How the Indiana Pacers Have Clawed Their Way Back to NBA Relevance
Early last season, the Indiana Pacers were everyone's favorite to give the two-time defending champion Miami Heat a run for their money in the Eastern Conference. They were the NBA's number-one team through the first 60 games or so, Paul George was an MVP candidate, Roy Hibbert had a Defensive Player of the Year case, and Lance Stephenson looked like one of the bigger All-Star snubs with a legit shot at winning Most Improved Player honors.
Then, everything went horribly, horribly wrong.
The Pacers sputtered out of control to end the season. Their locker room grew divided, everyone on the team slumped or fell off entirely at the same time, and -- despite making the Eastern Conference Finals -- they simply stopped looking like contenders. As if that didn't seem enough like a downer ending to the Pacers' once promising present and future, they lost a disgruntled Stephenson to free agency and their All-Star George to a broken leg this past summer.
As expected, the Pacers struggled to start 2014-15, playing without arguably their two best players from the previous season. As recently as January 23rd, Indiana sat at 15-30, with the league's 23rd-ranked Net Rating at -3.5 (due mostly to the league's second-worst Offensive Rating of 97.5 points scored per 100 possessions at the time).
Health has been a major concern for Indy all year and has been a big part of the reason for the steep drop-off from last season's relative success. In addition to George's season-long absence, starters George Hill and David West have also missed significant chunks of time, sitting out 39 and 15 games each, respectively.
Despite all that, the Pacers currently sit 0.5 games out of the 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a solid 15-game stretch in which they've gone 11-4. Their current 26-34 record still ain't pretty, but that kind of win total might be enough to get you in the playoffs out East. In fact, we and our algorithms have their playoff chances currently sitting at 56.1% (the best of any Eastern Conference team outside the Cavaliers, Bulls, Hawks, Raptors, Wizards, and Bucks that all sit at 99.2% or higher). If they manage to get in, who knows how far their playoff experience can take them?
Whereas the 60-game point last season marked the approximate beginning of a miserable nosedive by Indiana, this year it might serve as the time we later remember as when they started looking like semi-contenders again. What has changed?
George Hill for MVP
Woah, woah. Ok, that's not really a thing. Still, it's important to note that the Pacers have a record of 14-7 with Hill in the lineup and 12-27 without him. Just look at the difference between the Pacers before and since Hill's most recent return from a pesky groin injury on January 23rd.
|Off Rtg||NBA Rank||Def Rtg||NBA Rank||Net Rtg||NBA Rank|
|First 44 games||97.7||29th||101.3||10th||-3.5||23rd|
|Last 16 games||104.6||7th||98.6||5th||+6.0||3rd|
Indiana went from being a bottom-dwelling team to the only squad in the Association in the top-seven in Offensive, Defensive, and Net Rating (no small feat for a team often considered to be offensively challenged).
Hill took a bit of time ramping up after his return, coming back with a minutes restriction at first, but over his 11 games played since rejoining the Pacers' starting lineup, he's averaged a solid 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.2 steals, and only 1.5 turnovers per game, while shooting 44.0% from the the field, 40.0% from long range, and 72.3% from the charity stripe. Most strikingly, the Pacers have a Net Rating of +14.3 in 407 minutes with Hill on the floor since his most recent return, compared to -3.6 in the 361 without him (easily the lowest off-court figure on the team).
Hill might always be remembered as "the guy the Pacers traded away Kawhi Leonard for," but his solid two-way contributions and importance to this team and its success should not be so easily overlooked.
It's a hard sell to call all the Pacers' injuries this season a blessing, but those extra reps for guys like Solomon Hill, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, Ian Mahinmi, Damjan Rudez, Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan, and Lavoy Allen seem to be paying dividends.
Over this dominant 15-game stretch, the Pacers have had an insanely balanced 10-man rotation (all averaging 17.6 minutes or more), with seven guys averaging 24.0 or more minutes per contest and not a single one topping David West's 29.7. That kind of Spurs-ian balance should serve as a reminder that, even through all the injuries, Pacers coach Frank Vogel is still Coach of the Year caliber (as evidenced by his winning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors for February).
It was a rough first half of the year for Pacers fans, but the result of just about everyone on the roster being thrust into a "next man up" scenario at one point or another during the season looks to have made Indiana a deeper team than people might realize.
Paul George - and the Pacers - are on the Comeback Trail
The most intriguing wrinkle in the Pacers' efforts to claw their way back into relevance is that their two-time All-NBA star is getting healthy, going through full practices, and looking like he could return at some point this month. He'll likely be brought along slowly and might not be back to his usual All-Star self anytime soon, but his determination and perseverance while rehabbing a gruesome leg injury might be just what this Pacers team needs to energize them heading into the postseason (if they manage to get there).
And if they do make it, who's to say they can't pick up where they left off as an Eastern Conference contender? Yes, Lance isn't coming back through that door, but his brutal season with the Charlotte Hornets might suggest that he takes away more from a team than he gives them anyway. Throw in the Pacers' improved depth, their still-strong defensive foundation, and a coach that can go toe-to-toe with the best in the Association, and it's hard to call the Pacers hopeless anymore.
With the Bulls' health a constant question mark and the Wizards' and Raptors' recent unraveling, is it really that impossible to imagine a scenario in which Indiana surprises a team in the first round? Even the East-leading Hawks would give up a significant amount of playoff experience to the Pacers, regardless of how much more superior Atlanta looks on paper.
Of course, the NBA is fickle. Indiana's recent momentum could all fizzle out, and the only thing they may end up contending for in the end could be the draft lottery. Either way, where they go after this recent impressive stretch will be one of the more interesting stories to follow during the last quarter of this NBA season.