Scan the NBA standings and you won’t find many surprises. The record-breaking Warriors lead the Western Conference (as is usual) over the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers, the LeBron-led Cavs sit atop the East, and the Sixers and Lakers may as well be at the bottom of a lake — all of which is as it should be. But the team right behind Cleveland in the East, the Indiana Pacers, might raise an eyebrow. Indiana is good again. You probably heard something along those lines early this season, but to be clear: Indiana is good again. Like, Eastern-contender-good. When did that happen — and can it last?
You’d be forgiven if the Pacers have drifted in and out of your basketball-watching consciousness since August 2014, when Paul George fractured multiple bones in his right leg during a Team USA scrimmage in preparation for the FIBA World Cup. George had spent the previous three seasons building his case as a top-10 NBA player, culminating in a dream season that saw Indiana earn the East’s No. 1 seed and make a second consecutive run to the conference finals. But without George’s services for all but six (grim, unimpressive) games in 2014-15, the Pacers dropped below .500 and missed the playoffs.1
Not much more was expected this season, even with George returning. With Lance Stephenson and David West leaving through free agency the past two years and Roy Hibbert departing through a Romanian body-snatching coven, the core of Indiana’s conference finals runs had dispersed, and this year figured to be for rebuilding and working George back into the lineup. Yet, here Indiana is, with the league’s eighth-best Elo rating — our metric for tracking a team’s strength over time — and the fourth-most-improved Elo since preseason; the sixth-best rating (third in the East) in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index; and a higher SRS rating than the Cavs, behind just the Warriors and Spurs.
The temptation is to say that the Pacers are picking up exactly where they left off in 2013-14 after a one-year hiatus caused by George’s injury, and there’s certainly some truth to that. That Indiana squad was led by the most efficient defense in basketball, and this year’s Pacers have bounced back to post the league’s second-best defensive rating in the early going. George is healthy again, even playing like an MVP candidate so far thanks to one of his trademark hot streaks from downtown. (He’s currently knocking down 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers, a run the likes of which he’s gone on — for months! — before.) And while much was made before this season about him playing more power forward — and his displeasure with the notion — George is still playing roughly half (43 percent) of his minutes on the wing.
In practice, George is doing a few more PF-like things — his rebounds are slightly up and he’s drawing more fouls — but the core of his game hasn’t dramatically changed since 2014. If anything, the biggest shift in George’s playing style, as illustrated by Synergy’s play-type data, has been away from off-ball plays (spot-up jumpers and shots off screens) and to more on-ball ones (pick-and-rolls and isolations). In 2013-14, 21.5 percent of his possessions were as the pick-and-roll ball-handler; this season, that’s up to 25.2 percent. The spot-ups and off-screens dipped at about the same rate. In other words, George is being used even more as a facilitator, exploiting his matchups, not banging down low.
Besides, the Pacers are doing better when George is at his comfortable small forward slot anyway. This year, they’re outscoring opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions when George is the designated small forward in a five-man unit,2 versus 7.8 when he’s the power forward. For all the concerns about how George would have to change his game to fit a new role, he’s been able to play a style that’s still both familiar and highly efficient this season.
(We should point out that it being early in the season, one particular lineup over- or underperforming can make the data insanely noisy. Still, there’s some reason to look past that here. Among five-man lineups in the Pacers’ rotation, the one that has Jordan Hill playing with Ian Mahinmi is one of only two with a negative net rating; Hill also plays on the other. So it could be that George is even better at small forward than the above split is showing and it’s not as noticeable as it should be because Jordan Hill is just the worst.)
That being said, the team around George is very different from the one that lost to the Heat in the 2014 playoffs. For one, the Pacers are now much quicker up and down the floor — they rank 10th in pace factor, as opposed to 20th in 2013-14 — the residue, in part, of using smaller lineups such as those featuring George at the 4. They’ve also tweaked the tendencies of the roster around their star: George’s teammates this year are, collectively, about 2 points better per 100 possessions3 on offense than in 2013-14 and 1.9 points worse defensively. Goodbye, Roy Hibbert and David West; hello, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis.
And speaking of roster changes, the offensive effect of losing PF West can be seen clearly by looking at the differences in the team’s shot chart between now and 2013-14. Here are Indiana’s shot charts from those two seasons, from NBA.com:
One of the Pacers’ bread-and-butter plays two seasons ago was the midrange jumper, a West specialty. Now West is on the Spurs, and no team has shed more shots between 3 and 16 feet4 over the past two seasons than Indiana has in 2015-16 so far. Eschewing the midrange game is typically a good thing for an offense, and the new-look offense has yielded the franchise’s best offensive ranking in a half-decade, even if the Pacers are also being aided by a sky-high 3-point percentage that may not be sustainable.
Add it all up, and the Pacers probably aren’t far from where they were in 2014. For the sake of illustration, their Elo rating today (1566) is almost exactly what it was (1564) after they beat Miami in Game 1 of the 2014 East finals. This season’s version is doing things differently than that vintage, and the formula isn’t as simple as the old-fashioned Eastern Conference wrestling matches Indiana deployed not too long ago, but for now, the Pacers are back — and they look just as good as they ever were.