Young Pacers on verge of history

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Larry Bird was the reigning MVP. David Robinson hadn’t yet been drafted. Julius Erving was still an active player.

That’s how long it’s been since a team as young as the 2012-13 Indiana Pacers made the NBA Finals.

Thanks to their 91-77 win over the Miami Heat tonight, the Pacers are only one win from becoming the youngest NBA finalist since the 1985-86 Houston Rockets. The 2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder are the only younger team between to make even the conference finals.

With a starting lineup that now features Lance Stephenson (22), Paul George (23), Roy Hibbert (26) and George Hill (27), the Pacers have rapidly and steadily ascended up the NBA ladder. They lost 50 games in 2009-10, reached the first round in 2010-11, the second round in 2011-12 and the conference finals – and maybe further – this season.

David West (32) is the old hand of the group, but because he played four years at Xavier, he’s played only as many seasons as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

West was signed as a free agent, and the Pacers traded a draft pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. Otherwise, Indiana’s top players have been drafted by the team or acquired via draft-day trades and then developed in-house.

Most remarkably, these players – and Danny Granger, who was a key piece of Indiana’s resurgence before injury – were drafted relatively low.

The Thunder have become recognized as the model for drafting and developing players, but the Pacers deserve a place in the discussion – maybe even ahead of Oklahoma City when it comes to the developing side. Just look where each team’s recent key players were drafted:

  • Pacers: George (No. 10), Hibbert (No. 17), Granger (No. 17) and Stephenson (No. 40)
  • Thunder: Kevin Durant (No. 2), James Harden (No. 3), Russell Westbrook (No. 4) and Serge Ibaka (No. 24)

Developing talent is much easier when you start with a lot more talent.

But despite working with less-herald draft picks, the Pacers have groomed their players to reach levels Oklahoma City’s young stars never have.

George is averaging 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game against the Heat. Since 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference.com’s relevant records go), only LeBron James (twice) and Kobe Bryant (twice) have posted those totals in a Conference Finals or Finals at such a young age.

Hibbert, who’s averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in this series, is matched during that span in age, scoring and rebounding in the Conference Finals or Finals by just Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan (twice) and Shaquille O’Neal.

For both George and Hibbert to be producing at these levels is astounding, but it speaks to how well and how quickly Indiana has developed.

Win or lose Monday, the Pacers have a bright future. But if they win, their present will be historically special.