Will the Indiana Pacers' Changes Get Them Back to the Playoffs?

Once a defense-first challenger to LeBron, Indiana appears to be heading in a new direction.

Just a few years ago, it looked like the Indiana Pacers were going to give LeBron James headaches in the Eastern Conference Finals for years to come. A core consisting of rising superstar Paul George and master of verticality Roy Hibbert was going to be a force to be reckoned with for years.

All that changed when George broke his leg in horrific fashion in a USA Basketball scrimmage last summer. Everyone openly wondered just how Indy was going to put the ball through the hoop. The Pacers weren’t quite that bad offensively in 2015 -- their Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) dropped only slightly from the previous season, 104.1 to 103.5, and they played at roughly the same slow pace.

Last year's Pacers missed the playoffs, though, dropping their final game of the season to lose the eighth seed, and Larry Bird decided to shuffle the deck.

Hoosier Turnover

Gone is Hibbert, who was traded to the Lakers after he picked up his $15.5 million player option. His former frontcourt mates, Luis Scola and David West, bolted via free agency, with West giving up seven figures in salary to play for San Antonio. C.J. Watson, who started 21 games in the backcourt, dipped to the Magic Kingdom. Chris Copeland and Damjan Rudez were sent packing in trades as well.

A couple of analytics-unfriendly players headlined the Pacers’ free agent class: Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill. They brought in the oft-injured Chase Budinger, as well as Glenn Robinson III. Those acquisitions should bolster the offense but, as our Russell Peddle tabulated, the Pacers' net-nERD from all those transactions is minus-10.8, with the lowest performers Ellis and Hill. That tradeoff is among the worst of any team’s offseason.

Out of necessity last year, George Hill stepped up to have the best season of his career, with per-36 averages that rivaled some of the league’s star guards. He ran the pick-and-roll efficiently and shot efficiently, all while playing his typically stellar defense. Unlike Monta, though, Hill doesn’t have it all. Not that Ellis really does as a streaky and inefficient shooter (47.5 Effective Field Goal Percentage and a ghastly 28.5 percent from long range on 3.6 attempts per game), but he has juice off the bounce that the Pacers haven’t had in the backcourt in a while.

Last year, Ellis was one of the most relentless drivers in the league, getting to the rim 8.3 times per game, per the league’s player tracking, hitting 49 percent of the shots he took once he got into the paint. While he’s not going to do much for Indy’s spacing, that driving ability should suck in defenses and give Paul George some room to operate on the perimeter.

Obviously, the Pacers are thinner up front. Despite some defensive deficiencies, Hill has generally been a very effective offensive player in limited roles (although that cratered with last year’s Lakers team). His defense is going to be a stark change from Hibbert, who, even at his worst, could at least defend the rim. After Ian Mahinmi, who fared well as Hibbert’s backup, there aren’t a whole lot of real deterrents at the back of the Pacers’ defense. 

However, it sure sounds like the Pacers’ identity is going to be different.

Going Small

One thing Bird brought up this offseason that raised some eyebrows is his intention to play his superstar George at the power forward spot this season. That drew some complaints from PG and the very boss comment from Bird that “(George) don't make the decisions around here.”

It’s no secret that teams around the league have gotten smaller -- the Warriors just won a championship starting Draymond Green (who is probably close to 6-foot-6) at center -- but the Pacers’ identity has been about being bigger than most opponents since they returned to prominence a few years ago. Every high-usage lineup the Pacers played last year featured some combination of two of Hibbert, West, Scola and Mahinmi.

The Pacers might be late to the small ball party, but Bird is going to encourage Frank Vogel to try it out. It should be interesting, considering how little George has played the power forward spot throughout his career. Basketball Reference estimates he’s played north of 99 percent of his minutes in the NBA at either shooting guard or small forward, with just 1 percent of his limited minutes in six games last year coming at the four spot.

George has been a lockdown wing defender his whole career, totaling 12.7 Defensive Win Shares in his two All-Star seasons in 2013 and 2014. While there’s a concern that his somewhat skinny frame could take a beating playing post defense, even those players who shift up to the four generally aren't playing there full-time. Guys like Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce, who have shifted more toward power forward as their careers have progressed, still play less than a third of their minutes at the four. In some cases, it's much less.

The Pacers also still play in the East, where there aren't many power forwards to scare opponents as low-post threats. The Bulls still frequently play two bigs, though new head coach Fred Hoiberg will likely up the tempo a good bit this year, so hardly anyone is playing two post-bound bigs simultaneously these days. 

Despite the drop in nERD with all of these acquisitions, these Pacers should be back in the playoff picture with their new-ish identity. George was an MVP candidate in his last healthy season, and there's no reason to doubt he can return to that level of play.

That alone should keep the Pacers in the mix at the bottom of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.