to 23.9. Part of the reason for this boost has been a shift in shot selection. For instance, George has been taking fewer shots from downtown and instead has been stepping in a few more feet to knock down higher percentage mid-range jumpers. His precision from three-point land has also increased from 36% to 41%, likely due to greater shot discretion.
At the same time, there has been a year over year decrease in the percentage of George’s overall points that come from the paint and fast breaks. In fact, a larger percentage of George’s shots (50% v. 42%) have also been unassisted this season, implying that the Pacers star is creating his own shot more often. Along with this change in style, George has also been earning significantly more points at the foul line; this season, he is averaging 5.8 free throw attempts versus 3.5 from last year. (It also helps that his free throw percentage has gone up from 81% to 86%.) His plus/minus rating—number of points his team is ahead or behind while he is on the floor—has also more than doubled from 4.6 to 10.
Despite not being known for being a scorer, Roy Hibbert has also had some notable offensive improvements. He was able to increase his field goal percentage from 45% to 48% while taking one less shot, on average, per game this season. He has also been getting to the line more, with free throws now accounting for 25% of his points, versus 18% last season. The gain in efficiency also helped him bring up his points per game from 11.9 to 12.6 this season.
Hibbert has also become an even better defender this season. This is because his mere presence on the court is sometimes enough to change a shot (even when he does not come up with a block on the play). Though this is clear from watching him play, it does not always trickle down to standard box score stats. His defensive rating—the number of points allowed when he is on the floor per 100 possessions—however, has dropped from 95.6 to 91.6. This is suggestive of his “X-factor” play on the defensive end. In addition, Hibbert’s plus/minus rating has gone up from 4.6 to 9.0 this season, while his share of team rebounds, assists and points has stayed relatively consistent year over year.
And yet, ESPN still sometimes has trouble figuring out who he is.
With all of Danny Granger’s injuries over the past few seasons, Stephenson has become part of the main rotation in Indiana. He is shooting 48% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc. The Brooklyn native who was nicknamed “Born Ready” in his youth, has also been leveraging his athleticism and ball-handling ability to become a playmaker for the Pacers. This season, Stephenson is averaging 5.1 assists per game, versus 2.9 from the previous season. As a result, George Hill is able to have more spot-up shot opportunities, helping bring his three-point shooting average up from 37% last season to 39%. Stephenson has also been creating his own shot; the percentage of unassisted field goals made has increased from 41% to 51%. This shift in Stephenson’s style has resulted in a significantly greater percentage of assisted field goals for Hill.
One weakness to be aware of is for this emerging player is that he is significantly better at home than he is on the road. On the road, he shoots particularly worse from beyond the arc (29% v. 45%). He also has significantly fewer steals and assists. His defensive rating, that is the number of points scored while he is on the floor per 100 possessions, is 91.1 at home versus 98.0 on the road. Similarly, his offensive rating falls from 108.3 at home to 101.5 on the road. Stephenson is still in the early days of his career, and as he continues to develop, it is likely that this differential in road versus home play will become less significant.
Overall Team Excellence
Chasing their best record since the post-Reggie Miller era, the Indiana Pacers are a force to be reckoned with this season. Looking at Indiana’s starting 5, this lineup has an offensive rating of 106.8 and a defensive rating of 90.9 this season (a net of +15.9). On average, they also have the greatest point differential versus opponents in the NBA. Their Eastern Conference rival, the Miami Heat, has an offensive rating of 106.1 and a defensive rating of 99.0 for their starters. Indiana has also become a much better road team this season; last year, they had an unimpressive 0.475 versus 0.714 this season to date. It helps that their conference is significantly weaker this season, but they have also had some pretty impressive road wins against top teams like the Spurs and Heat this year.
Despite their strong performance thus far, the Pacers have more potential that the stats have yet to capture. His name is Danny Granger. After being out for most of last season and the first third of this season, Granger is continuing to ramp himself up for the 2013-2014 NBA season. Once Vogel fully incorporates him into the Pacers main rotation, Granger could give them another strong boost. Maybe next year, Indiana will even have a spot on the Christmas Day lineup…