Consider your message received, Roy Hibbert.
On Wednesday night, the Indiana center took to Twitter and declared that he's made it his goal to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year this season. He also called his shot that Paul George will win MVP this season. But Hibbert probably didn't need to embark on a campaign trail to get our attention. Truth is, his Pacers are playing loud enough to let their game speak for itself.
It's impossible to ignore that the Indiana Pacers sit atop the NBA standings with a big, fat 5-0 record, the only team that's still undefeated this season. They've trounced their opponents by 11.0 points per game on average, which actually understates how dominant they've been this season since they play at a snail's pace. And to drive home the point, they just put a beatdown on the Chicago Bulls on national television.
We see you, Indiana. After pushing the Miami Heat to the brink of elimination last postseason, the Pacers haven't just picked up where they've left off. By all indications, they've gotten better. Which brings us to this question: Are they better than Miami -- like, right now?
It's a fair proposition given their astounding growth in the early going and Miami's ho-hum efforts so far. Should Miami be concerned? Here are three reasons the answer is yes.
Hibbert's Dikembe Mutombo act
The Pacers have blitzed to a 5-0 record by continuing to suffocate opponents on the defensive end. Although they haven't blown off any doors with their offense, the defense has allowed an NBA-best 85.6 points per 100 possessions. And in the middle of it all, quite literally, stands Hibbert, who already gave the Heat a host of problems in the playoffs. After finishing 10th in last season's Defensive Player of the Year vote despite anchoring the top defense in the land, the 7-foot-3 behemoth has managed to pack on muscle in the offseason without sacrificing agility. Hibbert has blocked a baffling 5.2 shots per game so far this season, marking the most rejections he's ever averaged across any five-game stretch of his career.
LeBron James and Roy Hibbert
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These days Hibbert is blocking shots like another G-Town alumnus -- Dikembe Mutumbo.
And thanks to SportVU 3-D player-tracking technology, we can dig deeper into Hibbert's defensive numbers beyond his gaudy block totals. There we find that Hibbert isn't merely cherry-picking his blocked shots, he's altering a ton of others as well. It's a tiny sample size, but it hints at Hibbert's extraordinary basket protection that opponents are shooting just 28.9 percent when Hibbert is within five feet of the rim and the shooter. Seen another way, if you're taking a layup with Hibbert nearby, the odds of it going in are lower than a typical heave from beyond the 3-point line. Think about that.
But what's most impressive about Hibbert's current reign is that he's owning the paint without letting fouls get in the way. This is particularly startling once you consider his track record in this department. His rookie foul rate of 7.7 times per 36 minutes back in 2007-08 still goes down as the highest whistle rate of any player since 2004-05 (min. 1,000 minutes played). Eight seasons later, no one's topped it.
Safe to say he's a different player these days. He's cut his foul rate by more than half since that rookie campaign, earning a foul call a career-low 3.4 times every 36 minutes. Protecting the rim without fouling may be the most valuable quality for a big man, and so far, Hibbert appears to have mastered that skill probably better than anyone else. Not bad for a guy who couldn't take three steps without getting called for a foul. If he keeps this torrid pace up, he won't just win the Defensive Player of the Year award; it'll be renamed in his honor.
Make no mistake about it, Hibbert has competition for the defensive hardware -- and he won't need to look far to find company. After receiving a max extension in the offseason, George certainly hasn't lost interest on that side of the floor. He remains a two-way beast on the wing with an overall game that perhaps only LeBron James can match. At just 22 years old, George was the youngest player voted in the top 10 of the Defensive Player of the Year vote last season. (He finished eighth, two spots ahead of Hibbert.)
LeBron James and Paul George
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Paul George is emerging as LeBron James' one true rival in the East.
George appears to be just getting started. Using his length to lock down the opposing perimeter scorer, George has been the perfect first line of defense in front of Hibbert's safety net. Consider this: When Hibbert and George have played together so far this season, opponents have scored just 75.1 points per 100 possessions in 141 minutes -- the lowest rate for any duo in the league, according to NBA.com data. That output is probably around what we'd expect if a team sneaked a sixth player on the defensive end.
Of course, the Pacers' defensive numbers should regress to the mean a bit. After all, five games does not a season make. The question is whether we can say the same about George's explosive start on offense. George has basically morphed into Kevin Durant there, blending efficiency with high-volume shooting from just about everywhere. Most impressive is that he's shooting 44 percent on 7.2 attempts per game from deep, helping to boost his true shooting percentage to a scorching 62.6 percent.
But is it sustainable? When George absorbed the primary scoring responsibilities with Danny Granger out last season, he consequently watched his true shooting percentage tumble from 55.5 percent in 2011-12 to 53.1 percent in 2012-13. And that follows what we know about the usage-efficiency trade-off effect. But this season, George is defying the general laws of the game; George has managed to raise his efficiency level while also watching his usage rate soar to a career-high 29.2 percent. That's tough to do.
Although it's certainly possible that George's improved jumper isn't a mirage, the smart money is that George will descend back to Earth at some point as the season progresses. On a per-game basis, he's now averaging 25.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists along with a 27.2 PER. That's enough to get tossed into the MVP discussion and further legitimize his standing as James' true rival in the East.
The real difference-maker
The ascensions of Hibbert and George should make life easier against the Heat; they aren't interested in matching the Heat in sheer star power. That's a fool's errand. In reality, it was Indiana's anemic bench that needed the biggest overhaul this season. And so far, so good.
Thanks to newcomers Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and the surprising Donald Sloan, the Pacers haven't missed a step going to their bench even though George Hill has missed three starts with a bothersome hip. The Pacers have outscored opponents by a margin of 4.4 points every 48 minutes this season when they've gone to their reserve core. In the postseason against the Heat? Indy's bench got pummeled by 21.8 points per 48 minutes by Miami, according to NBA.com data. D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Gerald Green were borderline unplayable last season, and the Pacers promptly cut ties over the summer.
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Luis Scola's arrival has given Indiana's roster depth and aggressiveness.
Propelled by a smash-mouth defensive mentality, the Pacers could look at the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who knocked off the more glamorous Los Angeles Lakers squad that featured four future Hall of Famers. It's worth noting that the Pistons stumbled upon some luck by facing a Lakers team that essentially played without Karl Malone, who had a bad knee. Like all championship hopefuls, the Pacers likely would need some good fortune on their side to overcome the Heat, although they already received some of that last postseason with Dwyane Wade's knee limitations.
But to say that the Pacers lack a superstar like that title-winning Pistons team would undercut what George has been doing this season. With George and Hibbert chasing hardware and the revamped bench unit showing the early returns, the Pacers have every reason to feel like Miami's equal these days. Although it remains to be seen whether they can ultimately top the defending champs come playoff time about six months from now, the Pacers have certainly shored up their most pressing concerns. And these days, it's easy to see why the Heat might be the ones concerned. Indiana's message is sent, loud and clear.