A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Indiana Pacers rebuild: Taking advantage of draft mistakes and defensive accountability

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Indiana Pacers logo 2006–present

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One of the newcomers to the playoffs this season are the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers last made the playoffs in 2006 and have been rebuilding since. They’re back with one of the league’s youngest rosters including an all-star scoring SF in Danny Granger, a skilled 7’2 C who plays defense and in the post offensively in Roy Hibbert, an emerging starting PF and former National Player of the year in Tyler Hansbrough and a young SG with star athleticism and fluidity in Paul George. Sounds like a team who cashed in high lottery picks for years, right? Not quite.

Granger and Hibbert were both taken 17th in their drafts, Hansbrough 13th and George 10th. Given the low odds of drafting outside of the top 9, getting this much talent is a remarkable run of draft steals. How did they do it? Well, Granger and Hibbert were ranked as top 7 prospects most of their years with obvious physical talents to go along with high skill levels. They dropped late in the game – Granger due to knee concerns and Hibbert due to weight and assertiveness questions and both were seniors, which usually brings a stigma. Getting these two was a case of recognizing pure talent, both had legitimate NBA bodies and skill and it was a wrong for either to fall that far regardless of nitpicking concerns. Hansbrough was deemed too undersized and unathletic to translate his game to the NBA. He turned out both bigger and more athletic than scouted – and his midrange game and instincts getting to the free throw line has translated. George had all the natural tools you want in a SG – Elite speed, length, perimeter skill and a natural fluidity and feel for the court that is often the most important thing. But he didn’t put up great college stats even in a weak conference which threw scouts off even if the rest was there. Also, teammate Darren Collision acquired by trade also fits the model as drafted as a senior too low, with an NBA body and skill level to fit in a starting lineup. For all these players what they had outweighed what they didn’t have and winning mindsets and work ethics have helped them reach their potential.

Dropping players on draft boards for being seniors is warranted to an extent. The concern with seniors is they have a lower development curve going forward. In the case of players without NBA caliber skills or fluidity for their position after 4 years – like say Terrence Williams or Joey Graham, this is very concerning. However players like Granger, Hibbert and star senior draftee Brandon Roy came out of college with high skill levels ready to translate to the NBA, to go along with physical talent. In this case being a senior is not an issue. The important part isn’t that being a senior makes a player a worse prospect, it’s what being a senior means – less room to improve skills. Which is a much bigger deal for undeveloped than developed prospects. In the case of Paul George, the concern with playing in a lesser conference is usually that it leads to misleading star level statistics. George didn’t even have great statistics for his conference, so they couldn’t be misleading. In his case as a player getting picked on talent rather than college production, his lower conference shouldn’t have made a difference.

It also bears mentioning why the Pacers are in the playoffs – Their DRTG is 9th in the league despite a midseason coaching change changing their structure. Compare this to many of the other youngest teams in the league – Minnesota, Washington, Golden State, Toronto, Sacramento all of whom are in the bottom 11 in the league defensively. The Pacers have accountability defensively passed onto prospects. Hibbert and George came onto the team knowing they had to defend to get minutes and that their shots would be limited until they improved. Brook Lopez gets drafted by New Jersey and during his rookie season he looked like on his way to standout defense and rebounding. 3 years later gives as little effort defensively and on the boards as anyone. Wes Johnson goes to Minnesota and ends up lost without proper direction on either end. Is he going to develop defensively when nobody else is playing it? Or will he go the way of Brook Lopez? A good culture can act as ‘fertilizer’ for prospects. The Pacers made the right draft picks, but they also taught them to play the right way and to fit into a system which made them better players more motivated to improve. This is why they’re in the playoffs and will likely stay there, while Minnesota can’t even win over 25 games is the post Kevin Garnett era. Minnesota can’t defend and has no structure at all. The Pacers have the structure needed to win.

A lot of people use the Oklahoma City Thunder as an example of the right way to build in the draft. But the reason Oklahoma City has become so succesful so fast is their prospects playing the right way. They bring it defensively, are committed to making the right decision rather than caring about stats offensively, and they listen to their coach. That’s the secret perennially lottery bound teams miss. The Pacers might not have the talent to make fans excited about their future but they do have the right mindset, which can be just as hard to get. Until teams like Minnesota and Sacramento start emphasizing defense and accountability it won’t matter how many lottery picks they get, franchises who build teams to play the right way like Indiana, Oklahoma City and Portland will be sitting above them in the standings laughing.

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