Lance Stephenson was inserted into the Indiana Pacers’ starting lineup in the seventh game of the 2012-13 season. Despite entering the NBA with the nickname “Born Ready,” Stephenson’s first two seasons in Indiana showed he was anything but. The brash shooting guard from Cincinnati appeared in only 54 games in his first two seasons, connecting on just 36.6 percent of his shots and 11.4 percent of his threes. Stuck on the bench behind Paul George, Danny Granger, Gerald Green, and Sam Young entering last season, he didn’t appear to be in line for much playing time. But after Granger suffered an injury, and Green and Young struggled out of the gate, Stephenson spent the rest of the season proving he was the perfect fit next to George and point guard George Hill on the perimeter.
The Pacers’ perimeter trio have beautifully complementary skill sets. Hill is the nominal point guard, but he’s much more of a spot-up shooter than an off the dribble threat (one reason he made my list of the league’s best “3-and-D” guys last season). Hill excels in particular at taking three point shots above the break (i.e. not from the corners), an area from which he shot 39.5 percent last season, per NBA.com. The Pacers love to have Hill enter the ball to George, David West, or Roy Hibbert on the low block, then have someone quickly screen Hill’s man near the free throw line to get him an open look from the top of the key, and it often results in a quick-hitting, efficient look at the basket.
Hill’s relative lack of a dribble drive attack isn’t a problem for the Pacers because the improving ball-handling skills of both Stephenson and George allow Frank Vogel to shift most of the play-making burden to the wing. Already this season, both Stephenson and George are handling the ball far more than they did at any point of the 2012-13 regular season. George had more of the play-making duties thrust upon him in last year’s playoffs, but it’s been taken to an entirely new level in Indiana’s first two games of the 2013-14 season, resulting in a career-high 30.3 usage rate, per Basketball-Reference.
The Pacers were able to close last night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans on a 14-5 run by running simple pick and roll action for one of their three perimeter players (and then hitting free throws). A side pick and roll with George and Hibbert netted Hibbert an and-one layup. George calmly dribbled over the screen and got himself inside the lane, where the defense collapsed on him before he tossed the ball to Hibbert on his roll to the rim. The next possession saw West setting a high screen for Stephenson and executing a half roll to the free throw line, where he posted up and got fouled. With the Pacers leading 86-85 and the clock ticking under 40 seconds remaining, the Pacers went to a Hill-Hibbert pick and roll at the top of the key. While rolling to the rim, Hibbert set a screen for George on the wing, which distracted the Pellies enough that Jrue Holiday gave Hill too much space above the three point line, and he nailed a three to put the game away.
New Orleans’ perimeter trio had far more trouble finding its way in the Pelicans’ first regular season game. Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans only appeared in the same preseason game once, and the lack of time they’ve had to learn each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and favorite spots on the court showed in the eight minutes they shared the floor against Indiana. That all three players are at their best when they are allowed to handle the ball is a concerning issue. Monty Williams did a nice enough job splitting up their minutes, but for New Orleans to optimize its success, there has got to be a way to get the three perimeter players to mesh well together.
Gordon is a sniper from beyond the arc (36.4 percent in his career, 3-5 last night) and he’s also incredibly strong with his dribble, which allows him to play well off of nearly any backcourt partner. He operates mostly on the wings, jetting off screens and running side pick and rolls. A few times last night, he got trailer threes in transition by running to a spot along the arc and letting Holiday or Brian Roberts find him through a thicket of limbs. Holiday is a strong outside shooter (37.5 percent from three) as well, but he doesn’t have as much of an off the bounce game as Gordon. As point guards tend to do, Holiday initiates most of his offense from the top of the key. He’s got pretty good court vision, but it’s not really his style to attack all the way to the rim, draw the defense, and kick out to a shooter. His half court assists mostly originate above the free throw line. Tyreke has always been more comfortable with the ball in his hands, and his lack of a perimeter jumper allows defenses to clog the lane for his teammates. It may be best to have him operate from the post when he shares the court with Holiday and Gordon (Evans scored 0.98 points per possession in a relatively small helping of post-ups last season, per mySynergySports, which ranked 11th best in the NBA), though bigs with strong outside jumpers like Jason Smith, Ryan Anderson, and/or Anthony Davis would necessarily have to be on the court as well to make it work.
Because he’s such a non-threat from the outside, Evans wasn’t even on the floor in the last few minutes of a close game. Anthony Morrow took his place on the court to allow for proper spacing around the uncreative isolation plays Williams called for Anthony Davis and Holiday in the last two minutes. While Holiday and Gordon appeared comfortable together for most of the game, each coming off a wave of screens, receiving dribble hand-offs to kick-start drives to the basket, and working both on and off the ball, Evans being on the court with them mucked things up a bit. The interplay and geometry of Holiday, Gordon, and Evans will likely take a while to work out, but it’s integral to the Pelicans’ success both this season and in the future.