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Killer Lineup: The Pacers' stingy starters

2/25/2013


Miami Heat
George Hill | Lance Stephenson | Paul George | David West | Roy Hibbert

Minutes Played: 877

Offensive Rating: 107.7 points per 100 possessions

Defensive Rating: 93.6 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

Pacers coach Frank Vogel is a man who appreciates uniformity. Last season, his team’s primary lineup logged 1,000 minutes. No other unit in the NBA topped 750 minutes. This season, the Pacers’ starters once again lead all five-man units in minutes played -- only this time it’s George Hill and Lance Stephenson in place of Darren Collison (traded during the offseason) and Danny Granger (made his debut Saturday after missing the first 55 games of the season because of patellar tendinosis).

When newly assembled units struggle to find themselves offensively, coaches often will preach patience and time. In the case of the Pacers this season, that largely has worked. With each passing month in Granger’s absence, Indiana’s starting five have grown more comfortable as an offense, and they’ve been impressively efficient in the past 20 games or so.

For one, they get into their stuff more quickly. That swing sequence at the top of the floor that opens many of their half-court possessions -- wing-to-big-to-wing -- happens promptly and crisply. From here, the Pacers generally go one of a few different ways.

First, there’s George, who’s the unit’s most effective (and only true) creator off the bounce. The Pacers might isolate him inside the arc on the left side and let him work over a smaller defender. They’ll also use Hibbert to pin down for George to pop out to the perimeter. With enough separation, George will take the shot, but if his defender is close, he’ll put the ball on the floor.

Comparatively few of George’s possessions originate from high pick-and-rolls. Every once in a while in early offense, West will set a little step-up screen, but George clearly prefers to rub his guy off West or Hibbert at the foul-line extended area about 15 feet from the basket. Overall, George is a player who likes a layer of space around him while he’s working on offense (it’s not unusual to see George politely wave off a pick). Given that tendency, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine him playing alongside some guys who can actually shoot the ball from distance.

With West and Hibbert on the floor, the Pacers look inside a fair amount. There’s a certain obligation to feed Hibbert if his defender ends up on the high side. He’ll also see the ball if the matchup advantage is wildly in his favor. Despite Hibbert’s struggles to find his hook shot, there’s been no detectable fall-off in his touches.

More 2012-13 Killer Lineups

West at the elbow is a higher-grade option. Big men with the ability to control a possession from the high post are becoming a less common breed. From that spot, West can turn around and fire a jumper, but more often than not he surveys the scene. As West watches the defense, he’s patient, scanning the perimeter. Who’s cheating? Who’s inclined to cheat if I get into my move? If West finds something, he’ll kick the ball out. If not, he might unleash a ball fake or just return it to the top of the floor.

The Pacers do a nice job of using West on the weakside elbow as a sensible release option. When teams load up on George on one side of the floor, the Pacers have increasingly looked West’s way as the logical counter. George is getting better and better at reading the court for his next best option, in large part because he’s learned that looking to West at that spot is generally the answer.

The ball doesn’t spend a great amount of time in the hands of Hill, who’s far more of a cutter than an initiator in the half court. Defenses have universally run under any ball screen set for Hill, and he’s become considerably more willing to shoot the 3-ball if given sufficient space. A couple of times a game, Hill will dribble left of one of those picks, then launch a shot from distance. Overall, he’s 36.9 percent from beyond the arc.

The unit generally plays together in six-, eight-, sometimes even 10-minute stints, and at some point, Stephenson will get a chance to initiate in the half court. Stephenson probably will never be a guy with whom you can create beautiful basketball, but playing with this unit has refined him as a player. It’s not just the shooting percentages, which are way up. Stephenson is a better decision-maker, a better mover and still a beast on the break. Sometimes when a player goes from a bench mob to the junior member of a five-man unit, all of the manual labor and errand-running that come with that job make him value his time with the ball more.

