For two years, the Indiana Pacers have come within a game or two of beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In 2013, they came within 48 minutes of their first NBA Finals appearance since 2001. Their downfall for both shortcomings, however, had been their second unit. As a result of this lack of depth, Indiana played their starting five an NBA-leading 19.0 minutes per game together, according to NBA.com.
Early indications, however, suggest that team president Larry Bird has remedied this problem that has plagued Indiana for years.
Stats via ESPN.com
Through eight games last season, the bench for the Indiana Pacers had averaged 27.5 points per game on 36.5 percent shooting, as seen in the table. While at first glance it may seem that the bench has only slightly improved, statistics cannot be the only measure used in judging this season's second unit.
By this time last year, the Indiana Pacers was only effectively using four bench players—Tyler Hansbrough, Sam Young, Ian Mahinmi and D.J. Augustin. A large part of the early 2012 bench's numbers actually came from Lance Stephenson, who was benched in favor of forwards Gerald Green and Sam Young early on.
This year? The Pacers are distributing the bench minutes among six, sometimes seven players.
New additions Luis Scola and C.J. Watson have not only provided efficiency while on the floor, but they've also provided that spark in big moments that the second unit was missing last season.
For example, they were up 72-69 against the Chicago Bulls on November 6. Indiana had been in a back-and-forth with the Bulls for all three quarters, and the fourth was shaping up to be the same. With about six minutes left, Scola stole the ball from Chicago forward Luol Deng and went coast-to-coast for the layup. This play (seen in the video) ended up being the ignition of a 27-12 run for the Pacers to close out the fourth, winning the game by 17.
The most efficient player on the bench? Third-string point guard Donald Sloan. In about 15 minutes per game, Sloan averages 5.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Not only that, Sloan's assist-to-turnover ratio is currently at 5.0, showing incredible skill while handling the ball. Sloan's nine points, six rebounds and four assists were vital to the Pacers in that game with the Bulls.
What Grade Would You Give the Indiana Pacers Bench So Far This Season?
They've also proved they can step into the lineup with ease and provide ample relief in the injury of a starter. While dealing with a lingering hip injury, point guard George Hill missed three games, giving Watson the starting spot. In those three games, Watson provided 11.0 points and five assists in around 29 minutes per game.
While it's still early, all signs are pointing toward a much improved Pacers bench as the season progresses forward. Both Scola's spark and Watson's contribution while in a starting role have validated the moves that Bird made over the offseason and helped Indiana take a step forward in the overall growth of this team.
The one remaining question mark behind this bench is how the second unit will react to the return of forward Danny Granger. Aside from five games in the 2012-13 season and this preseason, Granger has been out since April of 2012 with knee and calf issues. Whether head coach Frank Vogel will use Granger with the starters or the bench remains to be seen, but one can only expect Granger's contribution to help what amount this unit is already producing.
Looking forward, Pacer fans can only hope that this level of play can continue from both the starting five and the second unit. And after Granger's health returns, the Pacers will either be adding Granger or Lance Stephenson to that mix. And with division matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls looming, the Pacers will need to get the same contribution they've been getting in order to keep the starters well rested.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com/NBA/Statistics