It's a brand-new feeling for the Indiana Pacers, yet there's a hint of familiarity.
Although this is nowhere near their ultimate goal, the Pacers' (5-0) current perch has them sitting on top of the basketball world. Last season, Indiana came painfully close to filling that spot on the game's grandest stage.
Perhaps fueled by that intoxicating proximity to championship bliss, this team is playing with a purpose. Measuring-stick opponents (Bulls, Pistons), playoff hopefuls (Cavaliers, Pelicans) and even a tank artist (Magic) have been struck down by the NBA's lone undefeated squad.
Championship parades aren't mapped out in November, but the Circle City's planning committee has absolutely been formed. For everything this team has shown so far, Indiana's best days are well ahead of it.
Recoveries and Reinforcements
You could almost feel the breeze from coach Tom Thibodeau's frantic waving of the white flag at the end of Indiana's merciless 97-80 drubbing of Chicago on Nov. 6. As the Pacers shellacked the Bulls to the tune of a 60-37 edge in second-half points, the thought almost crossed your mind: Is it time for Indiana coach Frank Vogel to call off the dogs?
Well, that game produced an unfortunate truth for potential foes that reverberated far beyond the limits of the Eastern Conference's Central Division. More of these ferocious Indiana hounds are on their way, and this team's bite is getting more powerful by the day.
While the Pacers have run up the league's second-best net rating (plus-13.4, via NBA.com), this roster hasn't come close to finding its collective rhythm.
George is filling the stat sheet at an MVP level (25.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals). Lance Stephenson has the Pacers poised to land their second straight Most Improved Player award (16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists). Luis Scola (7.2 points on 60.0-percent shooting from the field) has given this team a steady hand off the bench.
The rest of this rotation, though, is still looking for its offensive touch.
Hibbert (8.2 points, 44.4-percent field goals) remains an untapped mountain of production under the basket. He's seeing just 7.2 shots a night and converting less than half of them, yet he never leaves you wondering if he can handle an expanded role.
David West, a career 49.0 percent shooter from the field, has hit only 40.0 percent of his attempts this season. Judging by the two-time All-Star's resume, he has another four-plus points he can add to his 11.6 scoring average.
The Pacers, who put a major portion of their championship hopes on their oversized frontcourt, have yet to establish their two-headed attack under the basket. Indiana is getting just 33.2 points in the paint per game, tied for the second fewest in the league via TeamRankings.com.
They have too much talent for that figure not to improve. Hibbert and West can each carry the offensive load for stretches. George and Stephenson have the explosiveness and strength to finish plays above the rim.
And somehow we're a few hundred words in without a single mention of either George Hill or Danny Granger.
One (Hill) played a pivotal role on last season's Eastern Conference finalist. The other (Granger) led this franchise in scoring for five straight seasons before missing all but five games in 2012-13 with a knee injury.
Neither one has contributed much to Indiana's scorching start. Hill (hip) has missed each of the team's last three games, while Granger (calf) has yet to make his 2013-14 debut.
Help is on the way, for a team that doesn't look like it needs any of it.
Whatever Indiana can add to its offense—it promises to be a ton—is honestly found money.
This team has enough pieces in play now to secure the first NBA title in franchise history at the other end of the floor. Vogel told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner that something sweeter than a torrid start is brewing in Indy.
"5-0, that’s a good start. But how we’re playing is even more encouraging," Vogel said. "I think we have a championship-level defense. And we’ve got enough offensive pieces to put it all together on the offensive end."
So, what does a championship-level defense look like? Glad you asked. Let's take a look.
By nearly every measure, the Pacers are controlling the defensive end better than any team in the league.
Using this five-game sample size, there's simply no good way to attack this defense. The Pacers are holding opposing snipers to the sixth-lowest three-point percentage (31.8). Challenge them in the middle, and you'll be left feeling rejected and helpless. Indiana has yielded the fifth-fewest free-throws against (19.6 per game) and sent back a league-high 10.4 shots a night.
Vogel's pulling all the right defensive strings, but so much of this elite-level performance is built around employing some terrific individual defenders.
And it all starts with Indy's hulking 7'2" rim protector, Hibbert. There's no need to start building his DPOY support, as the big man's already blazing the campaign trail for himself:
It might sound like a lofty goal, but Hibbert has the numbers to back up his words:
The foul problems that limited his involvement in seasons past (career 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference.com) have disappeared. He's mastered the art of staying vertical, to the point that his reputation may be preceding him in the minds of the officials:
Hibbert's just one of a number of defensive puzzles for the opposition to solve, though.
George and Stephenson are physical, athletic defenders out on the wing. West brings his own brand of nasty to the low block. Hill has great length for the point-guard position and the athleticism to keep pace with today's track stars at the 1.
Indiana has reasons to entertain championship thoughts, but as West told Aschburner, this team is focused on executing each step of that process:
We’ve talked about competing for the ’1′ seed from opening night. We feel like that’s a realistic goal. Obviously we understand there are some tough teams out there, some teams got better. Obviously Miami’s the defending champs. But we trust who we are. We believe in who we are.
That belief has quickly become a shared one around the basketball world.
So, what exactly does this all mean?
Drawing any sort of reasonable conclusion is tough in early November. Heck, championship routes aren't even plotted before the All-Star break.
But we do know that these Pacers are good. Like really good.
And we know that there are ways for them to get better. A lot better.
If the Granger-Stephenson debate is a problem, it's the perfect kind to have. There's no pressure for Granger to get back to his pre-injury level; the Pacers no longer need that player. Stephenson's getting better by the second; he's humble enough to complement the starters but has the aggression to lead the second unit.
George is only 23 years old and playing in just his fourth NBA season. His numbers might not seem sustainable, but the history books say he hasn't yet reached his ceiling.
If you're worried about the frontcourt, you're steering a solo vessel. This pairing might be the best in the business; its offensive production will continue climbing toward its defensive level.
The Pacers are far from being penny stocks, but their price is only headed in one direction.
I'd buy some now while I could. A bearish NBA market is only getting hungrier from here on out.