TrueHoop: Indiana Pacers

This Indy flick is a horror show

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
11:02
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Serrano By Shea Serrano
ESPN.com
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Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.

Pacers Cartoon Shea Serrano and Sean Mack
Previously: Shopping with the Big Ticket »

How the Pacers can turn it around

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
3:45
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Things look bad right now, but David Thorpe says it doesn't take much for a team as good as the Pacers to get back on the same page.

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Frank Vogel wins a bold gamble for Indy

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:30
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By D.J. Foster
ESPN.com
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In the movie “Hoosiers," coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) justifies the decision to handicap his team by playing only four players with one simple line:

"My team is on the floor."

After a tight 104-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, let's just say that Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was this close to needing a whole lot more than one line to explain himself.

Really, though, that wouldn't be a new task for Vogel to take on. After all, he's been the one charged with figuring out exactly why the Pacers have suffered through an unprecedented collapse. Coming in, Indiana had piled up six straight road losses, possessed the second-worst offensive efficiency in the league since the All-Star break and had scored just 23 points in the first half against the Atlanta Hawks in their last outing.

With the playoffs looming, the Pacers needed to find a way to break out of the slump.

This was certainly one hell of a way to do it.
[+] Enlarge Chris Copeland
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports Chris Copeland hit the game winner for Indiana against the Bucks, and there was much rejoicing.

Against the lowly Bucks, Vogel did the unthinkable by benching all five of his starters, the same group that has logged 1,432 minutes together as a unit this season.

Instead, who was Vogel's team on the floor?

Donald Sloan, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi -- a group that had played a whopping 11 minutes together on the season.

It's not like this was a risk-free proposition and a chance to get his starters some rest with no ramifications. This wasn't Gregg Popovich punting a game in the middle of the season on the second part of a back-to-back. The Pacers were just a half-game back of the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference's top seed and home-court advantage going in, so there were real stakes at play.

There's a reason we usually see bold tactics like this happen only in the movies. It's safer and probably smarter to stand idly by, to remain patient, to hope that things will change naturally. If the Pacers kept failing and the mystery remained unsolved, the blame would at least be shared or chalked up as inexplicable. A big part of coaching is self-preservation, especially in the NBA.

But Vogel threw caution to the wind in a way that jeopardized no one but himself. If the Pacers were to lose to the league's worst team because he benched every starter, he would have absorbed all the blame. Can you imagine the scrutiny if Indiana were playing in Miami for a Game 7 instead of at home? Or if it never made it that far? Vogel was plenty aware of what this move could end up meaning, both for his team and his career.

Yes, it was last-place Milwaukee, and yes, his team needed rest -- perhaps because he pushed it too hard during the regular season -- but redirecting all the pressure onto himself gave his starters a mental break too. This wouldn't be their hill to die on, no matter what.

With the game looking like it was headed for overtime in the last remaining seconds due to a boneheaded foul, Vogel drew up a play (not the picket fence, sadly) for Chris Copeland, a guy who has been an afterthought all season.

He made it.

A short second after the ball splashed through the net, there was Paul George rushing off the bench to hug him, with Roy Hibbert not far behind.

At least for a moment, the Pacers as a group got to stop analyzing to the point of paralysis and celebrate a game winner, even if it came in a game that shouldn't have required one in the first place.

While this win alone won't fix the Pacers, the message was sent loud and clear from Vogel to his team: The diffusion of responsibility needs to end here.

Winners in Indiana's book?

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
10:45
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By Michael Rubino
Special to ESPN.com
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Roy HibbertAP Photo/Michael ConroyAfter looking like the best team in basketball, Indy has fallen on hard times. Hoosiers were prepared.
Hoosiers fret. Height of the corn. Length of the sermon. Width of the breaded pork tenderloin. You name it.

But this NBA season, the state pastime has grown into a preoccupation for fans of the Indiana Pacers.

