It's become widely accepted that the best way to get good in the NBA is to be purposely bad for a while. Tanking is a bigger topic than ever this year as a number of teams try to deliberately engineer failure in hopes of cashing in on the rich crop of assets in the 2014 NBA draft.
But the Indiana Pacers are proving that there's another way to build a winner.
Keep in mind that the Pacers—who currently boast the league's best record and appear primed to sustain the high level of play they set in last year's impressive postseason run—haven't gone about things the easy way.
They've basically decided not to give in to the temptation of the lottery, opting instead to build from within while still trying to win games.
Indy's perfect storm of brilliant draft picks, unparalleled player development and shrewd trades have yielded a roster designed to dominate. Head coach Frank Vogel's leadership features an ideal marriage of old- and new-school thinking that has the Pacers playing on the cutting edge while still embracing a throwback approach.
Essentially, Indiana offers a tanking alternative, a blueprint for teams who want to reach the top without hitting bottom on the way.
Dominating on Draft Day
Over the past decade, the Pacers have refused to rely on the lottery to save them.
Maybe that uncompromising attitude comes from a hardy Midwestern mindset, or perhaps it derives from Larry Bird, the team's president of basketball operations, whose fierce competitiveness has been a part of the franchise's makeup since he took the job in 2003.
Whatever the case, Indiana hasn't won fewer than 32 games in a season since 1988-89, so roster construction has never been based on snagging the No. 1 pick.
In order to build the team's current talent base, the Pacers simply knocked their middling draft picks out of the park.
Paul George, current MVP candidate and franchise cornerstone, was chosen 10th overall in the 2010 draft. That's a draft slot from which most teams expect solid talent, but Indy snagged a superstar.
Later in that same draft, the Pacers selected Lance Stephenson with the 40th overall selection.
And it's only fair to credit the team for snagging Danny Granger with the No. 17 selection back in 2005. The injury-plagued swingman is no longer a prominent figure in the franchise, but he was almost solely responsible for keeping the Pacers respectable until the young core started to take shape three years ago.
Notably, the Pacers never threw in the towel in their effort to build a winning team. Instead, they tried to notch as many victories as possible and relied on their scouting department to isolate elite talent where nobody else saw it.
But the Indy road map to success doesn't end there.
Player development is one of the trickiest aspects of building a franchise. There's a school of thought that assumes most players determine their own ceilings, and there's a lot of sense to that theory. Depending on the level of individual motivation, a prospect is largely responsible for his own improvement.
But some teams simply have a better track record of internal growth than others. The Pacers are one of those teams.
Just don't ask how they do it.
Player development is a lot like assistant coaching. Nobody on the outside really knows what the hell is going on there.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) November 14, 2013
The process may be a mystery, but the results are undeniable.
George has taken huge strides during each summer of his career and is now among the league's very best players at just 23 years of age. He shored up his shaky jumper this past offseason and has seen his scoring average spike.
Hibbert's growth on the defensive end has been similarly impressive. After spending his first couple of seasons looking overmatched and, sometimes, downright ungainly on the court, he's now the NBA's preeminent interior defender. When it came time to risk the franchise's future on the big man, Indiana boldly stuck to its guns.
The Pacers are matching Portland's 4-year, $58 million offer to Roy Hibbert, according to a source— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNFL) July 9, 2012
And then there's Stephenson, the high school legend from New York who, until last season, was best known for giving the choke sign to LeBron James in a 2012 playoff series. In addition to growing out of his sideline antics, Indiana's shooting guard has completely overhauled his game.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe:
Stephenson is dribbling the ball about 125 times per game this season, up from a paltry 65.5 bounces last season, according to the [SportVU] data. His per-game time of possession has jumped from about 90 seconds to nearly three minutes, and he's touching the ball about twice as often. He has assisted on nearly 29 percent of Indiana's baskets while on the floor, roughly equivalent to last season's marks for a bunch of high-quality starting point guards with strong secondary distributors around them and/or score-first duties—Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and others. Stephenson is also using up more possessions for his own shots, and yet his turnover rate hasn't budged at all.
