Indiana is a good Eastern Conference team! No, really!
Indiana leads the NBA in points allowed per possession by a country mile -- the sixth-ranked Golden State Warriors are closer to the hapless Brooklyn Nets (allowing 108.6 points per 100 possessions) than the Pacers in defensive efficiency.
Indiana does everything a competent defense should -- they funnel the opposition into the least efficient spots on the floor, coaxing opponents into a league high 28.6 mid-range attempts per game.
The Pacers also protect the NBA's most precious real estate -- the restricted area, where an average team converts on more than 60 percent of their shots -- better than any team. Their opposition shoots a few hairs better than 50 percent in the restricted area, the lowest field goal percentage in the league.
Indiana executes their pick-and-roll coverage without any hitches -- Roy Hibbert drops near the elbow, while the player covering the ball handler fends the screen off, directing the ball handler to the sideline where Hibbert lurks; they can also hedge pick-and-rolls if the team targets David West, who has more lateral mobility, and the same basic process still applies. Indiana's poor opponents have made 41.1 percent of their 2-pointers this season, and 33.5 percent of their 3-pointers.
Hibbert, a massive 7-foot-2 human, is a valuable defensive crutch, allowing the Pacers perimeter players to gamble a bit in the passing lines. There isn't a discernible liability in their lineup, either; former San Antonio Spurs guard George Hill and Lance Stephenson are pesky perimeter defenders, Paul George is arguably the second best two-way player in the league (behind LeBron James), and West is a physical brute.
Hibbert, George, West and Stephenson lead the league in Basketball Reference's defensive win shares, while Hill slots in at 11th. (Defensive win shares isn't the best stat to measure defense, but it is a decent approximation of their defensive ability.)
Their defense takes a hit when either Hibbert sits, though they would still finish in the top five in points allowed per possession in his absence.
Indiana isn't a particularly good offense, ranking 15th in points per possession, though they have several reliable individual options. Their offense utilizes Hibbert and West in the elbow and in the post, while also leveraging George's skills in the post, on dribble hand-offs and in pick-and-rolls. Hill is the point guard, but he's generally situated from the primary action. Stephenson is a terror in transition (in a good way), and a nice player that fills their offensive gaps.
And, frankly, Indiana doesn't need to be a dynamic offensive team to win games. They're second to the Spurs in net rating, despite their average offensive ranking.
George is a legitimate MVP candidate.
BREAKING: George is really good. Mere mortals -- excluding superhumans like Superman, Spiderman, Wolverine and LeBron -- can't approximate George's collective offensive and defensive ability. Most players make concessions on one end of the floor, leveraging their skills into one area to conserve energy.
George, meanwhile, can defend the opposition's most potent scorer and create shots on the other end of the floor for 37 minutes a night. He's increased his offensive workload, while cutting his turnovers and making a higher percentage of his shots -- perhaps more rare than a Brooklyn Nets victory.
George's field goal percentage has jumped 50 percentage points this season, even though he's taking a high volume of difficult shots. George is the hub of Indiana's offense -- they have several quick hitting sets to free him up on the block, where he can either face the basket and attack, or attack from a traditional post position. George uses staggered screens well, and dribble hand offs from either West or Hibbert present a distinct problem for any defense, even though it's an inherently simple play action.
Hill's usage rate has decreased marginally this season to incorporate George in the offense, and Indiana is more reliant on George to create in the pick-and-roll this season. George is assisting on 18 percent of Indiana's possessions when he's on the floor, and there isn't any pass he can't make. He isn't a next level passer, by any stretch of the imagination, but he can generally find the open player on pick-and-rolls, in the post and on drives to the hoop. He does just enough to complement his scoring.
He's scoring 0.36 points per touch according to SportVU, seventh in the league among players averaging 50 or more touches per game.
His shot diet is atypical of an efficient scorer, though. George is taking less shots in the restricted area, and almost a third of his shots are from 16-24 feet, per NBA.com, up from 25 percent last year. Though many of these shots happen to be pull up jumpers, requiring several dribbles to generate space, George is still making a healthy 49 percent of his mid-range shots. George isolating against his defender is oftentimes the Pacers' best offensive option, even if it entails dribbling the ball for five seconds or more, and giving the defense time to load the strong side of the floor with players.
When he doesn't have a defender breathing down his neck, George is better; his 68.6 effective field goal percentage (adjusts for 3-pointers) on catch-and-shoot attempts is seventh best in the league, according to SportVU.
The Pacers are 23.9 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor, per NBA.com. He still has room to grow.
Hibbert is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner.
Opponents have made 73 of 192 shots (38.2 percent) at the rim when he's defending according to SportVU, third behind Brook Lopez and Chris Kaman -- the latter is not required to defend 10+ shots per game.
Indiana's perimeter defenders are solid components individually, mistakes are already few and far in between, but some mistakes are inevitable against professional basketball players. Hibbert cleans up those mistakes often. He can stick his huge rear end in the paint, and cover essentially the entire paint without compensating his own man-to-man assignment.
Hibbert is the difference between a very good defensive outfit and an elite unit, one without a negligible Achilles heel.
Some random SportVU tidbits.
-- The Pacers have eight of the top 10 two-man lineups, 10 of the top 13 three-man, five of the top 13 four-man and the second best five-man lineup in net rating, per NBA.com.
-- The Pacers' starters are +93 in 302 minutes.
-- Each member of the Pacers starting lineup touches the ball 40 or more times per game, according to SportVU.
-- George is scoring 1.36 points per catch-and-shoot, and 0.90 points per pull up according to SportVU.
-- George has traveled more total miles than Matt Bonner, Patty Mills and Jeff Ayres combined.
-- Indiana is scoring one point each time Stephenson drives to the basket according to SportVU. He's made 48.8 percent of his shot attempts on drives.