In the beginning, we worried the national media wasn’t paying enough attention to the team’s 16-1 start. By the break, we overthought the All-Star snub of guard Lance Stephenson and gnawed on the notion that, at 40-12 (best in the Eastern Conference), the team hadn’t been on TV much. Then the departure of Danny Granger! The additions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum! And -- gasp -- the 11- 8 mark since the break (including a 7-7 beginning to March)! Fans here have been dying for someone to tell them what to think, and need that ordination of the Pacers' greatness or divination of what's gone wrong of late to come down from on high.

Hoosiers fret, but we also pay deference to authority (see Knight, Bob). And both conditions betray our flyover-country baggage packed with inherent self-doubt and a need for affirmation. Do we belong? Are we good enough? What do you think?

Despite the angst, it's worth noting, the team still has the top record in the Eastern Conference -- two games over hated Miami -- and third-best in the Association. Since the state went 0-for-the NCAA tournament, all hopes to prove our basketball superiority hinge on the professional squad.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
AP Photo/R Brent SmithAfter a 7-7 start to March, are things still looking up for Roy Hibbert and the East-leading Pacers?
In many ways, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is the perfect Pacer as the largest -- figuratively and literally -- manifestation of the Hoosier mindset.

It’s little wonder the All-Star center is a fan favorite. Off the court, Hibbert projects as a salt-of-the-earth guy who holds "American Idol"-style auditions to give blue-and-gold crazies a shot to sit in his "Area 55" of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He’s active in the community and seems to genuinely enjoy being part of the Indianapolis skyline. Hibbert’s a plus on the court, too. He swats shots, grabs rebounds and, over the years, has developed a dangerous little hook. He hustles.

When Big Roy hits the deck -- and this happens maybe once or twice a game -- you can hear the crowd draw its breath. Oh no! He climbs to one knee, gets the other leg underneath him, and then pushes upright. The whole process, it takes a while. He hits the floor harder and takes longer to get up than anyone I can recall, but he's 7-2, so I get it. Almost without exception, he's right back at it after the fall, protecting the rim, doing his thing.

Problem is, Hibbert takes big mental falls, too -- on-court plummets where he disappears for quarters and then strings of games. When the Pacers are going good, Hibbert’s teammates usually find him for early, momentum-building opportunities. But during the swoons, Hibbert becomes forgotten (or allows himself to fade into the background). Perhaps he internalizes too much. Maybe he’s too pensive. Could be a confidence issue. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it takes him a while to get up -- to bounce back. This happened last season, but, by March, Hibbert shook the crisis of confidence and was probably the biggest reason the team took Miami to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He’s in the midst of another spring swoon, and until he picks himself up, fans will hold their breath and brood.

This type of anxiety doesn’t appear to wash over the fan bases of the NBA's blue-blood franchises. Knicks fans, for example, haven’t lost their delusions of grandeur even though their team is in the midst of another lost season. The mantra in New York isn’t Save us, Phil Jackson! -- it’s Phil Jackson will save us. That’s self-assurance. Misguided, maybe, but it’s certainty nonetheless.

Over the years, this neurosis in Indiana hasn’t been limited to professional basketball or even proficiency in the realm of athletics.

Even though the Peyton Manning-led Colts were the (regular-season) class of the NFL and brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl title in 2007, most fans were loathe to make bold pronouncements about their achievements. When it came to Manning’s place in the pantheon, the collective sentiment here seemed to be: He's great -- right?

A few years later, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, that lack of certitude was manifest in the civic sphere. With a big assist from uncharacteristic spring-like weather in early February, the city and its volunteers clearly put together one the most well-run Super Bowls in recent NFL memory, showcasing the vibrancy (and accessibility) of its downtown and the vigor of Indy’s local businesses. Yet, when it was all over, residents couldn’t stop wondering if we’d done OK. Part of that was simply Hoosiers hospitality -- the desire to please -- but it also spoke to a genuine lack of certainty. We looked to the Darren Rovells of the world to tell us what we (hopefully) already knew: We nailed it.

One could argue this is a byproduct of modesty, that Hoosiers don’t like to toot their own horn. But it has more to do with the idea that we’re somewhat uncomfortable playing that instrument in front of a big audience.