Essentially, Stephenson has become a second point guard this year. At the same time, he's drilling threes like it's going out of style. All told, he's going to wind up in the discussion for the league's Most Improved Player award by season's end.
So, in addition to picking the right players to begin with, the Pacers have also shown a knack for squeezing every last drop of talent out of their selections.
Making Bold Moves
The Pacers have also made smart decisions in the trade and free-agent markets. Swapping Kawhi Leonard for George Hill in 2011 might seem like a deal Indiana would want to reconsider now that the San Antonio Spurs small forward has morphed into an elite defensive stopper.
But Indiana's swingman positions are covered, and Hill has been a critical, game-managing rock in their lineup ever since he arrived. The Pacers fell apart last year without Hill on the court, posting a net rating of minus-2.5 points per 100 possessions when their point guard sat down, per NBA.com. With Hill on the floor, Indy posted a plus-8.7.
Credit is also due to the Indiana front office for luring David West to town on a two-year deal in 2011. Without his toughness and leadership, it's possible that the Pacers wouldn't have developed their hard edge as quickly.
Doubling down on West this past offseason was another risky move, but because he's playing as well as ever during the Pacers' recent ascent, it appears that the three-season pact West signed will turn out to be another shrewd deal.
Most recently, the Pacers built a bench on the cheap. Luis Scola and C.J. Watson aren't transformative talents, but they've given Indiana the depth it lacked last year. Neither cost Indiana much, with Watson signing on as a low-cost free agent and Scola coming over in a deal that sent away Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a protected pick.
Much of the Pacers' success derives from their ability to build upon their homegrown foundation by making smart, cost-effective additions. But none of the smart personnel moves they've made would amount to much without a capable leader pulling the strings.
Brains and Brawn
When Vogel took over as interim head coach for Jim O'Brien on Jan. 30, 2011, he brought a rare combination of youthful enthusiasm and old-school sensibility.
He had some swagger, but backed it up with a gritty mentality that quickly permeated the Pacers roster. Attitude is just part of what Vogel infused into Indy, though. He also showed a forward-thinking willingness to embrace analytics.
And, perhaps most importantly, he knew a good trend when he saw one.
Indiana bought into the numbers, acknowledging that smart defenses prevented shots from long range and at the rim. By adopting a defensive scheme popularized by Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, Vogel's Pacers transformed into a team with immense stopping power.
Now, the Pacers do "Thibodeau" defense better than anyone.
Indy dares opponents to shoot from the low-percentage mid-range area, runs shooters off the three-point line and funnels every pick-and-roll away from the middle of the floor. On the off chance penetration gets into the lane, Roy Hibbert—perhaps the Pacers player who has benefited most from Vogel's hard-nosed, defense-first attitude—shuts off access to the rim.
Indiana is a team on the cutting edge of defense, but they're also embracing an offensive style that features some next-level thinking.
By employing an attack that divides ball-handling duties so evenly among their guards, the Pacers are intelligently countering the defensive principles they've helped make the norm. Everyone overloads the strong side of the floor these days, and the best way to expose that tendency is to quickly move the ball to the other half of the court.
When the Pacers do that, they've got their pick of either George, Stephenson or Hill to initiate the offense as opponents scramble to recover. We'll see much more of this throughout the league soon enough, especially among teams that lack a conventional pick-and-roll combination.
As much as anything, Indy's ability to stay ahead of the curve on both ends has enabled it to build a winner without resorting to tanking. And Vogel's been at the center of the Pacers' successful mix of old- and new-school ideas.
Nobody Ever Said It'd Be Easy
In closing, I'll concede a point that has probably become obvious: The notion that the alternative to tanking is basically to "be really smart and do everything right" doesn't provide the most specific blueprint for other teams to follow.
It's not a revelation to say that nailing draft picks, developing talent and embracing new ideas is a good recipe for winning basketball. Plus, it's really hard to do all those things.
Any front office attempting to win the Pacers' way is going to need an ample supply of guts and self-assuredness. And since not every team has Larry Bird, a man more confident than most, as its president, it's probably not likely that we'll see many franchises following Indiana's model.
What the Pacers did wasn't easy. But at least we know that there's a more honorable option than tanking when it comes to building a winner. That has to count for something, right?