When you think of the Indiana Pacers’ teams of the past, which come to mind? The Paul George days, running up against a historic Miami team in the early 2010s? Maybe you go to the Jermaine O’Neale-led Pacers of the 2000s? Or perhaps earlier still, the Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson combinations in the 1990s?
Recollections of former lineups drive the legacy that a team leaves behind, title or not. It can be hard to notice when such memories are being made in the present, but this year’s Pacers have the potential to go down as one of the franchise’s most indelible teams.
Whilst their current defensive identity could only live on in the lowlights of fans’ memories (posting a 120.9 defensive rating (DRTG), second worst in the league); their electrifying offence has been a factor in the NBA seeing its most efficient opening month ever. Indiana is the lead horse in offensive potency after 18 games, possessing an offensive rating (ORTG) of 123.6. If this number were to hold to the end of the season, then we’re looking at the greatest statistical offence of all time. So what, or who is behind this historic performance coming out of the city of Indianapolis?
Currently sitting as the highest-scoring team on a per-game basis (128.8 points per game (PPG)) and the most efficient team of all time, Indiana can look to their young star in Tyrese Haliburton. Acquired through a trade with the Sacramento Kings last season, the 6’5” panther-like guard has exploded onto the wider NBA scene after showing real promise in Sacramento. Haliburton has displayed truly elite levels in the playmaking and shooting departments and his athleticism is near the top echelon of explosive guards.
On the playmaking front, his processing speed along with the pace and accuracy of his deliveries are undeniably top-tier.
It’s a real marvel watching Haliburton fashion defence-splintering passes whilst he and the offence move at a breakneck pace. He leads the league in assists per game at 11.8 and has the highest box creation score in the league, 22.3 (a statistic that estimates the number of open shots created for teammates in a game).
His mastery of different looks in pick-and-roll schemes has developed in similarity with the other best playmakers in the game. The sideline 3-man pick-and-roll is especially potent, as the sheer geography of the court stretches defences to a greater extent than a pick-and-roll would at the top of the key. This means that playing closer to the sideline creates so much more room for roll men to attack the rim based on the threat of the Pacers shooting third screener (or corner shooters), and the defence’s need to stick to Haliburton should he decide to take it himself.
Whilst his shot form looks unconventional, due to not having the strength to shoot long distance as a kid, he has never dipped below 40 per cent from three in his career.
Well, can’t you just rush him off the 3-point line? Not really. His midrange shot ranks second, behind only Nikola Jokic, in terms of players shooting greater than his 57 per cent mark with a minimum volume that matches his 4.9 field goals attempted.
The most notable impact that the Haliburton effect has on the Pacers’ offence is sheer pace. His dynamism on that front overextends defences, causing defensive preemptive movement in order to cope with the ridiculous speed of Indiana’s offence. Haliburton’s sprinting in full-court possessions doesn’t give defences any time to set up, thus leading to easy looks for teammates.
Want to try slow him down and turn the game into a half-court-focused matchup? Best of luck. His changes in acceleration in the half-court around multiple screens will always stress defensive rotations; without extensive coaching on how to make rotations on the fly, at pace and instinctively, a defence will inevitably lose a player and the Pacers have an avenue to score.
Haliburton is cementing himself as an All-NBA guard and elevating a preeminent Pacers’ offence that has obtained a first-class label.
Yet this is no heliocentric-based offence. Production, on that end of the floor, does not solely rely on Haliburton’s contributions.
Whilst he is the chief impetus on Indiana’s pace, there is an incredible willingness from the rest of the team to sprint up the court on every possession, freeing them to have the confidence in the offence to shoot extremely early in the shot clock. In turn, Indiana possesses the fourth-fastest pace in the last 30 years at 104.2, leading the league in shots per game.
Their pace is so dangerous that opposition teams are in a constant scramble mode if they fail to score against the Pacers’ defence (positing a 134.3 ORTG after getting stops).
This slight advantage on the volume of shots taken has induced an incredible consistency in high totals. They have five games of 120+ points, five games of 130+ points, two games of 140+ points and two games of 150+ points. Their lowest score wasn’t even below 100 – scoring 104 against a crushing Celtics defence! Contributing further to this, their effective field goal percentage is the highest of all time at a mind-blowing 59.1 per cent.
Consisting of a heavy diet of drives – attempting the most in the league – and being top five in 3-point percentage, the surrounding cast is just as lethal as their frontman. The 3-man pick-and-roll is an NBA staple, but Indiana’s pace severely limits baseline defenders’ reaction time. They either collapse to stop the team that takes most shots off of drives, or leave a wide-open corner three. Pick your poison.
Additionally, Indiana’s roster construction, with shrewd off-season acquisitions in Bruce Brown and Obi Toppin, from general manager Chad Buchanan, has lent itself to suit a high-flying offence. Flexibility is the name of the game for Indiana, and they have it in spades. The balance of ballhandlers and decision makers like Brown, Bennedict Mathurin and Buddy Hield, enriches this system by permitting the coach, Rick Carlisle, to always have a spark on the floor. Great shooters such as Haliburton and Hield, are paired with more spacing alongside Myles Turner and Aaron Nesmith. High-flying rim threats have been added to this team with the aforementioned Toppin, Jalen Smith and their young rookie Jarace Walker, to further maximise the space and havoc the offence creates.
The historic offensive output in Indiana has arrived on the back of multiple records being set in this category over the last few years; an ever-increasing trend that sees offences find more ways to expose defensive inadequacies. For context, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, the infamous 73-9 squad, posited an ORTG of 114.5. That would currently sit below league average today! This is not to demean Indiana’s monumental start to the season, but rather to show how far the league has come in under a decade and where it still might go in the years to come.
Teams in recent years have realised that without the dominant stars in the league, volume of shots and pace can keep you in a game. Look to the resurgent Sacramento Kings last year, following a similar mould and becoming a Western Conference playoff team. Indiana’s offence has followed suit. The Pacers fit perfectly with the rapidity required for a system that takes around a third of their shots in the first eight seconds of the shot clock. Helmed by a historic playmaking guard in Haliburton, it will be interesting to see how their season turns out.
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Early signs though, are that we have an emergent team that Pacers fans will be able to look back on, in time, and reminisce on the excitement their offence generates.