From the outside looking in, this may seem odd, especially in the context of basketball, a sport that Hoosiers perfected. But achievement has come in large part thanks to the high school and college game -- the smaller stages, not the grand one. Even the Pacers’ three championships came in the ABA, always a sideshow to the NBA.

From Hibbert to the way we feel about Hoosier Hysteria, none of this is a bad thing. It’s human and real, genuine. It’s part of our identity, and it’s become part of the way others see us.

Doubt and determination are variables in the narrative equation, ones necessary for true triumph. Succeeding against great odds is wonderful, but the victory is sweetest when attained while conquering something within yourself, and this idea is very much a part of the Hoosier sports experience, no matter the team or player.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty ImagesLarry Bird, the pride of French Lick and the Pacers' president, is an embodiment of the Hoosier mindset.
Pacers president Larry Bird embodies this ideal, and it has always made me think of him as a kind of corncob Christ.

Today and throughout his playing days, Bird built a career on fail-safe skill and a cloak of confidence (he was a proto-s----talker) that hugged him tighter than those old thigh-high Celtics drawers. But even Bird had his moment of wandering in the desert before ascending to greatness, leaving Knight's IU program before his freshman season even began and returning home to French Lick. Whatever happened during that time, I'd bet it laid the foundation for the greatness that was to come: Indiana State, Boston, the Hall of Fame.

One of the all-time great Bird moments came late in his career against, of all teams, the Pacers during the 1991 playoffs where the darkness-dawn thing played out over four quarters. Back then, Bird was ravaged with a bad back. Instead of sitting on the bench, he'd lay on the floor in pain. With Bird prone, it was the perfect opportunity for the Pacers to steal a series and move on to the next round. During the first half of Game 5, Bird landed hard and whacked his head against the Garden's parquet. He was helped off the floor, led through the tunnel and into the locker room. It looked as if he was finished.

He wasn't, of course. Bird returned for the second half and the Celtics won on the strength of one his all-time great lines: 32 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, one concussion.

Pacers fans could use a doubt-determination moment of their own like that one. We're not agnostic -- we're just waiting for a sign.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

Evan Turner the Pacers' problem?

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
3:07
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Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Tom Haberstroh reveals how the Indiana Pacers have suddenly become defenseless.

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How to be Frank Vogel

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
12:53
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Pacers coach Frank Vogel explains how he got his big break in the NBA by writing letters.

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'We're all chasing the Heat'

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:55
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Pacers head coach Frank Vogel talks about how the Pacers have emerged as a powerhouse.

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Pacers couldn't afford to wait on Granger

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
8:46
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Wade By Jared Wade
Special to ESPN.com
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Just a few short years ago, Danny Granger was the face of a franchise whose goal was, above all else, reconnecting with a fan base. The locals had grown disgusted by the Indiana Pacers’ collection of brawlers and guys who too often wound up in the police report. Granger, though, was the hope amidst all the chaos.

In time, the front office washed the bile from the decks, and the franchise was ready to begin anew. But to ensure the past stayed buried, the Pacers’ brass rode the mediocrity treadmill for years, choosing clean-cut, middling talent over building a contender in earnest. The team became Danny and the Milk Drinkers.

Granger hit game-winners, won awards and went to an All-Star Game. As his status and confidence grew, he increasingly seemed to fit into the Pacers’ lineage of sharpshooters who knew exactly how good they were. He became easy to cheer for.

But with the franchise sitting on its best chance to win its first NBA title since it lost in the 2000 NBA Finals, there is the possibility that Granger will be sitting at his home, in a different city, while the Pacers throw a championship parade in Indianapolis.

For good reason.

Through Christmas, the Pacers looked like the best team in the NBA. They don't now, not after losing six of their past 14 matchups (after losing only seven times in their first 40 games). A once-historically stingy defense is taking nights off. Paul George is mired in a shooting slump.

You can’t single out Granger for the slide. But he certainly hasn't helped, scoring just 7.7 points per game over this stretch on 35.4 percent shooting. This from one of the league's deadliest deep threats just a few years ago.

