What We Learned About Indiana Pacers During Season's First Half
With their NBA-best 34-9 record as of Jan. 27, the Indiana Pacers have made it known they're serious title contenders. Along the way, we have learned several things about this team during the season's first half.
One of these is Paul George is a legitimate MVP candidate.
On the other hand, Indy still leads the league in defense, allowing just 90.2 points per game, per ESPN stats.
However, they have a tendency to be sloppy defensively on the road—something Pacers fans don't want to see come playoff time.
These are just two of the things we learned about Indiana.
Granted, we are only a little more than halfway through the 2013-14 NBA season. At this point, the team has already made a resounding statement.
The bigger question remains—can the Pacers keep it up?
All indications say they will.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN and are current as of Jan. 27, 2014.
Lance Stephenson Is Worthy of a Contract Extension
Lance Stephenson has been Mr. Do-It-All for the Indiana Pacers.
The 2012-13 NBA season was Stephenson's coming-out party, showing everybody what he's made of in Danny Granger's absence.
It turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg.
His numbers aren't eye-popping by any stretch of the imagination (14.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game through Jan. 27), but he's capable of going off for say, 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on any given night.
His play this year has been so solid, ESPN's Forecast Panel has him as the clear-cut favorite to win the 2014 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year award, ahead of his teammate Paul George by four places:
Our ESPN Forecast Panel has Indiana's Lance Stephenson leading the way with 20 first-place votes and teammate Paul George, who won the MIP award last season, rounding out the top five.
Stephenson is in the last year of the rookie contract he signed four years ago. He's proving his worth on the court in ways we never imagined.
Please show him the money, Larry Bird.
Indiana Has a Tendency to Be Sloppy Defensively on the Road
As previously mentioned, the Indiana Pacers allow just 90.2 points per game. Clearly, they are beasts defensively.
However, they have a tendency to get defanged on defense on the road, particularly their perimeter defense. This recent road trip is living proof of that.
They were hardly in it when they got blown out by the Phoenix Suns, 124-100 on Jan. 22. They allowed ex-Pacer Gerald Green, who had a tendency to hoist boneheaded shots when he was still with Indy, to go off for 23 points.
Phoenix shot 11-of-16 from three-point distance for a gaudy 68.8 percent clip.
The Sacramento Kings' Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas combined for 80 points two days later. While the Kings didn't shoot as great as the Suns did against the Pacers from the three-point area, they still drained 12.
In six of Indiana's nine losses, it allowed the opposition to score at least 101 points. Of those six losses, five were on the road.
Obviously, the key takeaway here is for the Pacers to shore up their perimeter defense on the road and to not fall into the trap of simply outscoring the other team.
Instead, they need to play Indiana basketball—the nasty, physical kind which they're known for.
Luis Scola Is a Great Weapon off the Bench
One concern the Indiana Pacers had prior to the 2013-14 NBA season was whether Luis Scola would be able to adjust to his new role off their bench.
Consider that concern solved.
The 33-year-old Argentinian may not dazzle you with jaw-dropping numbers (8.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 APG), but his arsenal of tricks is what makes him so special.
Just ask Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, who affirmed this fact to The Indianapolis Star's Michael Pointer on Nov. 26, 2013:
I love Luis Scola. He just really knows how to play the game. His defense has been better that I thought it would be just from the standpoint of his savvy and tricks. He doesn't have the greatest foot speed or athleticism, but he knows how to win.
He has given Indy a dimension it didn't have when it still had Tyler Hansbrough—somebody who can knock down open jumpers and make the defense honest.
All in all, Scola is a consummate professional whose patience could be rewarded with an NBA title in June.
Danny Granger Is Better Coming off the Bench
Danny Granger didn't have much of a choice.
After missing 77 games last season because of a jumper's knee injury and sitting out the first 25 games of 2013-14 due to a strained calf, Granger came back on Dec. 20 and scored five points in a 114-81 drubbing of the Houston Rockets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Prior to his return, Indy was 20-5 and Lance Stephenson was already wreaking havoc on opposing defenses.
