Last May, when Frank Vogel and Larry Bird first sat down to discuss the Pacers' future, Bird made it clear he wanted to adjust the roster and coaching strategy to accommodate a smaller, faster and more versatile lineup.
Vogel couldn't have been blamed for objecting. The most recent injury-shattered season aside, he had a fresh memory of two teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals by playing "smash mouth" basketball, big, physical team that leaned heavily on a bruising defensive style and a structured halfcourt game. Put all the pieces back together, a strong argument could have been made for making another deep playoff run.
Vogel didn't try to make it. Not for long, at least.
"I was open-minded," he said Monday. "I was intrigued by it. I liked the way we played, we had a lot of success, and I was comfortable if we came back and played the same way. I related that to Larry, but I also told him I'd be very intrigued if we wanted to go with this type of approach."
This type of approach has the Pacers moving up in NBA ranks that are both obvious and arcane. They are 8-5 overall following an 0-3 start, two games back of conference leader Cleveland. They have the NBA's best defensive rating over the last 10 games, according to the league's advanced stats. They rank 18th in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), and have averaged 101.7 points over the past 10 games. They're coming off their two highest-scoring games of the season, including a 123-point performance against Milwaukee on Saturday that was their most since Feb. 20, 2013.
In the combined offensive and defensive rating differential, which measures their play at both ends and factors in pace of play, they rank fifth in the league, behind Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and Boston.
Vogel and his players readily admit to their room and need for improvement, but the current run is indeed intriguing. Paul George is having, statistically, the best season a Pacers player has had since George McGinnis in 1974-75, in the ABA. The depth is good enough to cause headaches for Vogel, who has found a 10-man rotation isn't enough to accommodate everyone who deserves to play. And chemistry is improving.
Vogel says he's not surprised by the current run, given what he saw from his roster when training camp opened.
"It's honestly who I thought we were going to be," he said. "I like what this team's ceiling is, and I don't know what the ceiling is."
Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Vogel is that he now has a roster versatile enough to match up to any style of play. The ones that lost to Miami in the conference finals in 2013 and '14 had difficulty with the Heat's smaller lineup that spread the floor and put the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West in space against quicker players.
He believes it has the potential to be as good defensively as any of his previous teams, but in a different way. It might not block as many shots, but it should be able to defend better on the perimeter.
"Playing smaller lineups is not just about being more prolific offensively, but giving us better defensive speed and versatility and to be able to guard the rest of the league, which is playing small," he said.
He also has a roster that can score three at a time instead of two. The Pacers are on pace to hit the second most 3-pointers in franchise history. They're currently hitting 8.8 per game, and that average is rising. They hit 15 against the Bucks. Only the 2007-08 team averaged more (9.0). For comparison sake, Larry Brown's conference finalist squad in 1994 averaged 2.2. None of the ABA teams averaged more than 3.6.
Vogel believes there's more room for improvement on offense than defense, but plenty of room at both ends. His players seem to agree.
"We're moving the ball better, guys are moving and cutting, but we need to figure out certain sets we can go to when things get stagnant," C.J. Miles said. "You need to figure out what guys can respond to. That's what Coach is trying to do."
Defensively, communication can be better.
"We have some slackage on the defensive end," Jordan Hill said. "Helping each other out on defense is definitely a key. We're getting there, but we still have a lot of work to do."
"We're still picking up on things to do, not to make it easier, but to make us way more effective," Miles added. "Because of the steals (the Pacers rank second in the league, with 10 per game) it seems we're there, but there's a lot of things we can clean up."
So many that it's difficult to predict anything this early in the season. Hill, though, threw out a guess.
"We've got the players, we've got the staff, we've got the tools to at least be up there in the top four, top three in the (conference) standings," he said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work, but we're getting there."
Vogel is quick to warn against complacency, which is perhaps the greatest compliment to his team's current state. Three games into the season, after a 21-point homecourt loss to Utah, he was still having to prove his – and Bird's – approach was the correct one, and that he could make it work. Now he's reminding everyone his team hasn't arrived.
"We have a heckuva tough stretch coming up," he said, referring to a schedule that brings five road games in the next six. "We can't get ahead of ourselves and start feeling good about ourselves.
There's a lot to adjust to and implement, and see how it works against the heavyweights."
That's why Vogel doesn't know the altitude of his team's ceiling. One thing's for sure, though: he's no longer ducking under it.
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