By a long shot, today's Granger isn't the Granger whom many Pacers fans grew to adore. Since going down with a knee injury before the 2012-13 season, Granger has been forced to sit around and watch George become the team's new version of himself. It couldn't have been easy, but while rehabbing, he seemed to accept that he would be returning with a diminished role. Then Lance Stephenson barnstormed the league, erasing any chance Granger had at returning to the starting lineup.

While Granger is back on the court consistently for the first time in two years, team president Larry Bird clearly didn't want to wait around hoping that Granger would get healthy enough to become a serviceable scoring threat again. Indiana's season will be a failure if it doesn't win the title, and with Stephenson set for free agency this summer and David West's biological clock ticking, Bird had to make this move.

The deal is a no-brainer in terms of guaranteeing bench production during the playoffs, and it becomes even rosier when you realize that re-signing the newly acquired Evan Turner in the offseason could be a good consolation prize if there isn’t enough money to re-sign Stephenson.

Turner is just better than Granger. This version, anyway.

While that may be true now, it’s tough to distance yourself from what used to be. Granger was the Pacers’ longest-tenured player, the one guy who could look down at his finger and know how much work, how much heartbreak goes into building a team that could win a ring.

If he didn’t before, he certainly does now.

Roy Hibbert's return to third grade

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
11:10
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
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The NBA says the third-graders at the Paramount School of Excellence in Indianapolis had no idea Roy Hibbert was coming to school. The results are wonderful, and will debut on TV later today.

East-leading Indy stays home for Christmas

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:44
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Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- When the NBA schedule came out last summer, the Indiana Pacers players first looked for their opener, then they looked at Christmas Day.

Surely they would've graduated to Christmas Day status -- a trademark sign of national respect in the league -- after going to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat last season.

But Dec. 25 was blank.

"No comment," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "I’m going to leave that one alone."

"We expect stuff like that," David West said. "It was the same reason that at the start of the season I saw us getting picked like fourth in the East."

"I wasn’t expecting to play that day, to be honest," Paul George said. "It’s just the way it’s been for us being here."

Ten teams were picked to play on Wednesday, generally the 10 teams the league expected to generate the most excitement on one of the season’s marquee days. The small-market Pacers didn't make the cut.

They will play in the featured game on Thursday night only once this season, in mid-January. They are not currently scheduled to play in a Sunday afternoon national-television game. Of the four games they play against the Heat this season, two were not initially scheduled to be on one of the league’s national broadcast partners.

Monday night they took apart the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets 103-86. The Nets are the inverse of the Pacers. After their offseason of flashy moves, they received a huge amount of attention and were given a full slot on the national platform, kicking off Christmas Day against the equally disappointing Chicago Bulls.

The Pacers’ payroll this season is a little less than $70 million. The Nets are paying $80 million … in luxury tax. After blowing a late lead in Miami last week put them on their first losing streak of the season, the Pacers have now come back to win three in a row to improve to 23-5.

"We let our play do the talking," West said. "We understand who we are. We’re still growing our names. Even Paul, he’s getting some attention, but people are just starting to get to know him."

The Pacers, who are about five years into a plan that has seen them build primarily through the draft, may get a taste of revenge when the All-Star Game arrives, though. They might as well book a block of rooms in New Orleans for President's Day weekend now.

With the win over the Nets, coach Frank Vogel suddenly has a magic number of 10 to clinch being the All-Star coach for the East. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is ineligible because he was the coach last season and the Pacers have an eight-game lead on the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Vogel could clinch the honor by the middle of January if the team keeps on this pace.

George appears headed to be voted in as a starter; he would be the first Pacer to get that honor since Jermaine O'Neal in 2003. Hibbert probably won’t get voted in -- the ballot no longer has a center designation -- but is nearly a lock to get there.

"LeBron can start at center," Hibbert said. "He can play all five positions."

West, a two-time All-Star, will get strong consideration, and even Lance Stephenson -- a player who would've drawn laughs when mentioned in All-Star talk a few months ago -- is gaining traction. Or at least the Pacers are trying to give it to him.

