INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers are playing harder, moving the ball faster and winning more games than most people anticipated.
Fans in this basketball-crazed state expect nothing less from their favorite teams. Around the league, though, the Pacers might be the biggest surprise of the first half of the season.
Just six months after trading four-time All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City — setting up what many believed would be a long rebuilding process — new president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard has transformed the Pacers virtually overnight.
A younger, more energetic roster has given Indiana a more entertaining style with no significant drop in wins.
“We knew coming in that we would be developing a lot of guys,” coach Nate McMillan said. “They were young, many of them were in new roles. For us, it’s about developing that culture and that identity, and we’re still doing that. I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”
With eight new players and three new starters, McMillan knew it would take time for everyone to get on the same page. At times, they still aren’t.
But even amid the growing pains, Indiana hit the midway point of the season with a winning record (21-20), good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. They have wins over San Antonio, Minnesota and Toronto and two over Cleveland.
Indiana is the only team with multiple wins over the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs and can make it three in a row when the Cavs come to town Friday. Cleveland swept the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs last year even with George and former All-Star Jeff Teague.
What’s changed? Just about everything.
The Pacers have broken away from their stodgy, half-court offense and are playing at the tempo Larry Bird, Pritchard’s predecessor, envisioned. As a result, the Pacers are tied for eighth in scoring (107.3 points), are fifth in 3-point percentage (37.9) and are just one victory behind last year’s 41-win pace.
“We have so much fun. We show him (McMillan) how hard we work on the defensive end and he gives us a little rope on the offensive end. I love it,” said Lance Stephenson, the Pacers’ showman and one of six holdovers. “It’s been great because you all had us predicted to be at the bottom of the league. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and playing together.”
When George’s plan to opt out of his contract this coming summer and leave town in free agency leaked publicly, Pritchard had two options: Rebuild now or make one more title run and risk losing his star player with nothing in return. Rather than build around unproven rookies, he dealt George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 selection in the 2013 draft, and Domantas Sabonis, the No. 11 pick in 2016.
Critics contended the Pacers didn’t get full value for George, but Pritchard got exactly what he wanted.
“When I think about Vic, he came into this league as a hot talent and he got moved around a little bit,” backup center Al Jefferson said. “But I knew when our front office traded Paul, I knew they weren’t going to trade him for just anybody. He (Oladipo) has responded very well.”
Sabonis, an undersized center dubbed as not strong enough to hold up in the post, is averaging 12.5 points, shooting 54.3 percent from the field and is among the top 25 in rebounds (8.0).
Oladipo, the former Indiana University star, has been even more impressive.
He’s spent most of this season ranked among the league’s top 40 in scoring (24.6 points), steals (1.9), 3-point percentage (41.0) and blocks (0.9). He’s heard chants of “M-V-P,” and coaches around the league regularly talk about him making his first All-Star Game.
“Obviously, I’ve been in a bigger role here,” Oladipo said. “But I feel like everybody here believes in me, everybody in the state believes in me, and I believe we can play at the highest level every night.”
Pritchard’s other moves have worked out well, too.
Point guard Darren Collison is among the league leaders in assists (5.5), forward Bojan Bogdanovic is averaging 13.8 points and shooting a career-best 47.4 percent from the field, and guard Cory Joseph has provided steady play off the bench. Their performances, coupled with the improvement of 21-year-old center Myles Turner, the steady play of Thaddeus Young and Stephenson’s energy, have given the Pacers a solid foundation.
All they have to do in the second half is live up to the talk.
“It has been a fun group to coach because they come in and they work every day,” McMillan said. “We don’t always get it right. But they give you the effort each and every night.”