The Indiana Pacers' title hopes aren't dead yet, although their style of play might be.
The Pacers have relied on the size and strength of their big men to bully their way inside, feasting on small opponents. This was an effective style of play, but it has recently begun to prove far less successful over the past few months.
Indiana, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is now struggling to make it past the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks in its first-round playoff series.
Can the Pacers still employ their traditional method of "bully ball," or will they be forced to adjust to a new era of NBA play?
There was a time when you could beat an opposing team with size alone.
Shaquille O'Neal's teams won four NBA titles, including three straight with the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s. Given his size (7'1", 300-plus pounds), Shaq could bully his way inside while leading his teams to victory.
The Pacers have used a similar style of play, taking advantage of their size inside to overmatch smaller opponents. Center Roy Hibbert (7'2", 290 pounds) and David West (6'9", 250 pounds) have combined to lead the Pacers to a 147-82 record over the past three seasons. While ultimately losing both series, arguably no one played the eventual champion Miami Heat tougher in the playoffs the last two years.
Hibbert's size gave the Heat problems in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, and he put up 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in the seven games. West also had his way with Miami's big men, averaging 16.6 points and 8.9 boards.
This was a successful formula for the Pacers for years: play stingy defense, pound the ball inside and take advantage of size mismatches across the lineup.
While this same style was popular for teams well before them, Indiana had begun to master the art of bully ball.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, the NBA is no longer dependent on size and is quickly proving that speed and shooting are becoming effective ways to combat it.
While the Pacers may be facing some internal problems, it's clear the play of the Atlanta Hawks has played a major role in their demise as well.
The Hawks prefer to spread the offense and attack from the outside. Every one of their starters, including center Pero Antic, can step out and hit threes. Only the Houston Rockets attempted and made more three-pointers in the regular season, and no one is besting the Hawks in those categories this postseason.
Like the former playground bully who used to beat up on the smaller children with size alone, the Pacers now find themselves the victim in a rapidly changing league.
The Hawks are the latest team to show that speed and outside shooting can kill. While players like Antic, Paul Millsap and Mike Scott have decent size, they can all play from the outside and stretch the floor. They're forcing Hibbert to leave the paint, chasing shooters around instead of manning the post.
The results have been fantastic for the Hawks.
Jeff Teague has been able to take advantage of an open lane that would normally be clogged by Hibbert and West. Whenever the Pacers' big men want to cheat inside, there's always an open man waiting on the wing to beat them with a three.
Offensively, the Pacers are struggling as well. West has been okay, but he is still far off from the type of production he supplied against the Heat in last year's playoffs. His play against the Heat's slender forwards (16.6 points, 8.9 rebounds) has taken a noticeable dip in the series against Atlanta (15.0 points, 5.8 rebounds).
Hibbert is undergoing a nightmare postseason. Between chasing shooters around and being unable to move Antic to get to his spots in the paint on offense, Hibbert is putting together a pathetic stat line of 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds on 30.3 percent shooting from the field.
Chris Chase and Tim McGarry of For the Win shed some more light on just how awful Hibbert has been while trying to adjust to the Hawks' small ball.
Nine players in the playoffs are averaging more points per game than the 24 Hibbert has scored in total. Mike Dunleavy Jr. almost scored more points in one half (19) than Hibbert has in 10. Hibbert, who is 7’2″, is being out-rebounded by Chris Paul, John Wall and Jeff Teague. He has the same amount of blocks as Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker.
Even if Indiana somehow makes it past Atlanta, how far can they go with their current playing style?
Why Bully Ball is Dying
There are very few "true centers" left in the NBA today, guys who fit the 7-foot mold, weigh in at 280-300 pounds and are capable of playing with their back to the basket.
Hibbert fits this category, as do Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol. Besides them, it's difficult to find a team that employs a traditional center like those that were commonly found around the league in the 1980s and 1990s. Teams could build around players like O'Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Now perhaps more than ever, the league is less defined by the traditional positions. We see guys playing two or three different spots now depending on who the opponent is putting on the court. Because of this, teams are able to make constant adjustments to make sure no one is being overmatched or exploited. The Miami Heat have set the standard for basketball without positions, a style that's led them to the past three NBA Finals.
As Heat coach Eric Spoelstra told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today in 2012:
Not only was it something we felt that we had the ability to do, but we eventually found out that this team requires that we play that way. It's not just simply an option. For us to fully unlock the strength and versatility of this team, I learned the painful way we're required to play this way. We have to play that way for us to fully reach our potential. That took some time and forced all of us to get out of our comfort level.
We see more and more "stretch 4" power forwards, guys with size who can knock down three-pointers. While power forwards historically were confined to the paint, more and more are developing and expanding their games.
Even players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who spent the majority of their careers at small forward, are now primarily power forwards. James spent 82 percent of his time on the court this past season as a 4 and just 15 percent at the 3. During his first season in Miami in 2010-11, he played power forward 25 percent of his minutes and 75 percent at small forward.
Anthony played as a 4 for 62 percent of the time for the New York Knicks this year and just 38 percent of his minutes on the wing. Compare this to his rookie season with the Denver Nuggets: Anthony spent 92 percent of his minutes at shooting guard and small forward.
Going back to the Pacers, it's clear their bigs are settled as is. Hibbert has spent 100 percent of his time throughout his career playing center. West was at power forward 98 percent of his minutes this season while only briefly stepping into the center role.
Can the Pacers still win a title with their style of play?
To Indiana's credit, they do have a versatile combination of guards and small forwards with Paul George, Evan Turner, Lance Stephenson and George Hill.
To take the next step as a franchise and adjust to the NBA's new style of play, it may be time to part with either Hibbert or West in hopes of finding a more mobile big capable of shooting from the outside.
Bully ball may not be completely dead yet, but it's clear the new NBA has it on life support. The Pacers, like many teams have already done, need to adjust.
All stats provided by basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.