Ten games into the NBA season, most of the chatter is about the league’s most pleasant surprises and most disappointing debuts. But while everybody is humming about how historically significant these Golden State Warriors are or what brutal bummers the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets have been, there are a handful of teams quietly jumping off to respectable starts, with the Indiana Pacers perhaps serving as the quietest of the league’s early successes.
Currently the sixth-best team in the Eastern Conference in terms of record, the Pacers entered this season facing a mountain of uncertainty, not only because the team bid farewell to David West and Roy Hibbert over the offseason, but also because Paul George was returning for his first full season since that nasty leg break and was expected to play at the four consistently for the first time in his career.
Throwing Monta Ellis and Myles Turner into the mix further suggested that big changes were coming. But based on how poorly they played last year and how little national media attention the Pacers have traditionally garnered, even in their back-to-back Eastern Conference Championship runs, it shouldn’t come as any big surprise that they’re flying under the radar.
The question, though, is are the Pacers a real threat in the enigmatic East? Are they a playoff team or are they just flourishing in a sea of stink and benefiting more from circumstance and opportunity than real, tangible, sustainable skill?
The most important thing for the Pacers thus far has been George playing well enough to place himself in the Most Valuable Player conversation (the one that exists in the alternate universe where Stephen Curry doesn’t exist), as he has averaged 24.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals. Not only has George looked perfectly healthy, he’s also looked like one of the most dominant swingmen in the league.
He’s done that, of course, playing a lot of minutes out of the small forward spot rather than as a power forward. The team has not abandoned its plan to play quicker, smaller basketball, but C.J. Miles and Chase Budinger have been the ones dealing with opposing teams’ fours. Miles, for example, recently started a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves guarding Kevin Garnett, something he joked he never thought he’d see happen.
Whatever these smaller wings do defending the more traditional power forwards hasn’t mattered much, as George is on a tear of late, hauling in five double-doubles and scoring 26 or more points in six straight games (which has happened just four times in Pacers history). Back in training camp, he knew he’d be more effective playing out of his natural position and so far that has been true.
Things have been less rosy for Ellis, however, who has had a frustratingly up-and-down start to the season. His 12.6 points per game is his lowest since his rookie season in Golden State, when he played only 18 minutes a night, and he only has topped 20 points twice this season. On the other end of things, he’s failed to score at least five points a couple of times as well.
A slow start was somewhat predictable considering Ellis was the last Pacers player to arrive to camp and talked at length on Media Day about how important it was for him this past offseason to take some time away from the game of basketball. In other words, he wasn’t the gym rat last summer that some other players were, and it always was going to take him some time to settle back into his game.
More recently, though, Ellis has started to come along, as both of his 20-point games occurred in the last 10 days. If he’s able to get his scoring average up and the Pacers can count on 40-45 points per night from Ellis and George, they’re going to be a tough team to beat, especially considering how well their role players have played early on.
George Hill, in particular, has been very good, even if he still is not the prototypical point guard some fans want him to be. While he’s only third on the team in assists, he is averaging 14 points and leading the East in three-pointers made with 24. Offensively, the team is so much better with him on the floor than when he’s off of it, and that’s a testament to how far he’s come along in the past year without Paul George on the floor to bail him out.
The Pacers – led by George, Hill and Ellis – look like a legitimate playoff team, even if it might be a little much to expect them to win 50 games. They have beaten some pretty good teams so far, including Detroit, Minnesota, Orlando, Miami and Boston (twice), but they couldn’t topple the Cavaliers and have a tough next five games, including two games against Chicago, one at Washington and another at home against Milwaukee.
They might not be title contenders, but they absolutely are a playoff team. That’s saying a lot considering how little was expected from this group heading into this season. An eighth of the way through it, they’re on pace for a return to the postseason, though their next goal will have to be playing well enough (and exciting enough) to escape NBA TV and get their postseason series a little more nationwide recognition.
Like always, this team is flying under the radar, but they may not stay there much longer.
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