By ROSS WEBER
Note: The author will be a senior at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis this fall. He has been a big sports fan his entire life and is the sports editor of his school’s newspaper. He has grown up in Indiana and was part of the Diversity Sports Media Institute at IUPUI this summer. This is a response to a pro-Bulls piece written by Josh Chapman, who also attended DSMI.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Bulls are good; I have a lot of respect for them and what they’ve done recently. They were a number one seed in the playoffs, took absolute control over the Central Division since LeBron left for South Beach, and made it to the conference finals two years ago. Every year, I’d circle the days on the schedule when Indiana would play Chicago. Those were games when the Pacers could make statements, to prove that the Pacers were on their way back.
Now, Indiana is here. The Pacers won their first division title in nine seasons, were a game away from winning the Eastern Conference, and are bringing back even more pieces for the campaign next season. Indiana should be the team to beat in the division, right Josh (Chapman’s piece on why the Pacers should be concerned about the Bulls)?
Well, it looks like there is still a little more to prove. And the Pacers like it that way.
I’ll give Chicago the title as the ruler of the Central Division from 2010-2013 because last season the Bulls weren’t at full strength. The Pacers weren’t either with Granger being out, but missing a former MVP is going to hurt your team more than missing a former one-time All-Star. Now in 2013-14 both teams are at full strength in the prime of the current generation of each franchise. Every game will be a battle for who will be the King of the Central for now and years to come. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to watch every second of it.
The Bulls have been in control, but this season the Pacers are ready to win Central again, but with the Bulls at full strength with no excuses. The Bulls should be worried about Larry Legend and the kids from the Circle City, for a few reasons.
The Pacers’ Constant Improvement
The Indiana Pacers have their core put together and last season was all about improving that core, and improve they did. Paul George became a breakout star in the regular season, earning All-NBA third-team honors, the Most Improved Player award, and his first All-Star appearance. Lance Stephenson became a barometer in the playoffs, helping push the Pacers to key wins in the series against New York and Miami. Roy Hibbert proved to be one of the dominant big men in the league.
There was obviously improvement from the season before, but what about during the season? The Pacers improved then, too. Each player improved in at least one category of points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game and steals per game after the All-Star break. That’s just looking at production pre- and post- All-Star game. If you look at each individual month, each Pacers starter improved his points per game and assists per game number twice from the previous month. Hibbert had two stretches of improving his points per game and field goal percentage two months in a row.
But they Pacers improvement didn’t stop there. From the regular season to the postseason, four Pacers starters improved their points per game, and two improved in rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game and field goal percentage. Hibbert showed some of the best improvement, adding 5.1 points to his scoring average, 1.6 rebounds to his rebounding average, and 63 points to his field goal percentage from the regular season.
The Indiana Pacers are a hard working group of players who truly embodied “Blue Collar, Gold Swagger,” the team’s motto for the season. They work their butts off to make themselves better players and represent the Pacers franchise well on and off the floor. So when you see how good the Pacers are at the beginning of next season, by the end of the season they’ll be even better.
Video from YouYube user JayNilla:
The Indiana Pacers’ defense had been the weakness of the team when Jim O’Brien was head coach, ranking 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions in his final full season as head coach. Since Frank Vogel took over, the team’s defense has continued to improve, this past season ranking best in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions. It was the 2nd best rating in franchise history, and the Pacers made it to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2004.
The Pacers as a team are very good defensively, but what if Indiana has to break up its starting lineup for some reason? Will the defensive efficiency drop because the chemistry is gone? Will they win fewer games because of it? The Pacers as a team rank very well defensively, but you could argue that the Pacers individually rank even more impressively. Looking at defensive win shares, a stat that calculates how many wins a player has helped their team get in a season due to his defense, the Pacers absolutely dominate the top of the leader board.
Paul George had the most defensive win shares of any player in the NBA last season with 6.3, Roy Hibbert was 5th overall and second among centers with 4.9, David West 11th overall and 3rd among power forwards with 4.7, George Hill ranked 21st overall and 3rd among point guards with 3.8, and Lance Stephenson ranked 27th overall and 2nd among shooting guards with 3.6.
Every Pacer starter ranked in the top 30 and was top three at his position. No other team in the NBA can say that.
The Bulls are a team that prides itself on defense as well, but last season they ranked 6th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and two ranked in the top 30 in defensive win shares. The Bulls also didn’t have a starter rank higher at their position than any Pacers starter.
The Pacers defense won them a division title last season; don’t expect that to change next season either.
Originally, I had trouble deciding on a third reason. I could say it’s the return of Danny Granger, I could say it’s the additions of C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland, I could say it’s the return of Larry Bird as President of Basketball Operations. But I found a place on this team where all three of those reasons will take full effect.
Watson and Copeland will both be getting minutes in the second unit, and due to Granger’s return either he or Stephenson will come off the bench, plus Bird finally got someone he has had his eye on for a long time in power forward Luis Scola to come off the bench behind West. The bench this season is a lot more potent than last season, for more reasons than just a talent upgrade.
When you look at the bench players for the Pacers last season, they’re small scoring area guys. The places where they can effectively score on the court and places where the defense needs to worry about them scoring points are small. Whether that spot be right under the basket or it be hugged upon the three point line, that takes out a lot of space where the defense needs to be worried about that player scoring.
This season however, the Pacers have guys on their bench who can play multiple positions and spread out the floor a lot better. Now, the defense has to worry about stopping the offense from scoring more than the offense needs to worry about getting to those effective areas to beat the defense.
Compare these shot charts (via NBA.com) between players on the second unit last season and who is expected to play there this season. The first is for Augustin, the second for Watson.
The larger area that Watson shoots the ball effectively spreads out through the ranges of 15-20 feet, unlike Augustin’s, which centers around the wings of the three point line. Watson’s ability to hit mid-range shots and drive to the basket (Watson shot 46% from inside 5 feet this past season, Augustin shot 37%) will help open up the floor for Indiana’s second unit.
Here are two more shot charts from last season: The first is for Tyler Hansbrough; the second, for Luis Scola:
Scola’s shot chart is much more spread out than Hansbrough’s which is cluttered at the rim. 68% of Hansbrough’s shots last season where within five feet of the basket, while 45% of Scola’s shots were within five feet.
Scola’s ability to score in mid-range (much like another good power forward Pacers fans are familiar with in David West) will open up the floor to create more opportunities for the offense to operate.
The key to Indiana’s second unit is to spread the floor better than last season’s second unit and that’s what Watson and Scola were brought in for, as well as Copeland who shot 48% from three in the playoffs last season.
When watching Indiana’s bench this season look for a more spread out floor with a lot more movement from the players. There is a lot of versatility to the second unit that will keep opposing coaches guessing all season long.
Indiana finally has the personnel to make a division title defense happen and maybe even another run to game seven of the conference finals. Indiana is as good as it has ever been, and that means that not just Chicago, but the entire East should watch out for this Pacers team, including Miami.