After the Indiana Pacers beat the Brooklyn Nets 96-91 on Saturday night, improving to 7-0 on the season, David West was pleased that his team was picking up right from its success in 2012-13—and this time with an added punch: more efficient scoring.
"Last year, we struggled offensively, and we were able to win games—79 points, whatever it was—because our defense was strong," West told Bleacher Report.
While the Pacers are still depending on their defense—90.7 points per game allowed last season; 84.5 now through the NBA's only undefeated start at 8-0—they've improved in a few key tactical ways offensively, which is going to help them separate further from the deeper Eastern Conference.
At the core of that progression is the versatility of West, Roy Hibbert and Luis Scola, the Pacers' newest addition, who can all not only post up, but also pick-and-pop and knock down mid-range jump shots. Their shared special skill set has had a big effect on the team, both in terms of their own improved shooting and how it's helped their teammates.
"Having three bigs with the skills they have is a luxury," an NBA scout said. "I don't think any other team can say they have what Indiana has going for them. These days, finding quality bigs is hard, but they have three. It makes the decision-makers (in Indiana) look like geniuses. Also, Indy got a steal in Scola, and it could very well pay dividends in the playoffs."
First, here's a look at West, Scola and Hibbert's individual impact: When they've been utilized as pick-and-roll roll men, which also accounts for jumpers out of screens, they're each averaging 1.067 or more points per play, according to Synergy Sports.
No other team this season comes close to having three big men in that scoring category.
"(Coach Frank) Vogel, as well as the players, understand their strengths, so he gets them the ball where they can have the most success," the scout said. "It's a simple game when you do that. West and Scola are great pick-and-pop bigs. Hibbert is primarily a deep roll man but can make the 15-footer. Pick your poison."
After a season in which the Pacers shot 37.2 percent from 10 to 24 feet, according to NBA.com, they're now at a whopping 46.7 percent. Scola is the best of the bigs at 20-for-32 (62.5 percent), West is 20-for-41 (48.8) and Hibbert is 8-for-16 (50) from 10 to 24 feet. While West and Scola have always been solid mid-range shooters, Hibbert is continuing to improve in that area from last season, in which he shot his best mark of his career from 10 to 15 feet (42.4 percent), according to Hoopdata.com.
Now with Scola in the mix, Vogel runs more plays for the three of them to get open in the mid-range area. While West, Scola and Hibbert haven't shared the court yet at the same time, according to NBA.com, as Scola usually subs in for West and Ian Mahinmi for Hibbert, the effectiveness of Hibbert alongside West or Scola is evident. West and Hibbert have a plus-20.6 plus-minus rating in 167 minutes together, and Scola and Hibbert have a plus-14.4 rating in 66 minutes together.
Being around the team on and off the court, there is a strong sense that West, Scola and Hibbert have another important quality, which the media and analysts don't always account for: their chemistry. They talk about having no egos, not worrying about minutes and a willingness to share the basketball. Each one of them is just as selfless as the next, and that shows in their compatibility on the court.
Based on the shooting accuracy of West, Scola and Hibbert, Vogel makes it a point in practice and film sessions of going over different strategies and formations that bring a second defender to the Pacers' ball-handler. That way, the big men can get more outside looks.
"It's just all reads," West said. "We talk about bringing two guys to the ball, and then it's time to move it. More often than not, guys make the right reads and guys make the right plays."
West, Scola and Hibbert's ability to stretch the defense also comes with a benefit to the other Pacers players on the court. The big men "increase the driving lanes," as Vogel told Bleacher Report from Indianapolis on Monday. West also said when he or Scola are on the court outside of the paint, their presence sometimes saves Hibbert from a double-team on the block.
"Spacing is always the oil to the offensive engine," Vogel said. "To have big guys who can space the floor is a luxury, but their ability to pass the ball and make plays is important as well."
That spacing has given, for starters, extra room for Paul George to operate one-on-one and sometimes encounter fewer bodies around the basket. That helps even for the talented rising star, who's faced with more difficult tasks now being front and center on every team's scouting report.
So far this season, he's the second-best isolation scorer in the league (1.217 points per play), behind Kevin Durant (1.321) based on a minimum of 20 plays in that setup, according to Synergy Sports.
Second, the spacing has helped the Pacers make a higher percentage from beyond the arc. After finishing at 34.7 percent last season, they're now at 38.5 percent, while hitting about one more three-pointer per game (from 6.9 to 7.8). The team's three main gunners, George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson, are shooting 40.4 percent, 46.7 percent and 51.4 percent from long range, respectively.
"That's something that we worked on this offseason—coming back better shooters, learning spacing," Hill said. "Adding Luis Scola (along with West) gives us two of the best power forwards in the NBA as far as mid-range shooters. They can also post it up and know how to play."
George agreed with Hill, saying recently that West and Scola are the "best tandem in the league, hands down," among power forwards.
"They have the same style of game," he said. "They're aggressive defensively and they do their job down low. They bruise defenders on the block and they're able to make the mid-range shot. That's a luxury to have."
West and Scola, along with Hibbert and Mahinmi, have applied that physical nature to the defensive end, where opponents have had very little daylight to get shots off inside. While Hibbert is averaging an NBA-best 4.4 blocks per game, West (1.5), Mahinmi (1.3) and Scola (0.6) are also enforcers, and the team is holding opponents to 32.3 points in the paint and 11.1 second-chance points per game—both near the top of the league.
"They have defensive knowledge and a will to play defense," Vogel said. "I've always said, 'David West is the quarterback of our defense, Roy is the anchor at the rim and Paul is the anchor on the perimeter.'"
West added, "Our defense is our staple. We feel like we can guard anybody well enough to win any game. We're just going to continue to grow. We're not going to overreact to the start that we've had. We're proud of it."
While the Pacers players are aware of the X's and O's behind their team's success, especially the value of the "Big Three," they believe they wouldn't be able to execute as we all they do without the bond they have on and off the court. Hill said the guys are "so close of a group" that they don't let too many things get in their way.
Hill didn't credit one player for taking the lead with establishing camaraderie. He said the players put in the effort to get to know one another in their personal and professional lives, and the personalities just meshed together. This week, with two days off before their next game on Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, as they look to improve to 9-0, Hill said the guys will get together to play the new Call of Duty video game, "Ghosts." Hill said they're "like brothers off the court."
"You don't see that in teams that often," he said. "When you have a team that loves to play with each other and a team that holds each other accountable, you cannot do anything but shoot for success. We might get eight or nine of us out just to go eat breakfast on a day off. Sometimes when we're on the road, like 12 out of our 15 players will go out to dinner together. We do family functions over each other's house, like game nights, movie nights or date nights. We all went to a haunted house (this Halloween) and we all went to go play paintball. We're not just a basketball team."
So how does a squad who's the only undefeated one left prepare next and stay focused?
"It's easy to get comfortable when you have success," Hill said, "so we're just trying to keep everybody humble and make sure that we're still crossing our T's and dotting our I's, and not taking steps back. I think we have a great opportunity this season."
With West, Scola and Hibbert manning the middle, the Pacers will have a unique edge keeping defenses honest all season—and into the playoffs.