Here's the best way to look at what the Indiana Pacers did this summer, from the moment they finished their first-round series vs. the Raptors ...
Indiana made a series of perplexing and seemingly contradictory moves that didn't make much sense, but the moves (outside of firing Frank Vogel) were all independently good and likely made them a better team.
Most teams would have taken a first-round appearance in which you took it to the 2-seed for seven games as a massive success in what was really a rebuilding year, but Larry Bird had different expectations. In the span of three months, Bird and company:
- Did not renew Vogel's contract
- Replaced him with Nate McMillan
- Traded George Hill for Jeff Teague
- Traded for Thad Young
- Signed Al Jefferson
- Let Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, and Solomon Hill depart in free agency
That's a sizable amount of turnover for a playoff team two years removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Whatever it is that has crawled under Bird's skin about this team must be highly irritating to provoke that kind of overhaul. That's where the strangeness comes in. Vogel was a good-to-great coach who prompted a top-ten defense from his team no matter the personnel, and helped develop talent from George to Roy Hibbert to Myles Turner. Solomon Hill was a versatile wing and very solid defender coming into his own. Hill had been the starting point guard for the squad, an efficient shooter and effective leader, for four years.
So the moves are confusing. Good players are not there, a good coach is gone, continuity has been disrupted for the second time in two years.
And yet, Teague is an offensive upgrade on Hill by any measure (averaging nearly twice as many assists per 100 possessions last season). Al Jefferson gives them a quality veteran scorer off the bench who can start in a pinch. Thad Young provides incredible versatility and production at the four spot. They are, more than ever, primed to build around Paul George. The moves were, independently, good.
The Pacers did things which do not make sense in regards to building a good team, but may have wound up with a better team. This is what makes them so fascinating.
Here are five things to know about the Pacers headed into next season.
1. The combination of Nate McMillan, the Pacers, and Larry Bird is tapestry of weirdness
Larry Bird has been unhappy with the offense for years; it's at least partially responsible for Frank Vogel having taken his services to the Mouse's House in Florida. Bird has openly campaigned for a move to a faster offense, and using Paul George at stretch four. George objected to the move, complained at every turn about being uncomfortable in it, and eventually, quietly in the first half of the season, the Pacers scrapped that plan.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Blazers under Nate McMillan finished 30th in pace (possessions per game, a standard stat used to describe the pace of play) three out of four seasons. In the other season they finished 29th. The entire offensive model of Portland under McMillan was "slow and efficient." The offense was great. It was just slow.
When Bird has talked about the offense, he doesn't talk about improving the efficiency, which actually tells you how good the offense is. He talks raw numbers, points per game. If your offense improves and you play more efficiently, but you play slow, you're still going to produce a low per game figure.
McMillan hasn't really answered the question about pace of play, other than saying the team "wants to play up tempo and faster." You might think that should be enough, but nearly every coach who comes into a situation with an expectation, no matter what it is, says that the plan to do that. You're going to hear Mike D'Antoni talk about offense at media day and how it's a priority for him. You're going to hear Tom Thibodeau talk about offense. But coaches have reputations for a reason, and McMillan's reputation is to play not just slow, but glacially slow.
Additionally, the Pacers didn't make moves this summer to play faster. Jeff Teague isn't a roadrunner, he's a moderate pace point guard. Thad Young seems like the incumbent power forward, which means Paul George won't be taking that role, and even if they both play combo forward, that's not a perfect fit because part of the benefit of moving George to the four is to free up another shooter. Myles Turner is a pretty standard center, and free agent addition Al Jefferson isn't exactly a gazelle, bounding down the hardwood.
Maybe Bird has backed off his demands for offensive revolution. Maybe McMillan can just build an entirely new ethos, or the past four years he's spent as an assistant have shaped his views and approach. Maybe there's a different approach with the roster of veterans than what their profiles have indicated.
But we definitely don't know what to expect the Pacers to look like next season.
2. Paul George is set to tilt the headline axis
One thing we do know about McMillan, however, is that he tends to shape his offense to his personnel. When Brandon Roy was in his prime, you saw huge jumps in isolation possession figures via Synergy Sports with the Blazers. When Roy was injured and the Blazers were absent a consistent No.1 option, there was more of an even distribution of sets. When LaMarcus Aldridge emerged as the team's best player, the post took a big jump.
In other words, there's a strong likelihood that George takes on a bigger role this season, in terms of isolation usage.
Here's a number. Paul George only spent 15.1 percent of his possessions (including passes out of ISO) in isolation sets last year, via Synergy Sports. That's still a high figure, good for 22nd most in the league, but LeBron James was 10th. Kevin Durant, who was splitting responsibilities with Russell Westbrook, was equal to George in ISO possessions.
George was 10th in overall usage last season, but he could very well rise to the top five this year. The question will be how he adjusts and what he'll do with the amount of freedom he'll be afforded. Last year he started off blisteringly hot and was a trendy early MVP candidate, but failed to register an effective field goal percentage over 50 percent the back half of the season (shooting less than 45 percent from the field).