Of course, Granger would now have to come off the bench.
It is still too early to judge his game, even if he's been shooting just 37 percent from the field because of his long layoff. However, he should be a formidable weapon come playoff time, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness:
Having a healthy Granger come playoff time makes the Pacers an even fiercer opponent. As their spark off the bench in the sixth-man role, Granger is another offensive weapon, especially from deep, that defenses have to account for.
Where Granger wound up today is beyond his control. During his absence, both Paul George and Stephenson elevated their game to new heights. The circumstances resulted in Granger becoming another weapon off the bench.
Give him a bit more time, and he should become a deadlier one.
Chris Copeland's Time Will Come
When the Indiana Pacers signed Chris Copeland last summer, he was hailed by the team as "The Future of Pacers Basketball."
After the season's first half, it seems Indiana meant just that.
Many fans were expecting Copeland to play the role of spark plug off the bench—similar to what he did last season with the New York Knicks.
For him to be buried this deep in the rotation and assume the role of Indy's 11th Man wasn't what they expected at all.
Pacers.com's Mark Montieth explains it best in his Dec. 4 mailbag:
It comes down to the fact he (Copeland) he isn't going to get minutes at the 'four' spot because West and Scola play there, and he has a difficult time guarding 'threes' on the perimeter. He is a niche player who can be effective against certain lineups, but not all of them.
For his part, Copeland told Montieth three weeks earlier that his time will eventually come:
Am I a competitor first? Sure. But I'm happy to be here. I've said to coach, I don't deserve a coach as good as Frank Vogel. I'm very blessed to be here, despite lack of minutes. I do believe my time will come.
I'm working my butt off behind the scenes. I'm a competitor first, but I'm loving the ride.
Copeland—just like Scola and Granger, who had to adjust to their new roles—is another consummate pro who thinks team first.
That much we now know.
This definitely bodes well for the Indiana Pacers now and in the years to come.
Roy Hibbert for Defensive Player of the Year
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert is a legitimate candidate for 2014 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Between Davis and Hibbert, it is the latter who allows a lower opponent field-goal percentage at the rim at 40.5 percent as opposed to Davis' 45.8 percent, per NBA stats.
Needless to say, Hibbert's shot-blocking presence is a big reason why Indiana is the NBA's best defensive team.
He's also made it known he wants to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in an interview with Pacers.com's Scott Agness on Nov. 16, 2013:
My thing at the beginning of the summer was put on size so I could get in there. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. Whatever happens with All-Stars happens. I never thought I'd be an All-Star when I got to the league.
I have one under my belt. If it happens, I'm happy. But I don't think about that.
He, Davis and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder are three solid contenders for this plum by season's end.
If Hibbert maintains his defensive intensity and the Pacers win at this rate, he should be a lock to win it.
Paul George Is a Serious MVP Candidate
It just keeps getting better for Indy's franchise player Paul George.
On Jan. 23, any doubts about George being a serious MVP candidate this season should be put to rest when he was named as a starter for the Eastern Conference in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans on Feb. 16.
On top of that, he was also named to the 28-player pool of Team USA for the World Cup of Basketball and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
This coming from an unheralded talent who was drafted four years ago—somebody who was seen as having a superior skill set, but not maximizing it in the early going of his NBA career.
Now, the whole world knows who Paul George is.
Of his recent accolades, he told Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star on Jan. 23 that they are an indication of how far he's come:
I think both of them are heavily weighted to me. Being a starter is one that's big because you want to be a household name and you want to be recognizable, and you want to be recognized for what you do.
Being invited to Team USA, it's great to want to play for your country. That's something I've wanted to do since I was little, so all the greats do it. All the Hall of Fame guys do it (and) I wanted that for myself.
George, who's been averaging a career-high 23.5 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest, is the best player of the league's best team.
PG for MVP.