NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed playoff reform at length last week. He mentioned his openness to eliminating conference seeding, realigning the system around divisional winners and teams with the best overall records: he recited an eclectic version of an argument that has been made repeatedly by basketball pundits in the wake of two consecutive playoff seasons with sub.-500 teams making the cut in the East. The rationale for his comments might as well have been the Indiana Pacers 2014-15 season.
Only in the Eastern Conference could the Pacers – a team that started one of its five starters from its Eastern Conference finals lineup a season ago on opening night – remain in the playoff hunt. Removed of its most dexterous offensive and defensive player (Paul George) and most nonsensical player and former second-leading scorer (Lance Stephenson), head coach Frank Vogel’s team is still just a few games out of the No. 8 seed. Even with grit-and-grind power forward David West and jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none point guard George Hill having missed a combined 53 games this season, the team looks like it could crash the playoff party.
The self-effacing Hill has shepherded the team – his team, the same one he grew up watching as a kid – back into the hunt.
Two days after he hoisted and netted a cartoonish, one-handed prayer subsequent an off ball screen foul, creating a 4-point play and effectively winning the game, Hill wasn’t done with the spotlight.
Trailing by one with 14.7 seconds to play in Charlotte, Hill calmly dribbled baseline, moved to the opposite side of the basket, turned around converted the game-winning bucket with 4.9 seconds remaining to clinch Indiana’s first three-game winning streak of the season.
The Indiana native was beset by a torn quadriceps injury in preseason, and after just five games back, a strained groin. But Hill has battled, and despite having a career average of 10.8 points per game, he’s scored in single digits just twice in 13 games this season and is averaging a near-career high 13.9 points per game. The Pacers are 8-6 with him in the lineup, 12-27 without.
Although his season sample size slimmed to less than 350 minutes, Hill provides a clear impact on the Pacers.
The team’s offensive rating is 12 points higher than its average with him on the court and its turnover percentage spikes nearly five percent without him.
What’s more concerning is that the Pacers, who often rank in the cellar of the league’s field goal percentage rankings, are shooting just 43.4 percent from the field, the team’s lowest average in a decade. Vogel’s team is shooting an ineffable 33 percent from beyond the arc, which is the team’s lowest average since prior to the 2000 season. The Point After’s shooting chart below shows the carnage.
Hill, again with a small sample size to consider, is shooting the highest field goal percentage (46.2 percent) since he was a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2009-10 (47.8 percent). He’s also shooting the second-highest percentage (C.J. Watson ranks first) from beyond the arc of anyone on the team that has attempted 50 three-point field goals. So, while the Pacers are taking and missing jump shots in volume, and although Hill hasn’t ranked in the league’s top 10 rankings in field goal percentage among point guards since the 2009-10 season, he’s shooting the ball well and elevating the shooting of his teammates.
Defensively, in his career, the Pacers hold opponents to a lower offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, assist percentage and total rebound percentage when he’s out on the court. This year, teams are marginally assisting and rebounding more, but their offensive rating dips by more than two points with him on the court. Guarding the basket is what has kept the team buoyant this season and Vogel’s defense is on track to limit opponents to less than 98 points per game for the fourth consecutive season. Ostensibly, Hill will only abet the team’s perimeter defense.
Hill will be taking over starting responsibilities from interim starting point guard Donald Sloan who has been more than serviceable in his 21 starts this season – in fact; he’s having the best season of his career according to just about every metric. But Hill provides the ability to stretch the floor and attack the glass at a higher rate, and is far superior on the defensive end. The Pacers have an offensive rate nearly three points higher with Sloan off the court, but his ascension to a useful piece allows Vogel to creatively infuse him in the offense, even with Hill back; Vogel can slide Sloan over to shooting guard in the second unit alongside veteran point guard C.J. Watson.
The salt-of-the-earth kid from Indianapolis, who played college ball at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and called being a member of the Pacers “something that I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” is poetically what might corral and carry the team to the postseason.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).