51 Q: Can Pacers transition to smallball?
In 2013 and 2014, the Indiana Pacers became a title contender by playing a hyper-traditional style that was at odds with the more free-flowing, position-fluid direction the league was heading. Now, they’re ripping it up and doing a complete 180 overnight while still trying to contend. They’ve moved on from David West and Roy Hibbert, and Frank Vogel has announced that Paul George will be the Pacers’ starting power forward (which George doesn’t love).
It’s a good idea in theory. Hibbert and West are hard to replace, and things felt like they had just run their course with the core that went to two straight Western Conference Finals before George’s brutal leg injury wiped out most of last season. But implementing a completely different style this fast is going to be a challenge for Frank Vogel.
Offensively, playing power forward shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for George. The league is trending in a direction where big men are asked to play on the perimeter, and there’s potential to create mismatches inside with the speedier George against slower bigs. Defensively is where playing George at power forward can cause problems. He should do fine on the perimeter, where he can still switch onto wings. But the absence of Hibbert’s rim protection is going to result in George having to do more defensively in the paint, and that’s something he hasn’t really been asked to do over the course of his career.
Unfortunately, for all of George’s reservations about changing positions, the Pacers basically have no choice. Unless rookie center Myles Turner is ready to contribute right away, the Pacers’ roster of bigs is comprised of Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen, exactly none of whom are starter-caliber players on a good team. The loss of Chris Copeland hurts — he’s another player who would have fit well in a smallball identity.
On the bright side, the Pacers have gotten George some actual offensive help this offseason. Monta Ellis is a perfect fit on this roster, a second shot creator who can also act as a pick-and-roll partner for George. Having a secondary offensive weapon like Ellis is going to free up a lot for George, and between George Hill and the re-signed Rodney Stuckey, their backcourt rotation should be solid.
Still, it’s going to be a while before this new-look Pacers team is seriously contending. They’re probably the fourth-best team in their own division, and asking George to learn a new position after sitting out almost an entire year with a horrific injury is a lot. He’s already voiced his concerns about it, which are valid, but he’s indicated that he’s open to giving it a shot. If he truly buys in, that will go a long way towards shaping the Pacers’ new identity. But the reality is that they’re still likely a few years off from the vision being realized.