Scary but True, the 16-1 Indiana Pacers Aren't Close to Reaching Full Potential

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Scary but True, the 16-1 Indiana Pacers Aren't Close to Reaching Full Potential
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana Pacers jumped up a notch in the eyes of their few remaining skeptics by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in a stirring 105-100 road victory Sunday afternoon.

Sitting at a remarkable 16-1 and finally in possession of a signature win away from home, Indy's red-hot start is gaining legitimacy by the day. At this point, it's difficult to deny the Pacers a position in the league's upper echelon.

The only question now—and the one that should frighten the rest of the NBA's championship hopefuls—is: How much better can these Pacers get?

 

New (and Old) Information

In trying to figure out how high the Pacers might eventually climb higher in the league's hierarchy, it'll help to first consider what we learned from their game against the Clips.

Notably, Indiana got terrific production from its starters.

When George Hill and his solid line of 11 points, five rebounds and six assists on an incredibly restrained 2-of-5 shooting night is the first unit's production laggard, that's a good sign that Indy's starting five is a seriously dangerous bunch.

The numbers back up that assertion, too. On the year, the Pacers' starting five has posted the best net rating (plus-18.6 points per 100 possessions) of any group that has played at least 130 minutes together this year, per NBA.com.

Put simply, there's not a better five-man unit in the league than the one that starts games (and plays a ton) for the Pacers.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The fact they play brilliant ball isn't new. This same group posted a plus-12.1 net rating last season, so it's actually possible that we've seen some minor regression from them. So, if we're looking for areas in which the Pacers could actually get better, this probably isn't one of them.

It's hard to improve something that's already so good to begin with.

 

Growing Up

Leaving statistics behind for a moment, Indiana's big win over the Clippers taught us that Frank Vogel's team has matured in a couple of important ways.

The Pacers, still a young team by most standards, have shown this year that they understand the importance of setting a tone. They knew they had to start off their brutally difficult road trip through the Western Conference on the right foot.

Facing a Los Angeles team that was out to solidify its position among the league's elite as well, the Pacers proved they could muster the energy necessary to take down a hungry foe on its own home court. 

Critically, though, the Pacers showed they could play in an adrenaline-soaked environment without succumbing to the Clips' preferred fast pace. Had Indiana allowed itself to give in to L.A.'s style, it's likely that the Clippers would have pushed the tempo in a way that could have taken the Pacers out of their comfort zone.

Instead, Indy stayed big, stayed strong and stayed dominant—especially on the glass. In fact, it was the Pacers' bruising front line that helped secure the game.

In the final 1:15, Indiana pulled in five offensive boards and even had two tip-in attempts that totally demoralized the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin seemed powerless to stop the Pacers' dogged attack on the glass.

And it's not like the Pacers are known for their attention to the offensive boards. Their starting five currently ranks 11th in the NBA in the category, a statistic that belies their preference for getting back on D instead of chasing down second-chance scoring opportunities.

The Pacers simply made a decision to pound the boards when they needed to, using the same size and length that makes them so dominant on defense to ice the game by way of the rebound.

Overall, Indiana stayed focused, managed its nerves and showed remarkable adaptability.

In other words, the Pacers did the things that elite contenders do to win games. So while it's tempting to argue that the Pacers might need a little more maturation before they belong in the conversation with teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, the latest evidence indicates that they've already grown up.

 

Great, But Not Perfect

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Nobody's got more stopping power than the Pacers. With a defensive rating of 89.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, Indiana sits head and shoulders above the competition.

Said George after the game, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star: "This was the blueprint for how we’ve got to play on this West Coast road trip. There’s going to be some tough games. I expect every game to be a grind-out game. I’m glad that we found that we packed our defense on the road."

But offense continues to present a challenge. And any discussion of the flaws that could prevent the Pacers from hopping over the league's best has to start there.

Indiana is a so-so scoring outfit, posting a 101.6 offensive rating, good enough for just 14th place in the league. If the Pacers are going to make a push up the ranks of the Association's elite, they'll have to do so by improving offensively.

That improvement should probably begin with ball security.

Only eight teams have a higher turnover ratio than the Pacers this year, a possible symptom of Indiana's preference for playing without a conventional point guard. Paul George has made significant strides as a facilitator, and the growth of Lance Stephenson has given Indiana yet another guard who can take on ball-handling duties.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
But truly great teams take care of the rock, and Indiana is pretty average in that department.

On the year, its assist-to-turnover ratio ranks in the league's bottom half, and 16 giveaways Sunday (versus the Clippers' 11) went a long way toward keeping the game close down the stretch.

Taking a step back, the Spurs, Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and even the Clippers—to name just a few "contender-types"—have posted better ratios than the Pacers this year.

When the Heat knocked off the Pacers in a hotly contested Eastern Conference Finals last season, Indy's ball-security issues loomed large. So far, the Pacers are still bedeviled by one of the problems that damned them a year ago.

In addition, Indiana's improved bench still might not be good enough.

No Pacers reserve made more than a single shot from the field against the Clippers, and four out of the five backups to log playing time posted negative point differentials in the contest. This season, Indy's bench has produced just 24.3 points per game on 44 percent shooting.

Very few teams play their backups less than the Pacers do. That reluctance to give minutes to reserves won't matter much come playoff time, but better production during the regular season could be helpful in preserving the health of guys like Roy Hibbert and David West.

If either of those frontcourt mainstays were to wear down in the playoffs, Indiana would be in a world of trouble.

 

Clarity on the Way

Let's not take anything away from Indiana's victory over the Clips. It was a huge road win in a well-played game, and Indy earned the result. A soft schedule to start the season left some justifiable questions about the Pacers' fitness as a legitimate title contender. It's now safe to say that they've provided some convincing answers.

Everyone remembers how close the Pacers were last season. The Heat were the marginally better team when the two met for a seven-game clash, and we learned in the NBA Finals that the Spurs were every bit as good as Miami.

The Pacers were right there. So they didn't exactly have to make enormous strides this season to get over the hump. If Indiana can find a way to generate more consistent offense, take better care of the ball and squeeze a little more production from its reserves, another step in its development seems possible.

With road games at the Portland Trail Blazers, Spurs and Thunder coming up this week, we'll soon find out whether the Pacers are ready to take it.

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