When the NBA released its schedule this summer, I was shocked. The Indiana Pacers were fresh off pushing the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. I've seen series go seven games and not be close. This was as close as you could get. Miami controlled that Game 7, but really, the Pacers were one good quarter away from stealing the Heat's spot and facing San Antonio. Not to mention, they had a bizarre coaching decision (keeping Roy Hibbert out of Game 1) that in part impacted the finish to that game.
This team, which had shown likeable, fun, young stars like Roy Hibbert and Paul George, who had funny press conferences and big highlight reels, who played in a place renown for being a basketball mecca.
They are scheduled to be on non-NBATV national television 10 times ths season. Ten.
I won't go into the dynamics of what other teams are on there more. There are some understandable decisions (Kobe Bryant was a dice roll and the Lakers could roll out Kobe and the Tiny Toons cast -- and they kind of are -- and get ratings), there are some baffling ones. But the bigger point is that Indiana is being wholly ignored, after establishing itself as title contender last season, then improving their roster this summer.
And here's the amazing thing. That decision has actually gotten worse.
The Pacers improved to 6-0 Friday night, coming back from a double-digit deficit against Toronto and holding the Raptors to 33 percent shooting from the second quarter on. They have the second-best defensive efficiency (points per possession allowed), the second-best net points per possession, the 13th-best assist ratio, the third-best rebound percentage (percentage of available rebounds grabbed), 11th in effective field goal percentage (factoring three-pointers), seventh in true shooting percentage (factoring three pointers and free throws), second in points off turnovers. You getting the picture yet? Wait, there's more: First in opponents' fast-break points and opponent points in the paint allowed, and are allowing opponents to shoot just 46 percent in the restricted area.
So, yeah, they're pretty good. It's early in the season, but their schedule hasn't been especially soft, either. They look like a monster.
And still, people will sleep on them.
Last season, the talk was about the New York Knicks on account of their (unsustainably) hot start shooting and a wonderful April run. This, despite the Pacers having been a more consistent and better team for the middle and longer part of the season. When they kicked the Knicks down the stairwell in the playoffs, the narrative was more about the Knicks' struggles than Indiana. No one really noticed how tough they had played Miami.
If you're making the case for Indiana, it goes like this:
1. Their defense is dominant, one of the better teams of the past decade, with the ability to protect at the rim and on the perimeter.
2. Their offense is improving, 15th this season in offensive efficiency -- up from 19th last year. Paul George looks like a significantly improved player from last season, when he won Most Improved Player. Luis Scola and C.J. Watson give them better offensive balance off the bench and they are shooting more 3-pointers and fewer mid-range jumpers. They're also shooting fewer shots at the rim, but an increased shooting percentage is likely leading to fewer points for offensive putbacks (14.3 second-chance points per game last year, compared to 11.8 this season). Take a look. This shows their distribution of shots, not how they're shooting:
The Pacers are converting inefficient shots to efficient shots, and that's only going to help their offense. They used this same tactic against New York and it was part of why their sluggish offense from last year turned into a monster in the last two rounds.
3. They are one of the best coached teams in the league thanks to Frank Vogel, who balances drive and ease with his players and has managed the team's identity brilliantly.
4. They lack egos. This is where the question of marketability comes in. Would the Pacers be more popular if they had a me-first, isolation-heavy star on their roster? Would they be more noteworthy with more internal drama and in-fighting? Instead, the Pacers always seem positive, go about their business, and do their work.
5. No team hates Miami more. Sure, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and blah blah blah. The Pacers hate the Heat. It's been this way for two years. The Pacers knock the Heat around, defend LeBron James as well as Chicago does, and have the offensive weapons to counter. And they take every matchup personally.
Even if the Pacers lose to the Nets Saturday, they'll still have the best mark in the league, still have the best resume of any team, and still have answered most of the questions people had about them. ("Can Paul George get any better?" "How good is Roy Hibbert?" "Can David West maintain?" The answers, in order, are: yes, yes, yes.)
So the Pacers will go along, not being seen by the public despite funny and engaging stars, despite being one of the league's best, despite being the early (and it is extremely early) favorite to knock off Miami, if anyone can. They are the stealth contenders, your Indiana Ninja Pacers.