Since its NBA inception in 1976, the Indiana Pacers have never won a championship, so it’s about time these Pacers bring a trophy home for the case. Reggie Miller’s ’98-’99 team was the closest (and the only team in franchise history to even make it to the Finals), but even he couldn’t drag the rest of that talented squad past the Lakers. This year, they’ve got more than just a shot at winning it all, and here’s why:
The ’98-’99 team and this year’s Pacers have several things in common:
Depth of Scorers
Both are well-rounded on paper. The ‘99 Finals team had four guys–Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Jalen Rose and Chris Mullin–who averaged 10-plus points per game, with another just shy of double digits in Antonio Davis.
These Pacers have five guys averaging double figures through 10 games. Paul George averages 23.3, Lance Stevenson 13.7, Roy Hibbert 11.7, David West 11.5 and George Hill rounds it out with 11.3 points per game. Just about everybody on this team can score. Even the Pacer with the lowest points per game average at the moment, Rasual Butler, has had three seasons in his career in which he averaged more than 10 a game.
Both have one true head-turner. Obviously, Miller was “the guy” for that team. He drew an incredible amount of attention because he was great moving without the ball, like Ray Allen, and could nonchalantly dribble up court before draining one from deep in a defender’s face.
Paul George is stealing Miller’s thunder in Indiana, and could replace him as the franchise’s Greatest of All-Time if he can bring a previously unattainable NBA title. That may be blasphemy, but Hibbert has suggested it and it is difficult to disagree. George isn’t the pure three-point threat Miller was, but his game is far more complete at this early stage of his career.
What sets today’s Pacers apart from the ’98-’99 team, as well as the rest of the competition this year, are these three factors:
The Pacers are holding teams to 86.3 points per game, the best in the NBA. They held two of the best point guards in the game in Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose to 20 points or fewer three times already. Irving shot 6-17 and Rose 6-15 in the first matchup (Rose had a much better showing in the Bulls’ win last Saturday)–not exactly All-Star efficiency from two guys sure to be representing the East in February.
“They’re one of those teams that have mastered the rule of verticality,” Irving said after losing to the Pacers by 15 on Nov. 2. “They have two big forces down there. They contested a lot. That’s what makes the Pacers a good ball club.” What Irving recognized was there are no easy baskets with those bigs defending the paint, so guards have to operate farther away from the basket.
If the Pacers’ defense can cause that kind of offensive inefficiency from those two elite point guards, they’re doing something right. West may not be tall for a power forward, but he’s tough to push around on the block and boxes out as well as anyone. Roy Hibbert, the tower on the inside, is averaging 4.6 blocks per game. George is the versatile defender of the bunch. He’s not on Lebron James’ level, but he has that ability to defend on the perimeter and inside, limiting whichever opposing player coach Frank Vogel needs him to shut down.
The Pacers line up well against all of the East’s championship contenders, and appear to have improved where the Heat have remained, at best, stagnant.
Hibbert and West gave the Pacers had a great chance to knock off the Heat last year due to their size. In the off season they added Louis Scola for inside depth off the bench to improve that advantage.
Lebron and George played each other tough, almost neutralizing one another. This year, George is continuing to improve while Lebron hasn’t been playing as well. Lebron was the single reason Miami won that series, averaging 29 points per game.
Dwyane Wade is on a downward spiral. He’ll have to keep up with Lance Stephenson and/or Danny Granger when he comes back, which sounds soon from this week’s reports. The Heat don’t have a point guard to matchup with George Hill, and CJ Watson is a damn good option to spell a starter, as he’s proven in his three starts this year.
The Pacers have an advantage in every matchup except small forward (I’m not a Chris Bosh fan, if you’re thinking he’s better than West), and George may be the best matchup against Lebron in the league.
Last year, a better Heat team needed a tight seven games to beat a Pacers team with less depth. Common sense points to the Pacers dethroning the Heat this year.