The Indiana Pacers have been one of the NBA’s biggest surprises to start the season.
At 9-5 they’re fourth in the Eastern Conference, sporting a top-10 offence and top-five defence.
They have been led by Paul George, who just over a year after a traumatic leg injury, is having the best season of his career, putting up career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and shooting percentages.
On Tuesday, the Pacers exploded in a 123-106 win over the Washington Wizards, going an absurd 19-26 from three-point range, led by Paul George’s 40 points (7-8 from three) and C.J. Miles’ 32 points (8-9 from three).
It was obviously a feel-good win, as the Pacers cemented that the NBA should fear them. George even joked afterward that he and Miles resembled the most dangerous offensive team in the Western Conference:
And while the Pacers can ride the current momentum and feel reassured that George is back on track and better than ever, there’s also a big red flag about their offence. Much of it is unsustainable.
The Pacers currently rank ninth in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 102 points per 100 possessions. They’re first in the NBA in three-point percentage, hitting an astounding 41.6% of their three-point attempts.
While that’s an incredible number through 14 games, it almost surely will fall. Last season, the Warriors, who sport the best three-point shooter the NBA has ever seen, shot 39.8% from three.
The Pacers simply aren’t built for this mark to last, barring some unforeseen change in their players’ composition. George is shooting 45.7% from three; his career average is 36.7%. Miles is shooting 45.9% from three; he’s a career 35% shooter. George Hill is shooting 44.8% from three; he’s a career 37% shooter.
Those three players are hitting three-pointers at a historic rate, but their respective years in the NBA indicate that those numbers will fall down. Their regression could be balanced out by players like Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey getting better from behind the arc (25% and 18%, respectively), but neither are three-point aces themselves, with career three-point averages of 31% and 30%, respectively.
Furthermore, their quality of shots indicate that they’re likely to come back down to Earth. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Pacers are fourth in the NBA in pull-up shots taken per game; however, they’re hitting just 34% of them, 24th in the league. Similarly, they’re 10th in pull-up three-point attempts per game, but they’re hitting just 24% of those shots. Given their likely offensive regression, that’s a high number of bad shot attempts per game.
The Pacers also aren’t getting great, open looks. They’re just 18th in assists per game, and according to the NBA’s player tracking, they take the sixth-most shot attempts per game with a defender 0-2 feet away — what the NBA classifies as “very tight.” They’re hitting 45% of those shots — 15th in the NBA.
Conversely, the Pacers are 22nd in “wide open” shots, when a defender is six feet or further away. They’re hitting a solid 46% of those shots, sixth in the league, but they’re not generating many of those looks.
Their three-point barrage on the Wizards could be classified as a mirage. The Wizards defended many of the shots well, but the Pacers were just red hot. George hit tough three-pointers off of excellent dribble moves, as seen below, but they’re not any coach’s definition of preferred offence:
A closer look at some of George and Miles’ shots show that the Wizards contested the looks pretty well.
This CJ Miles three came from incredibly far out and late in the clock:
These types of shots are particularly a problem for George. Nearly 50% of his shots are coming on pull-ups and he’s hitting just 37% of them. Meanwhile, he’s incredibly efficient on catch-and-shoots, hitting 53.5% of his opportunities, but those constitute just 27% of his total shot arsenal. Part of this is because the Pacers offence relies on him, but part of this is also just bad shot selection. If we go back to his last healthy season, 2013-14, 36% of his shots that season were pull-ups, and he hit just 36% of them. His current mark is right in line for his career.
If there’s reason to be optimistic about the Pacers, it’s that their defence is off to such a good start, surprising in part because of their shallow front-court. Thought to be turning to a more offensive approach, the Pacers strength still lies in their defence, while their offence has been better than expected.
Nonetheless, after almost one month, the Pacers’ improvements on offence seem unsustainable. There’s plenty of room for regression, and when that regression comes, it might hit them hard.
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