How it works defensively

Exceptionally well, which is an affirmation of some traditional truths about basketball. Even as the NBA undergoes a radical sea change with respect to size and position, being big is still an asset. Virtually every single night they take the floor, the Pacers’ starters have an enormous advantage -- literally. With the 6-foot-2 Hill replacing the 6-0 Collison in the first unit, the Pacers have legitimate length at all five positions and tower over opponents. Logically enough, this group works its strength.

It’s tough to move downhill against the Pacers in the half court because everywhere an offensive player turns, there are limbs blocking his path. For similar reasons, it’s also difficult to shoot over the top, move off the ball and more generally, find open parking spots anywhere on the floor. As a result, defenses have to work hard to get clean looks against the Pacers’ first unit.

Strong defenses tend to rotate well, but the elite ones don’t have to rotate at all. We can confidently place the Pacers’ starters in that group. Individually, each perimeter player contains his man at the point of attack, while West and Hibbert can handle just about any one-on-one matchup they’re assigned. Hill, Stephenson and George don’t have to worry about finding shooters because they’re already on top of them anytime they’re within a couple of feet. Opponents get fewer than 15 3-point attempts per 48 minutes against this unit (among the most frequently used lineups, only Chicago’s top two units do better), and converting only 31.3 percent of them.

George is a useful case study in why opponents can’t access normally reliable second and third options after the Pacers stop the ball on the first. It’s fun to watch George defend on the weakside. When he’s off the ball covering a stationary player on the perimeter, George will confidently run through a sequence of motions -- move toward the action on the ball side, dance back a couple of steps when a passing lane to his man opens up, cheat again once that window closes but not without a quick look back to make sure his guy hasn’t moved to a different spot where he could hurt the Pacers.

There’s no science to measure off-ball defense, but when you observe a player make every step toward and away from the action with so much purpose, when bad gambles and iffy decision occur so rarely, it becomes easy to understand how a unit is surrendering only 93.6 points per 100 possessions.

Now, is this a case of a wing player like George having the luxury of playing alongside two big men who can handle the pick-and-roll? Or do the big guys excel because they play with a point guard like Hill who can corral opposing point guards and fight over screens when necessary, and wings like George (6-8) and Stephenson (6-5) who can hold their own against attackers who might post up or drive against lesser defenders?

In the case of Indiana’s featured lineup, the answer is both. There’s a mutual benefit between big and small that carries over from the perimeter to the basket area. Guys remain in their area, but Hibbert has a lot to do with that. He rarely leaves the paint, and why should he, because at 7-2 he’s far more effective playing goalie than he would be commuting from the top of the floor off a hard show or jamming a screener.

If a guard is able to beat Hill or Stephenson, Hibbert lies in wait and can contain him with his outstretched arms, all the while shading his man, which allows West or a weakside defender to stay at home. With few open targets surrounding him, the guard now has to find a way to magically deliver the ball to the hoop against a deceptively quick-footed, lurching giant -- and if he gets close enough, probably a second long-armed defender.

West might be even be a worse candidate for exploitation in the pick-and-roll for an offense. West meets the ball handler way up at the top of the floor, then chases down his original matchup (or other big man if Hibbert picks up West’s guy, sometimes the case when it’s a power forward with some skills). This is an exhausting anaerobic workout for a big guy, but the 6-9 West never stops moving for a second. His gift is knowing how to time his departures and arrivals. West can launch an all-out blitz on a point guard if Jason Maxiell is his man. But if he’s guarding someone who could potentially cause some trouble, especially as a popper, West will temper his attack.

Sometimes, a frustrated offense will all but abandon a pick-and-roll attack against the Pacers, which is why you see opponents stagnate. If you can’t get anything against the pick-and-roll, can’t capably penetrate by isolating your perimeter guys, and if Hibbert is going to confront anyone who gets within 8 feet of the basket, then what do you have?

Finally, with Granger active again, does Vogel take minutes away from this unit to accommodate Granger's return? The more difficult question to answer for Vogel is whether he can afford to.