The Indiana Pacers are the NBA's last undefeated team. They are beating teams by an average of over 10 points per game, per ESPN. The Pacers have young stars coming into their own in Paul George and Lance Stephenson. They have a defensive force in the middle of his prime, Roy Hibbert. David West persists as a gritty veteran with skill and touch around the basket.
They back this up with deep experience. Just this past spring, Indiana forced seven games against the Miami Heat in a thrilling Eastern Conference Finals.
But just how good are the Pacers? Can they challenge for a title?
The Pacers Win With Defense
According to basketball-reference.com, the Pacers give up the fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA, and it isn't a fluke. The Pacers had the best defensive rating in 2012-13, too. It all starts with the man in the middle, 27-year-old Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert wants to be the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, and he isn't just talking about it on Twitter. His game is showing it, and it has made the Pacers ridiculously difficult to score on. Via Synergy Sports (subscription required), opponents are averaging a miniscule .6 points per possession when Hibbert guards them. Opposing guards who try to attack the basket don't have a chance with the 7'2" behemoth patrolling the paint; Hibbert is averaging an eye-popping 4.4 blocks a night.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is Hibbert's work as a low-post defender. Synergy indicates that through eight games, Hibbert has been posted up only 14 times. In this respect, Hibbert operates similar to a shutdown NFL cornerback: The great ones are so dangerous you actively game-plan around them. So far, teams' reluctance to go at Hibbert has been justified–in those 14 possessions, Hibbert's man has scored exactly one basket on 9.1 percent shooting, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
To beat Hibbert and the Pacers, you have to make the big man move. Miami had success in the Eastern Conference Finals when Chris Bosh was able to pull Hibbert out of the paint with his excellent shooting range. This gets Hibbert away from the basket and outside of his comfort zone.
Still, there aren't many guys like Bosh in the NBA, and it isn't as though Hibbert operates in concrete. Watch him defend this pick-and-roll against Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler last year, courtesy of Dylan Murphy:
Anthony feigns driving right into Hibbert's body before hesitating and ultimately putting up a weak shot that Hibbert blocks with ease. Why was it so easy? Hibbert moves his feet and never loses balance. Against a scorer like Anthony, this is impressive.
The Pacers Bench Needed Upgrades. Did They Do Enough This Summer?
We knew before the season started that Hibbert, West, and George were going to anchor a really good starting unit. It is easy to get caught up in the narrative that LeBron James showed George that he wasn't quite ready for prime time in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. This just isn't what happened. The Pacers' starters actually outplayed Miami's.
Don't take my word for it, here is Zach Lowe from Grantland in his preview of Game 7 of the series:
The Pacers through six games know precisely what they are, rotationwise. Their starting lineup has destroyed Miami, just as it destroyed the league all season, and if the Pacers can just stay afloat when the bench guys come in, they have a great shot to beat Miami on any court. Indiana’s starters in this series are plus-49 over 153 minutes, the equivalent of beating the Heat units they’ve faced by about 16 points per game over a 48-minute game.
The Pacers' bench couldn't keep the team in games when it mattered last season. In the offseason, the team brought in C.J. Watson to take over for D.J. Augustin and Luis Scola to take Tyler Hansbrough's spot in the rotation. Danny Granger, who didn't play last season, remains on the roster as he attempts to work back into playing shape. He could provide a boost in time.
Scola and Watson should provide much-needed scoring off the bench and insurance if a starter happens to get injured. Watson has already been pressed into a starters' role to fill in for Hill. If they function as upgrades, the Pacers' upside ticks even higher.
Will the Pacers Score Enough?
The Pacers were 20th in the league last season in points scored per 100 possessions. Not particularly good. Hill, Lance Stephenson, and George got the majority of the time at the point guard and wing positions and each failed to shoot 37 percent from three point range.
West is crafty and has some range, but Hibbert has failed to present himself as a viable scorer. When you play the defense Hibbert plays, you don't have to be an offensive star. Still, this video, courtesy of Drew Garrison, highlights some of Hibbert's issues:
Kevin Garnett is one of the best defenders in the NBA and has been for years. But notice how once the entry pass has been made, Paul Pierce doesn't even look down at Hibbert to see if Garnett will need help. Shots from the post in general are not particularly efficient, but if you can use them to set up outside shooters or cutters, they can be part of a good offense. Hibbert commands no respect from the Boston defense, and once the cutter moves towards the basket, Pierce is finally free to help Garnett. Hibbert takes a poor shot and misses badly.
But why didn't Hibbert find the cutter once Pierce had committed to help Garnett? Hibbert hasn't proven himself to be a good enough passer to earn that respect. Hibbert turned the ball over 162 times last season, with 113 assists.
Early Signs Encouraging Optimism
But there is good news. George and Stephenson appear to have taken major steps forward this season. Early on, both are shooting well over 40 percent from three-point range. The Pacers as a team are up to a league average 15th in points over 100 possessions, representing improvement over last season.
The Pacers might never have a great offense, but with their defense suffocating opponents, they don't need it to be. If George doesn't have a ceiling on his potential, well, it's hard to say the Pacers do either.
George has come out and set the league on fire. His talent is immense. If he becomes a consistent force offensively, the Pacers have as good a shot at the Larry O'Brien trophy as anyone.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.