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1. After an off-season where the Pacers jettisoned veteran center Roy Hibbert, saw rugged big man David West depart and publicly stated plans to play superstar Paul George (returning from serious injury) at power forward, the team seemed to be clearly moving in a more offensive minded direction. So far the results on paper seem to justify those moves, as the Pacers are currently 6th in offensive rating in the league, up from 23rd the year before. What have been the keys to the Pacers offensive improvement?
Increasing the pace and giving a big role to offensive-minded players like C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis has had an impact, but Paul George is really the key.Not only did PG return from his brutal broken-leg injury without issue, he returned a far better offensive player. He is shooting more threes and making a higher percentage and that threat opens up his options for getting to the rim and setting up teammates for buckets. Also, Ellis is a quality pick and roll ball handler and with more mobile bigs working the PnR, he's been able to create more offensive when the team settles into half courts sets.
2. Despite the major changes to the rotation, including the addition of Monta Ellis (not known as a defensive stalwart), the Pacers are still a top 10 defensive team. How has Frank Vogel managed to keep the team defense at least close to it's past standards?
Vogel will always emphasize defense and toughness. They spent much of the preseason working on the new style of offense, but after the 0-3 start, defense helped turned things around. Players who have been around the team like Paul George, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi simply expect to be strong at that end of the court so the defensive-minded culture remains strong. They are going about it differently, using quickness and length on the perimeter as opposed to funneling teams toward Roy Hibbert. The active perimeter defense has the Pacers third in the league in steals which also fuels the transition game to keep pushing the pace on offense.
3. C.J. Miles per game stats have made a noticeable leap this season, though his per/36 don't look out of whack from his career numbers, so from a distance it seems like a case of a talented player getting an increased opportunity to shine. Have the Pacers used Miles differently this season compared to last?
C.J. Miles has a much larger role, normally starting in a smaller spread lineup. His three-point shooting can be streaky at times but he has the ability to carry the offense when he's on a roll. More importantly, Miles stepped up to take the defensive assignment of opposing power forwards which keeps Paul George available to defends more potent wing players on the opposition and not have to wear him out playing more physical players.
4. Paul George is back and amazingly already playing at an even higher level than before his injury. How has his gamed developed since we last saw him for a full NBA season?
The bulk of improvement in Paul George's game is at the offensive end. He's still an elite defender and has a stronger build, but it is obvious he spent plenty of time working on his shot and offensive moves while rehabbing last season. As mentioned above, the three-point numbers are off the charts heading to Detroit shooting 44% from behind the arc. While he's currently third in the league in scoring, PG's rebound and assist numbers are also on a career-high pace. Along with the physical improvement in his game, he is unquestionably the top dog on the team after David West and Roy Hibbert moved on this summer. Not having to defer to those guys in a slower tempo has put PG in better position to produce and he's stepped up and delivered.
5. The East is suddenly the tough conference from top to bottom (76ers not included). And the Pacers are in the thick of things, but with a true superstar in his prime already on the roster, and Lebron James showing signs of age, do you think there's a realistic move out there that could push them to the very top of the conference? What might that theoretical move look like?
Interesting question to consider because I think the Pacers are suddenly a little ahead of schedule even if they'd never admit it. Since Paul George has balked at the stretch-4 role, they could certainly use a true stretch power forward. Also, Monta Ellis has played a lot of point guard, including with the reserve unit. Having another veteran backup point guard to utilize would also help. The Pacers have young players at three position whom they are high on and have shown great promise. Rakeem Christmas (big man) is tearing up the D-League on assignment. Joe Young is heading to the D-League but they hope he can fill that reserve point guard in the future. Then Glenn Robinson III has shown he is a versatile player that is ready to go now. GRIII isn't in the regular rotation but when injuries hit, he has filled in quite well. So in developing those pieces, they may be a year away but they won't want to give up on valuable, inexpensive pieces.
Also, Solomon Hill, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen would be the most-likely candidates for a trade. Any combination of those guys would fetch a role player in return. But Larry Bird has shown in the past he will pull the trigger to improve the roster which is even more likely if the Pacers continue with a record among the top four in the East.
A huge thank you again Tom Lewis for taking the time! And check out all the great work at Indy Cornrows!