Indiana might not lead the league in attention, but it is among the leaders in confidence. Hibbert has been on his own campaign to win NBA defensive player of the year. Teammates have mentioned George as an MVP candidate. And now the vogue idea is to pitch Stephenson as an All-Star.

"He should be in the conversation," Vogel said. "He’s got to be in the conversation."

Stephenson had his third triple-double of the season Sunday against the Boston Celtics, then Monday he put on a show in his hometown in front of about 30 friends and family. He had a career-high 26 points with 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

With each basket, his buddies sitting above the Pacers bench would jump up and pump their fists. As the game got out of hand and Nets fans started leaving, the Stephenson section became more and more audible.

"I was pretty emotionally hyped for this game," Stephenson said. "I couldn't really sleep last night."

In the end, perhaps the Pacers ended up with the best deal in it all. The schedule has them off until Saturday, a break that allowed the team to give the players two days off over the holiday. Stephenson stayed in Brooklyn with family. The rest of the Pacers, at least according to Hibbert’s Twitter feed, spent their bus ride toward their Christmas vacation arguing over who has the better career: Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus.

Meanwhile, the Heat complained in a recent meeting with incoming commissioner Adam Silver that they had to travel to L.A. for Christmas when they’re the defending champs. Flying under the radar can, it seems, have its perks.

"Everything has played perfect for us. We didn’t get distracted with too much attention," said George, who had 26 points of his own in the win. "I feel like that’ll change in the future."

Top Offseason Moves

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
12:13
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Last summer it looked like the Rockets and Nets had won the offseason. Amin Elhassan explains that now we're seeing teams in action, the Mavericks, Celtics, Suns and Pacers are among those looking smart.

Different ways to get a stop

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
5:28
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
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25 under 25

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
2:20
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Kawhi Leonard was a candidate for Finals MVP, and he's only 14th on the list of elite young NBA players compiled by ESPN Insiders David Thorpe, Kevin Pelton and Amin Elhassan. That means a lot of things, including that good times are ahead for the NBA. Elhassan joins us to discuss.
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Surprisingly productive defenders

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
12:11
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Roy Hibbert
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsRoy Hibbert isn't the only reason the Pacers have the NBA's best defense.

A tricky thing about basketball is that it's tough to know what's happening on defense. So tough that credit and blame are almost impossible to hand out from afar.

Back in the days of isolation basketball, maybe you could say, with some confidence, that Mark Jackson just scored on John Starks and that's that.

But nowadays, by the time Kevin Durant gets to the rim, the primary defender was supposed to force him to the baseline instead of the middle, but he got to the middle anyway because he's Kevin Durant. The big man was supposed to meet Durant as he arrived near the hoop, but that big man has also been drilled to close out on the wide-open 3-point shooter he has left to be here. So he's a half-step farther away, and all that together created a tiny seam, which is all Durant needs.

You could probably watch a play like that and figure out good ways to blame all five defenders, or their coach, for the Durant bucket.

It's tricky stuff. And yet we can't ignore it -- indeed it really is half the game.

Offense is easy, by comparison. So many little things have long been tracked on offense -- who shot the ball, who passed it to them before they shot it and whether it was a 3 or a 2 have always been fundamental to recording a game. That stuff has always been in highlights and box scores. It's public, searchable and well-known. In the last decade, our understanding of all that has only grown with many new measures.

It's not hard to get a sense, at a glance, who can score.

On defense, though, wow. It used to be that notoriously noisy adjusted plus/minus was the go-to measure, but that's not readily publicly available anymore. There are SportVU cameras in the sky at every arena this season, but it takes a dozen hours of Zach Lowe or Kirk Goldsberry sifting to glean anything conclusive from them. Haralabos Voulgaris has long been tracking this stuff, but his database is private. In other words, it's tricky even to find out the most basic things such as which players were on the darned court when the other team scored most efficiently.

