The Pacers have had one of the most up-and-down seasons and postseasons one could imagine. They were dominant through the first three quarters of the regular season, posting a record of 46-13. The resulting 78.0% winning percentage led the league, as did their defensive rating of 94.4 points per 100 possessions.
Then they imploded down the stretch, going 10-13 (a 21st-ranked 43.5% winning percentage), while posting the league’s worst offensive rating at 98.4 points per 100 possessions. They somehow survived the collapse and finished with the Eastern Conference’s number one seed, but no one really knew what we would be getting out of the Pacers in the postseason.
Well, their playoff run to date has been just as baffling, as they looked equal parts dominant and hapless against the eighth-seeded Hawks and fifth-seeded Wizards in the first two rounds. They’ve blown out and been blown out. They’ve been embarrassed at home and done the embarrassing on the road. They’ve been flat out hard to predict, and even harder to believe in.
They barely survived the first two rounds (which, truthfully, they should have dominated), but are now right where they intended to be: in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat with home-court advantage. What’s more, they looked like the dominant Pacers of old in a convincing 107-96 victory in Game 1.
After two rounds of being a paradox, the Pacers will need consistency in this series to beat the champs, who’ve had little resistance during their fourth-straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Many are pointing to Roy Hibbert's need to recapture his form that dominated the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals as the key to success. Others are looking to budding superstar Paul George to carry the weight. Some even look at the ball of chaos that is Lance Stephenson as the big x-factor.
My apologies for burying the lede here, but that’s exactly what David West has been for these Pacers - a buried lede. He’s a big part of the reason why the Pacers are still in this thing, but he’s the type of consistent, unheralded performer that doesn’t even muster a mention until the sixth paragraph of an article with his name in the title. He comes to work every day, does his job, and does it well. His story isn't as flashy, nor as lurid as most concerning the Pacers this season, but he’ll be a big key to their success in this series.
The 18-Foot Assassin
Back when West was playing All-Star basketball as Chris Paul's running mate with the New Orleans Hornets, CP3 lovingly dubbed West the “18-foot assassin” for his deadly mid-range game. After 11 seasons into his career, that is still a very apt nickname.
Of the 48 players that have shot at least 20 shots from mid-range during these playoffs, West ranks fourth in attempts at 89 and third in percentage hit at 50.6%. In fact, he’s the only player in the top 15 in attempts to hit at least 50% of his shots. For what it’s worth, the league average from that range is 40.58%.
West’s mid-range game is a big part of what makes the Pacers successful when he’s on. Look no further than Indiana’s closeout game versus Washington, where West led the way with 29 points. Of that 29, 20 came from 10 of 14 shooting from mid-range.
West gets a lot of his mid-range shots by setting the pick in pick-and-pop scenarios. His accuracy from that range makes pick-and-roll defenders have to choose between the ball-handler driving to the basket for an easy two or the rock going back to West for an accurate jump shot. For a team that doesn’t hang its hat on offense, this is one of its deadliest weapons. It also frees up space for Hibbert to operate down in the post.
If a team manages to defend that move, West has a talent for backing defenders down and creating his own space for a turnaround jumper. Hibbert and George are the All-Stars and Lance drew a lot of attention this season as a vastly improved player, but West’s pick-and-pops and post-ups are often the catalyst for Indiana’s success on the offensive end.
Another beautiful part of West’s game is that he doesn’t settle for bad shots and is excellent at finding his teammates when he’s unable to find the proper space for his own look. Of all big men in the playoffs this year, West trails only noted passing bigs Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol in assists per game with 4.3.
That actually makes him the assist leader on his team, ahead of all three of the Pacers’ primary ball-handlers, Hill, Stephenson, and George. His assist percentage of 21.0% also paces all Pacer starters.
Furthermore, according to SportVU’s player tracking data, West was also second on the team through two rounds in passes per game at 52.9, secondary (or hockey) assists at 1.0, and assist opportunities - passes that would be an assist if the player receiving the pass had made the shot - at 8.2.
Essentially, West initiates a lot of the offense for the Pacers and still manages to generate scoring chances when his shot isn’t an option. That has led to an offensive rating of 104.5 points that the Pacers score per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, compared to 88.3 when he’s off.
David West is clearly one of the Pacers’ most important players on offense, but the same could be said about the defensive end as well. Of all players that faced at least 3.5 shots per game at the rim during the first two rounds, the 35.8% shooting that West held opposing offensive players to in that area was the best in the league. He only let in 1.8 shots of the 5.2 attempts he faced in that area per contest, which even tops Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and West’s teammate and noted rim-protector, Roy Hibbert.
Similar to the disparity in the Pacers offensive rating between when West is on or off the court, their defense suffers a similar fate when the 18-foot assassin takes a seat. Indiana has the best defensive rating of all the teams in this year’s playoffs at 97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. When West is on the floor, that rating improves to 95.0. When he’s off? It balloons to 104.7.
Bring on the Heat
So, let’s review:
|OffRtg On||OffRtg Off||DefRtg On||DefRtg Off||NetRtg On||NetRtg Off||+/- On||+/- Off
For a player that rarely gets the spotlight on this disjointed Pacers team, the numbers clearly point to him being one of its most important players on both ends of the floor, in terms of offensive and defensive rating. As a result, West’s on/off court plus-minus and net rating disparities represent the biggest on his team (by a rather wide margin). In fact, his cumulative plus-minus mark of +94 is the best of any player in this year's playoffs so far.
David West has been a key cog for the Pacers during their run to the Conference Finals (seriously, the team is nearly a -20 per game when he sits), but he’ll perhaps be an even bigger one against the Miami Heat. In four games against Miami this season, West put up averages of 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.0 assists, while shooting 51.1% from the floor and 91.7% from the line. Of West’s three primary defenders on the Heat (Chris Bosh, Rashard Lewis, and Shane Battier), not a single one could hold him under 50.0% shooting from the field.
Game 1 appeared to be business as usual for West against the Heat. He put up 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists (almost perfectly in line with his averages), while shooting 8 of 11 from the field and 3 of 4 from the line. He hit 1 of only 2 shots from mid-range, but the drop in attempts was mostly due to the fact that the Heat ceded the lane to him several times. As a result, he managed to go 7 of 9 from the paint, including 5 of 6 from the restricted area. He was clearly a big part of the Pacers’ offensive game plan, as he was second on the team in both touches (73) and passes (58).
If the Heat can’t find an answer for David West, perhaps he’ll be able to help the Pacers put this roller coaster ride of a season and playoffs behind them and move on to the Finals. Despite the ups and downs, the Pacers are still a good team at their core. After the Game 1 victory, our algorithms have Indiana’s odds to win this series at 61.86%. It’s far from over, considering they’re facing a Heat team that’s made it to the Finals the past three seasons, but it’s a step in the right direction and one closer to making the NBA Finals.
And if they do make it, you can bet that it’ll be David West quietly playing his butt off and leading the way.