We're just over one-fourth of the way through the 2016-17 NBA season. At 11-11, the Pacers are currently on the outskirts of the playoff picture, but a critical stretch approaches. What has gone right and wrong for Indiana so far this year?
The Indiana Pacers are 22 games into their 2016 campaign, and sit at a perfectly average 11-11. My preseason prediction that the Pacers would be the second best team in the Central Division has so far proved to be laughable, thanks to quick starts from Chicago and Milwaukee and miserable Indiana losses to teams like Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Indiana has faced stretches of defensive lapses and questionable effort multiple times this season, culminating in team captain Paul George calling his first ever players-only meeting in an attempt to right the ship. Since then, the Pacers have won games against weaker opponents that they should win, and they have also strung together more complete 48-minute performances, particularly in wins against Oklahoma City and Los Angeles Clippers (x2!). Despite foreseeable blowout losses to Golden State, Indiana is trending upward faces a critical stretch of Eastern Conference games in the coming weeks. So let's review what has been going well for the Pacers and what needs improving going forward.
Good: Paul George is Still Awesome
Now two years fully removed from his gruesome leg injury, Paul George is back and established as one of the elite two-way players in the NBA. Despite some nagging injuries this season, George still leads the Pacers with 20.7 points per game, and is currently shooting at his best field goal percentage since his rookie year (in which he played sparingly until Frank Vogel was named coach). George has truly developed into a multi-faceted scorer this season, being able to score from multiple areas of the court in several different offensive sets. His mid-range and three-point jump-shooting remains his bread and butter, and his defensive presence on the wings makes the team almost watchable on that side of the ball.
If there's one area of concern (or confusion, rather) regarding George, it's his relatively low usage rate of 27.0%, his lowest since the 2013-14 season. The arrival of Jeff Teague and an increased load for Myles Turner were expected to lighten the load on George, but this team needs George to be free to take as many shots as he needs.
Bad: Monta Ellis
Year 2 of the Monta Ellis experiment hasn't yet yielded any better results than the first. The Pacers' 2-guard has seen his scoring drop by 3 points down to 10.1 ppg, and is dishing out just 3.7 assists per game, the lowest mark since his rookie season in 2005. His 9.7 Player Efficiency Rating is his lowest ever. He is the weak link overall in the starting lineup, leading to calls for C.J. Miles to start in his place. It remains to be seen if Monta's performance is simply a slow start or a sign of things to come in his career. Ellis somehow is still second among the Pacers behind George in minutes played per game, and the Pacers might benefit in rotating Miles, Rodney Stuckey, or Glenn Robinson III in his stead for greater amounts of time.
Vexatious: The Defense
There's no way around it: Indiana is awful on defense. Last month, I wrote about Indiana's struggles on defense and, hilariously in hindsight, cautioned that benching Ellis would be a mistake. Indiana has improved immensely since the beginning of the year, now ranked 16th in team defensive rating, but they are still vulnerable to backdoor cuts and top guard play (see: Thompson, Klay). Indiana doesn't have the personnel to be a top-tier defensive team anymore, but being at least an average team on that end should be enough to keep an improved offense afloat.
The new arrivals for Indiana, Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young, and Al Jefferson , have all contributed. Teague is the second-leading scorer on the Pacers, and has rebounded from his slow start to become the reliable second option for George. He was brought in to bolster Indiana's ball movement, and his average of 6.8 assists per game is the highest total for a Pacer since Jamaal Tinsley had 8.4 per game in 2008. Young is a high-energy forward who leads the team in offensive rebounds, and Jefferson chips in 7.5 points in 15 minutes off the bench.
Also off of the bench, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey have provided stability for Indiana's second unit. Still dealing with injury troubles, Stuckey has scored at a slightly better rate than last season, but is shooting at a career-high 47.1%. As he works towards getting completely healthy, I would expect Stuckey eventually to cut into some of Ellis's minutes, as described above. Miles, meanwhile is having his best season as a Pacer yet. Miles chips in 12.0 ppg, but his biggest improvement this year has been his efficiency, recording a career-high-tying 47.9%. However, he has been even more effective as a three-point shooter, making his threes at a blistering 44.0% clip, tied for 10th-best in the league.
Rookie Georges Niang has seen limited action at the NBA level, so far only appearing in 13 games, most of them in garbage time. Niang wasn't expected to be a key contributor this year anyway, but the fact he only has one D-League appearance is curious. I would expect Niang to get some stretches in Fort Wayne with Rakeem Christmas before the second half of the season kicks off. Speaking of Chirstmas, he has appeared in a career-best 3 whole games, also mostly in garbage time, but long enough to maintain my hapless dream of Quinn Buckner yelling "MERRY CHRISTMAS!!" after a dunk at some point this season.