Quietly, the Indiana Pacers are one of the real powerhouse offensive teams in the NBA this season. It’s weird, right? Look at the NBA’s top eight in offensive rating, and you see some usual suspects: the Warriors, the Rockets, the Cavs, the Raptors, the Timberwolves, the Nuggets—all teams with star-type offensive players, or layers of big-time offensive weapons, or both. In there, at seventh, are the Pacers. The Pacers!
Lets get some caveats out of the way: two important Pacers starters (Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic) are having serious leap seasons, efficiency-wise, and the Pacers, at 18th in defensive efficiency, are in the sort of position where, if those guys were to see their offensive production slide some, Indiana’s winning ways might reverse pretty quickly. But after Sunday’s fun overtime win over the Nuggets, the Pacers are 16-11, good for fifth in the Eastern Conference, and that’s having faced the fourth-toughest schedule in the NBA, according to ESPN.
About Victor Oladipo: he’s been awesome this season, and he was ridiculous against the Nuggets, putting up a career-high 47 points when his team needed every single one:
It was possible to entertain some semi-serious hope for this kind of production from Oladipo. He had some moments in Orlando, and produced career-best percentages from the floor and the arc in what kind of seemed like a down year in Oklahoma City last season. The big contract looked bad at the time, and skepticism of the Paul George trade was justified—maybe it’s still bad, maybe it will always be remembered as lopsided and bad—but if Oladipo is going to be a guy who produces 60 percent or better True Shooting on star-level usage (31 percent so far this season), the remaining years of his contract will wind up being a bargain. We’re a long way from being able to make that kind of judgment, but for now Oladipo is definitely balling, and it’s one of the real joys of this NBA season.
While we’re talking about the Paul George trade, Domantas Sabonis is, in fact, a good NBA player. The Thunder tried to use him mostly as a swingman, and it turns out that’s just not what he is. In fact, Sabonis is probably most comfortable as a center, where he manages to more than hold his own as a rebounder—his defensive rebounding (26.5 defensive rebounding percentage) and overall rebounding (19.5 rebounding percentage) are tops among Pacers rotation guys. He’s got a little of his dad’s footwork and passing vision, and enough length and strength and explosion to finish inside. He was a good pickup! He’s giving the Pacers 12 points and nine rebounds, on good efficiency, in under 25 minutes per game. The roster flexibility to go all 48 minutes with a stretchy big who can hold the fort inside is a real rarity in the NBA, and it’s Sabonis who completes that picture for the Pacers.
That flexibility gets to a general strength of the Pacers, which is the depth to throw out multiple credible lineups per game, and the value of that strength in a 30-team league playing 82 regular season games a year. Indiana’s starting group is stocked with unspectacular but solid pros, and their bench includes at least three bonafide useful rotation dudes in Sabonis, Cory Joseph, and Lance Stephenson. Teams find themselves in the NBA’s middle class if they have five total by-God rotation-grade players; a team that can run out eight of them will nearly always have a higher number of such players on the floor at a time than their opponents. While the Wizards are hiding their eyes and hoping lineups featuring Tomas Satoransky and Ian Mahinmi will find a way to keep the arena from collapsing, the Pacers are coolly and seamlessly bringing in very good non-star reserves to back up their very good non-star starters, and playing the long game.
But let’s also give some credit to Nate McMillan. His was not a name that raised anyone’s blood pressure when the Pacers replaced Frank Vogel, in part because his history as an NBA head coach, running an incredibly slow-paced and conservative system in Portland, did not augur well for the modern style of basketball Larry Bird was apparently hellbent on delivering. But McMillan’s Blazers squads were really good offensively—they improved from dead last in the NBA in offensive rating the season he took over to 24th his sophomore season, then 15th, then all the way up to 2nd, and hovered around the NBA’s top ten for the remainder of his time there.
Nothing McMillan has the Pacers doing especially syncs with the tenets of modern four-out NBA basketball—the Pacers attempt the 10th lowest percentage of their total shots from beyond the arc, and do not take a correspondingly huge number of shots from point blank—but there’s something to be said for running sharp offense and getting up shots. The Pacers turn the ball over on just 14 percent of their possessions, the fourth-lowest number in the league, and with their roster of capable shot-makers, emphasizing ball control and getting up clean shots can be a credible recipe for efficient offense, like leaning on the running game in football. Guys like Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young are capable mid-range and floater-range shooters without necessarily having great three-point range, while Bogdanovic and Oladipo are both wily improvisational scorers—recognizing the strengths and limitations of your players and putting them in position to succeed is, after all, the job of a sports coach. The only other team in the NBA’s top ten in pace that is also in the top ten in turnover percentage is the Hornets, and unlike the Hornets, the Pacers have a wealth of useful and confident shooters and scorers. McMillain is deploying them beautifully.
Of course, this could all go away. Generally speaking, relying on shots that are not three-pointers and layups is an unlikely way to produce efficient offense. But while they’re playing well, it’s possible to look at their roster and see the idea. Myles Turner is an anchor. Victor Oladipo is a straw to stir the drink. There are abundant capable role players to fly around in the orbit of those guys, and there’s just enough upside to give them room to keep improving. And those new uniforms are lovely. I like the Pacers. They’re good television.