After taking the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season and starting out 2013-14 at a franchise-record 8-0, it looks already as if the Indiana Pacers have replaced the back-to-back champions as the NBA’s best Eastern Conference team.
Yes, it’s early—but these Pacers are a far cry from their 4-7 start a year ago, and it looks like this dominance is going to stick around all season.
Even if there is a fall-off, given the untouchable level with which Indiana is playing, there is enough breathing room left for the Pacers to comfortably claim the title of early season favorites before you’ve awoken from your Thanksgiving naps.
The Pacers have easily dispatched teams they should, like the New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers, and have backed it up with wins against preseason contenders like the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies—all without really breaking a sweat.
They are the only undefeated team in the league and one of only three Eastern Conference teams with a record above .500.
The Pacers boast the best defense around by a landslide, yielding just 84.5 points a game to opponents—nearly seven points a game fewer than the second-best Bulls.
They throw up almost nine blocks (8.8) a game, a dominating number, led by their deftly swatting Defensive Player of the Year candidate, center Roy Hibbert, who contributes exactly half of them—a singularly ridiculous 4.4 per outing.
Now a definite MVP candidate, small forward Paul George is playing out of his head on both sides of the ball. He's carrying a 43 percent increase in his point production (17.4 to 24.9) and 54 percent increase in his efficiency (16.8 to 25.9) over last season, and adding eight rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals to that.
And don’t forget, George actually finished ahead of Hibbert in last season’s DPOY voting.
Together they make for a formidable lockdown duo, as quantified by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh after Indiana thumped Chicago 97-80:
When Hibbert and George have played together so far this season, opponents have scored just 75.1 points per 100 possessions… the lowest rate for any duo in the league. That output is probably around what we'd expect if a team sneaked a sixth player on the defensive end.
Point guard George Hill started off slow thanks to a recurring hip injury and sat out a few games, but if his return to form against the Grizzlies is any indication (13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, two boards, two assists, a block and a steal in just 25 minutes), he will be at least as good as last season if he can stay healthy.
Shooting guard Lance Stephenson’s averages are way above last season’s line in every offensive category. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field and 51 percent from behind the arc (18-of-35), and is developing into a capable passer with six assists a game now, giving the Pacers a hybrid backcourt that can effectively play two ways (SG/PG, PG/PG).
We got a peek at Stephenson’s potential against the Grizzlies when he recorded his first triple-double, including 11 rebounds. He already averages five rebounds per 36 minutes over his career and is finally getting that time, to the team’s defensive benefit.
Power forward David West’s offensive game is off, but that’s mostly a function of coach Frank Vogel’s game plan. Per Rotoworld.com, "[West] is taking just 9.7 shots per game, which is down from the 13.8 from last season. The team has been putting Hibbert more on the ball-side, so consequently West's chances are trending down."
As another consequence, West has had more time to focus on defense, and it has paid off—he is having the best defensive start of his 11-year career.
Up and down the starting lineup, the Pacers are clicking on D. Their offense, though, could use a little push if they plan on vanquishing the current title favorites.
Those favorites, the Miami Heat of course, have looked a little mortal at 4-3—a far cry from the team that went on a 37-2 run last season.
They’ve lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Nets—and don’t let any winning streaks over the next few weeks fool you. The Heat play no team of reputation until they meet the Bulls again on Dec. 5.
But the Heat are quietly sizzling behind their relatively poor record, scoring over 105 points a game. They lead the league in assists and field-goal percentage.
LeBron James is again performing at an All-NBA level, but he has started the season scoring the fewest points and playing his worst defense since his rookie year. He’s dealing with a back problem that’s hampered his play, as reported by Haberstroh over at ESPN:
James admitted that he hasn't been his normal self on the court lately due to lower back soreness that's bothered him over the past "couple" weeks.
When James was out of the game, he was seen wearing a heat pack around his torso and lying down, attempting to stretch it out.
The creakiness extends to Dwyane Wade, whose point production is in danger of falling for the sixth season in a row. He has already rested a game due to his consistently ailing knees.
Nonetheless, Wade is having a solid season, particularly on defense, and still outguns the Pacers backcourt by a mile.
After those two, things get sticky for Miami when matching up with Indiana, at least on paper.
Mario Chalmers has neither improved nor fallen back, but in either case Hill is the superior and more talented point guard.
And power forward Udonis Haslem is having what can only be called a terrible season thus far—his worst play ever, thanks to back spasms of his own.
Miami clearly looks more vulnerable on the age and injury front.
It was just a matter of time before the younger Pacers emerged as the Eastern Conference force to be reckoned with. They are looking a little ahead of schedule.
The Pacers are only 27 years old on average, with only three players on the whole roster—West (33), Scola (33) and Rasual Butler (34)—over 30. Subtract those three, and the Pacers are barely 26 years old as a single entity (25.9 to be exact).
The Heat, meanwhile, average over 30 years old (31.2 to be exact), with eight players in their fourth decades.
As a team, the Pacers have the youth and health edge, and will be fresher by the time the postseason rolls around—especially this year, which has started out with the injury bug visiting Miami bright and early.
The Heat have one definite parameter working for them against the Pacers—their bench. Miami’s bench is better than Indiana’s, even with Danny Granger’s return, which is sure to be slow in getting up to speed after the long, long layoff.
Greg Oden will be a bust, but the Heat still have Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis coming off the pine compared to the Pacers’ recovering Granger, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Orlando Johnson and Ian Mahinmi.
On average, the Pacers’ bench has been outplayed by their opponents’ benches.
Overall, though, it appears the Pacers are in the process of lapping the Heat. They won the regular-season series 2-1 last year and were a twitch away (that Game 1, 103-102 OT loss in Miami?) from getting to the NBA Finals.
The Pacers improved in the offseason, from within and outside, while the Heat did not. That doesn’t mean the Heat aren’t great—they are and will show it as the season unfolds—but they did not get better. And the matchup with the Pacers was already too close for comfort.
West reminded ESPN’s Brian Windhorst how close:
We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude. The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building.
The Heat and Pacers play opposite games. Indiana suffocates opponents on the floor and the boards. Miami forces opponents to keep up on offense. It will be interesting (and exciting) to see which scheme wins out—the Heat’s O or the Pacers’ D—when the two finally meet in the first of four regular-season contests on Dec. 10.
We’ll know four things then—if the Pacers have kept up their torrid start, if the Heat have kept on stumbling, who gets the early edge between the two and who really are the early favorites to take the Eastern Conference.