Game Changer: 7 Reasons Pacers Are Playing Small Ball

Why Larry Bird’s team is picking up the pace.

The Pacers haven’t cast aside the adage “defense wins championships,” but they have broadened the concept. President Larry Bird wants a more productive, up-tempo offense—a style known as “small ball” for its reliance on speed instead of brawn. Here’s how the Pacers drew up the play.

1. When 6’9″ power forward David West opted out of the final year of his contract to become a free agent, Bird accelerated a strategic overhaul, trading 7’2″ center Roy Hibbert and opting not to re-sign another veteran big man, Luis Scola. Almost overnight, the Indiana frontcourt became lighter, leaner, more athletic—yet vastly less experienced and not as physical.

2. The precedent for putting up more points: Golden State won last season’s NBA title behind the league’s highest-scoring offense and 6’3″ MVP Steph Curry. All four teams to reach the conference finals ranked in the top 10 in points per game.

3. The product of the changes will be a very different-looking offense. Rather than walking the ball up the court and throwing it inside to Hibbert or West on most possessions, the emphasis will be on a fast transition game—flashing across midcourt and trying to score from an “open floor,” or before the opponent’s defense sets up. Expect more quick, side-to-side passing and cutting to take advantage of the team’s improved speed.

LarryBird4. The centerpiece of change is veteran 6’3″ guard Monta Ellis, signed as a free agent. Ellis brings a career scoring average of 19.3 points, higher than any other player on the Pacers roster. (Paul George drops 15.2 per game.) Ellis isn’t the best defender, but he’s potent in a transition offense.

5. Bird also acquired Chase Budinger, another open-floor specialist. The draft yielded No. 11 pick Myles Turner, an athletic 6’11” center-forward from Texas, and Joe Young, an explosive 6’2″ guard from Oregon. Another rookie, 6’9″ forward Rakeem Christmas of Syracuse, was acquired in a trade with Cleveland.

6. The lineup will regain its most important player, George, who missed most of last season with a broken leg. But he, too, must deal with change. Bird and head coach Frank Vogel intend to deploy the 6’9″ All-Star at power forward for at least a few minutes a game with designs on fully capitalizing on PG’s superior athleticism. So look for him in the paint (and, we hope, throwing down monster dunks).

7. Indiana ranked No. 24 in scoring (97.3 points per game) and No. 23 in field goal percentage (43.9) in 2014–15, and while those numbers are expected to climb, the idea is to do so without completely compromising the staunch defense that has been the team’s bedrock. “We’re not interested in being a bad defensive team,” Vogel says. “We’re interested in being the best defensive team, and playing with more speed and athleticism can help that.”