Which means making an evidence-based case that one player or another is awesome at defense is tough -- or nearly impossible this early in the season, when the sample sizes are small.

But we're not entirely without tools. And we do have lineup data, and the fact is there are combinations of players against whom it is crazy tough to score. Whether or not those players are the cause of the other team's bad offense, it's too soon to say. But if I were looking for players who are making it happen on defense, here are some names for the early season short list.

Casspi
Omri Casspi
The resurrection of the pioneering NBA Israeli's game has been told as one of stroking 3s and attacking the rim.

But something is certainly happening on defense, too, which may overshadow all of that.

With Casspi on the floor, the Rockets have given up 94.8 points per 100 possessions, which is almost as good as the league-leading Pacers. When he's on the bench, the team has given up 104.1 points per 100 possessions, which is pedestrian.

The defensive bottom line is that the Rockets have gotten 9.3 points worse on D when Casspi checks out. The number could be thick with early-season noise, but it's eye-opening nonetheless.

Looking at two-man combinations, you can see that almost any Rocket with Casspi is effective. With Terrence Jones and Casspi in, the Rockets only give up 85.8 points per 100 possessions. With Patrick Beverley: a stingy 90.6. Seven of the top 12 Rockets defensive combinations feature Casspi. Dwight Howard appears in that list only once ... with Casspi. Meanwhile, there aren't many Rocket lineups that perform well on D without Casspi.

It's possible his defensive qualities are overstated by these stats. But I don't think it's possible he's bad on defense.

I'd also suggest it's a long shot the plus/minus obsessed Rockets are eager to sit him. Casspi is also helping the team on offense. Terrence Jones and Chandler Parsons have been similarly effective. Which makes you wonder, as Omer Asik trade rumors heat up ... does it really make sense to trade for a shooting forward such as Ryan Anderson? Maybe so, but if playing Anderson means limiting minutes for Casspi, Jones or Parsons, it's tough to imagine the Rockets getting more effective in the process.

KCP
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Pistons' rookie hasn't gotten much attention this season, and rookie guards almost never have good defensive statistics.

But a quarter into the season, Caldwell-Pope looks like an exception.

The list of the NBA's top three-man defensive units so far this season are largely Pacers, as we'll discuss. At the time of this writing, nine of the top 25 are from Indiana, in fact. Which means players on 29 rosters are competing for the 16 remaining spots. So when I tell you that Caldwell-Pope is on the list five times himself, with a grab bag of Pistons ... well, something is up.

Worth noting: The Pistons, generally, aren't even good at D, ranking 20th in the league.

Dan Feldman and Rob Mahoney have both dug into this phenomenon recently. The gist is that the Pistons started the season terribly on defense, when Caldwell-Pope never played. They got a little better all in all, and then Chauncey Billups -- who has been terrible on defense at this age -- got hurt. So Caldwell-Pope earned his minutes by replacing a bad defender and while joining a lineup that was finding its feet.

He's also, to the naked eye, a wiry and active defender who gets around screens far more effectively than Billups or Rodney Stuckey.

Caldwell-Pope has played close to 500 minutes, during which time the Pistons have given up a stingy 96.9 points per 100 possessions.

When he has sat, Pistons are allowing 108.4. The difference is 11.5, at least some of which, you'd think, has to do with the fact that this rookie guard is living up to his predraft reputation as a committed defender.

MKG
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
It's a closely guarded secret that the Bobcats are good at something, but today their defense is fourth best in the league, just after the Bulls and just ahead of the Heat and Thunder. But line up the NBA's best defensive player combinations in terms of points allowed per possession, and Kidd-Gilchrist's long and noticeable name is all over the place. There are three four-man Bobcats lineups with MKG that play better defense than the best four-man combination of Indiana Pacers. If you rank the whole league's best two-man defensive combinations, the top five pairs are all Pacers -- except for Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson, who are third in the whole NBA in that ranking.

Kidd-Gilchrist, who is out with a broken finger at the moment, has played nearly 500 minutes this season, during which time the Bobcats have basically been the Pacers, with a 94.8 points per 100 possessions. When he's on the bench, they give up more than 100.