George put on a stellar playoff performance and is coming into his own as an NBA superstar, which makes it all the more imperative for the Pacers to build a contender around him. They'll enable him in the most basic ways this season, likely trusting him with the ball more than ever.
It should be noted that George playing off-ball is a serious weapon. His numbers on off-screen and hand-off sets are stellar in terms of production and efficiency. George is so long that he slays when given quick catch-and-rise situations.
It's possible Monta Ellis or Jeff Teague takes on more of a creator role, but it's safe to assume that George will be the focal point of the offense, given McMillan's seeming preference for the fastest way to get from points A-to-B in terms of offense. Don't be surprised if George has a monster season.
What's more, George is the kind of player the sports world wants to embrace. He's a good quote without being bombastic, confident without being acerbic, has an aesthetically pleasing game and a great story with how he came back from his terrible leg injury to lead Team USA to gold this summer to boot. MVP conversations are almost always tilted more by the kinds of players the environment wants to support rather than the actual candidate's play. This is the kind of thing that could tilt him over, say, the nearly mute Kawhi Leonard.
3. Monta Ellis' season is only going to go one of two ways
Ellis should have thrived more than anyone in the Pacers' attempt at a fast-pace system, but instead, he stumbled big time. He endured his lowest points per game and per 100 possessions mark since his rookie season, and he shot, and a 30.9 percentage mark from the arc, which is just below his career average.
(Not going to lie, if you'd asked me before research what Ellis' career 3-point mar was, I would have given you 34 to 35 percent. He's a Don Nelson firebug guard known for making tough shots; I would never have guessed he's shot over 31 percent from deep just once in the past five seasons.)
However, with McMillan, Ellis may be more free to attack for quick opportunities and find shooters. Think of him in this kind of role:
Making quick attacks, probing the defense, quick passes. There's a lot to like about the idea of Ellis in that role. Ellis had a low rate of possession per touch last season, and didn't really dribble the life out of the ball, either.
But if Teague takes most of that role, or if CJ Miles, who is a better shooter and defender, thrives, Ellis could be on the way out. Ellis' defensive metrics all graded out as fine, but he's never going to be known for his defense, which McMillan has made a point of emphasis. Ellis might absolutely thrive under McMillan, he and Roy share a lot of similarities, way more than George does. But Ellis has bounced from team to team since being traded from Golden State, and turns 31 before the season begins.
It's going to be a very good or very rough year for Monta Ellis.
4. Speaking of the defense ... they're trying to fix something that isn't broken
Here's a weird thing, or rather, two weird things.
1. McMillan is spoken of as a defensive specialist, when his Blazers teams were never very good defensively. This is where the pace element comes into play. Here are the points per game and per 100 possessions ranks for the Blazers' defense between 2008 and 2011.
|Year||Rank, points allowed per game||Rank, points allowed per 100 possessions|
|2008||8th (96.3)||108.4 (17th)|
|2009||4th (94.1)||13th (107.8)|
|2010||3rd (94.8)||15th (107.1)|
|2011||7th (94.8)||14th (107.1)|
Again, if you play slow, you're going to score fewer points and give up fewer points, and if you play fast you're going to score more points and give up more points. It has very little to do with how well you actually score or defend. McMillan's teams are never great on that end of the floor, but he was a big part of the Pacers' defense which has been phenomenal the past few years.
2. McMillan is talking up defensive improvement as a key point. He told reporters this summer that the team was "much better two years ago" defensively, and he's right. Two years ago, the Pacers went to the Eastern Conference Finals largely on the back of their 1st-ranked defense. But in 2016, they were still third overall. Defense was never a problem under Vogel.
Now, that's a results-based analysis. McMillan likely knows key areas where the defense wasn't as good as it could have been last year and there were real concerns about their consistency game to game.
It's just odd that defense, which the Pacers have been elite at for five years, is such a focus area given how good they've been on that end of the floor.
There's also the concern of trying to fix too many things at once. Basically, Indiana wants to run more, score more points, and play top-end elite defense. The only team to really accomplish that was the 2015 Warriors, who obviously won the title with the fastest pace and defensive efficiency. Pretty good model, that. But it seems like a real challenge for this team and where it's at.
5. Myles Turner: Olympus wasn't conquered in a day
The Pacers are clearly banking on Turner as their big man of the future with their decision to let Ian Mahinmi walk in free agency. Turner showed the whole gamut of promise last season, with a deft jumper (shot 41 percent as a rookie on jumpers), great size and athleticism, impressive skills with the ball and defensively. He's explosive with great touch, and able to contain perimeter players on switches up top.
But by making him their primary big man, the Pacers are putting some pressure on him. He needs to improve in finishing at the rim after he scored just 33 points on 44 attempts rolling to the basket last season, and has to manage a lot of the standard rookie improvements in things like awareness with pick and pops and improving strength to handle opponents in the post or on rolls.
His rim protection numbers last year were good, for a rookie, but with Mahinmi gone and Jefferson's lack of hops, Turner will have to carry the load as far as protecting the paint. Turner's a big part of the Pacers' future, but still needs to be eased in, instead of being thrust wildly into a bigger role. If he thrives, the Pacers will, too. If he doesn't, they have other ways to get the job done, it just becomes more difficult.