The Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers played one of the best regular season games of the year on Sunday, a double-overtime thriller that saw Paul George and LeBron James trade haymakers for most of the night. James’s Cavaliers finally pulled away in the second extra period, a much-needed win for Cleveland, who is still fighting for the No. 1 seed in the East. The loss could be devastating for the Pacers, who are in a dogfight with the Heat, Bulls and suddenly surging Hornets for the final playoff spot in the East.
After watching George go toe to toe with LeBron for 58 minutes, it was kind of baffling to consider how their teams are on opposite ends of the playoff bracket. The Pacers long looked to be a playoff team, but they have lost six of seven games entering Monday, and have not had any level of consistency since a mid-February swoon.
On paper, the Pacers appear to be better than a group battling to reach .500. George is one of the best two-way players in the game, and a top-five player in his conference. After garnering some MVP hype in 2014, George is having his best offensive season ever, and he looks fully recovered from the horrific leg injury he suffered three years ago. Surrounding George are some intriguing pieces—a budding star in Myles Turner, a former All-Star in Jeff Teague, the microwave-y Monta Ellis and rangy Thad Young.
In practice, however, the pieces haven’t proven to be a great fit. Turner has real potential to be a star, but despite his offensive gifts—including a soft touch near the rim and from the three-point line—he can be a bit timid at times taking a backseat to George. Teague has been more or less the player he was in Atlanta, but he needs the ball in his hands more than the point guard he replaced, George Hill, making him a slightly worse fit in Indy than his predecessor. Young has played very well, but he doesn’t shoot enough from the perimeter to make himself a true stretch option at the four.
Ellis, however, is the team’s biggest problem. Once one of the league’s best professional scorers, Ellis’s game has dropped off offensively, and his defense is killing the Pacers. Indy’s defense is 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Monta on the bench, and its offense is slightly better as well. It makes little sense that Ellis is part of the Pacers’ most-used five-man lineup, because Indy’s net rating takes a huge leap when Ellis is replaced by either C.J. Miles or Glenn Robinson III.
The re-addition of Lance Stephenson could eventually force Ellis out of the rotation, but Stephenson’s return to the Pacers is happening a little late in the game for a team that had plenty of evidence about which lineups were working and which ones weren’t. If there’s one thing Stephenson could add, it’s a bit of identity to a team sorely lacking one.
The Pacers of yesteryear, the ones that battled LeBron’s Heat to the bitter end, had an incredibly cohesive starting five that established a defense-first identity. Even when Larry Bird moved on from Roy Hibbert and David West departed, Frank Vogel maintained his touch on the defensive end. Indy finished third in defensive efficiency last year, a season after finishing eighth despite missing George for 76 games.
This season? The Pacers are a middling 18th in defensive efficiency, and that’s with Turner defending better than DeAndre Jordan at the rim and George hounding stars on the perimeter. Perhaps Stephenson’s infusion into the roster can re-ignite some of the old spark that allowed Indy to bully opponents away from the basket, but asking Lance Stephenson to fix your team’s problems is the definition of desperation. Hiring Nate McMillan last summer to take over Vogel also stands out as a head-scratching decision.
George must sense that his team should be better. He’s given some eye-opening quotes this season, highlighting his frustrations of another up-and-down year. George can opt out of his contract in 2018, and he’ll likely be heavily involved in trade rumors again this summer.
The Pacers could have money to play with in the off-season, though in the cap-boom era, it could take another year for salaries to become palatable for a small-market team like Indy. That leaves Bird and the front office with some big decisions to make. A couple smart additions and the Pacers could leap back up to the top half of the conference, but trading George could allow the start of a full rebuild.
For now, the Pacers will continue to battle for the last playoff spot in the East. Whether they make it or not, after a disappointing season and important decisions looming, their challenges are only just beginning.