Jackson
Durant
Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson
This is fascinating. Durant is famous as a scorer and was not long ago derided for sub-par defense. Jackson is a guy who can create his own shot. But they can, evidently, make you feel them on defense.

A lot.

When opponents have the ball, Durant and Jackson have been, by the numbers, a top-10 NBA defensive duo. And it's not a simple case of the Thunder being great at defense. It's worth considering it might be something about this combination. One of the best five-man defensive units in the NBA (minimum 50 minutes played) is Durant and Jackson with Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins. That lineup is one of the Thunder's most used and has an incredible defensive rating of 78.3. At the moment, if you substitute Westbrook in for Jackson, you have one of the Thunder's most familiar lineups, and one that gives up 103.3 points. The Westbrook lineup faces the best opponents and would be expected to perform a little worse. But 25 points per 100 possessions is a massive difference.

It's also noteworthy that lots of Thunder players have great defensive ratings when they're on the floor. Jackson, though, is the standout for whom, thus far, sitting has led the team to play much worse defense. Could be a fluke. Worth keeping an eye on.

Related: Put defense and offense together, and Durant and Jackson are, at the moment, literally the best-performing duo in the whole NBA.

The other Pacers
We know Roy Hibbert is really good at defense. We know his Pacers have been one of the best defenses ever thus far. When Kevin Pelton (Insider) wrote about this the other day, he pointed out that the Pacers were giving up fewer than 94 points per 100 possessions in a league that averages 106. No other team is close. So the Pacers are killing it.

And as I just dug through NBA.com/stats looking at player combinations, there's no arguing Hibbert is the dominant reason. In fact, if you take every two-player combination in the league, from every team, the best combination out of all of those thousands, in terms of holding opponents to the fewest points per possession, is the Pacers' Roy Hibbert and David West.

In and of itself, that does not prove they are the two best defenders. Far from it. But it would be just about impossible for them to be so high on the list while being lousy at defense. And that they belong there is affirmed by this: The second best combination out of the whole league? Hibbert and Paul George. Fourth best is Hibbert and George Hill. Amazingly, Pacers account for nine of the league's dozen most effective two-player defensive combinations, and Hibbert is part of most of 'em.

Just as it's impossible to argue Hibbert is anything but great on defense, it's also impossible to argue that he's the only reason the Pacers are good. The Pacers' center is only playing 30 minutes a game, and the Pacers are good on defense all night.

This is not a question of the starting five carrying everybody. None of the Pacers' five-man lineups, in fact, are in the league's 10 most effective defensively. It really is a team effort.

When Hibbert is on the bench, the Pacers give up 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which would still be a top-10 NBA defense.

Of course, George, who has been discussed as a candidate as both MVP and a first-team all-NBA defense, is a big part of that. Even though he's the epicenter of the Pacers' offense -- in a role where many players would catch their breath on defense -- George expends serious energy guarding some of the league's finest scorers. Despite those challenges, he's still a mainstay among the Pacers' best defensive combinations. When George sits, opponents score a little better than when Hibbert sits.

But you know who else has been on the floor for long minutes of great defense for the Pacers? Almost everybody. David West, C.J. Watson, George Hill, Orlando Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Luis Scola -- these are not the Pacers' most famous defenders. I have named eight Pacers in this article. Put any three of those players together on the court, and Pacers are playing good defense.

When any or all of them are on the court, the Pacers as a team average better defensive performance than the Spurs, who are the league's second-best defensive team.

It's almost impossible to find any combination of Pacers players that is bad on defense. It's amazing. (3-point specialist Chris Copeland might be the one exception. He has not been great on defense, the statistics say, but he is also new to the team and has averaged less than four minutes a game, so it's hard to know what the future holds for him.)

Clearly, coach Frank Vogel knows something.

Amin Elhassan told you so

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
2:05
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Amin Elhassan predicted the Pistons offense would be terrible and the Pacers would win the East. And he's sticking to his prediction Kobe Bryant won't be meaningfully back anytime soon.

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