Despite coming away with a 2-1 record, the Pacers have clearly struggled through their first three games. What have we learned about the team so far?
Lance Stephenson - "Finally Ready"
Through three games the Pacers are +34 in the 70 minutes Stephenson has been on the floor. Just sit back and let that fact sink in for a moment.
The fact that he's played 70 minutes in three games is amazing in and of itself. We can chalk some it up to need, with Danny Granger's knee continuing to bother him, but Stephenson's heady play has made it difficult for Vogel to keep him off the floor. The Pacers offense has looked anything but crisp so far, scoring at a rate of 92.3 points per 100 possessions. When Stephenson has played that number jumps to 103.5. Even more impressive is that the Pacers are holding their opponents to 79.3 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game. If you don't have a calculator handy, that's a Net Rating of +24.2.
His individual stat line is impressive - per 36 minute averages of 17.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting 50.0% from the line and 4 of 8 on three-pointers. But even more impressive has been his demeanor on the court. Gone is the giddy, nervous energy we saw the past two seasons as he tried to prove he belonged and make things happen whenever he had the ball. He's making things happen, for sure, but only when the opportunity presents itself. If not, he's happily and calmly swinging the ball around the perimeter.
For all my optimism, I need to keep reminding myself that three games do not a season make. His minutes may shrink when Granger returns and some of the numbers I mentioned above will probably be unsustainable against a higher level of competition. Stephenson will continue to make mistakes, have bad games, turn the ball over, lose his man on defense, take bad shots and miss easy ones. But he no longer looks like a project in the same way he has. He looks like a basketball player, one with plenty of things to keep working on, but also one who can actually be counted to play meaningful minutes and contribute. Keeping Stephenson on the court doesn't appear to be a trade-off for the Pacers anymore, between winning games now and developing his talent to help win games in the future.
Dismal Early Returns On The Upgraded Bench
Consistent bench play was a huge need going into this season and the Pacers' front office chased it hard, adding Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin. So far the returns have been less than stellar. Lance Stephenson and Tyler Hansbrough have actually been playing well to start the season, but production from the Augustin - Green - Mahinmi pairing has been less than thrilling. When those three have been on the floor together the Pacers are shooting 35.1%, scoring 99.0 points per 100 possessions and turning the ball over on 22.3% of their possessions.
The entire team's offense has looked out of sorts, but Green and Augustin were supposed to make the offensive drop-off from starters to reserves less severe. Augustin is shooting horribly, and despite respectable assist numbers, isn't doing much to help the team build an offensive flow with either his penetration or distributing. Green appears to be taking his cues from Paul George, forcing the action, turning the ball over and still searching for a consistent outside stroke.
Last season Vogel used lineups with one or no starters on average about 8.5 minutes a game. He doesn't appear to have any intention of tightening his rotations this year, which means the bench is going to continue to be a huge piece of what the Pacers do. The new additions are all individual upgrades over the players they are replaced. They are all capable support role players. But when they're all out there together, I'm still not sure who or what they are supposed to be supporting.
Time For Some Offensive Complexity
Losing Danny Granger hurts, but putting up 92.3 points per 100 possessions against the Raptors, Bobcats and Kings is inexcusable production for a team that still features a plethora of offensive weapons. So far the Pacers are shooting 41.9% from the field, 27.1% on three-pointers and are one of just two teams in the league with more turnovers than assists. On a larger scale the problems seem to fall into two areas.
The first is the inability to make simple plays. The Pacers have made just 53.3% of their shots at the rim, 24th in the league. They're also turning the ball over on 20.1% of their possessions, the second-worst mark in the league. It seems like at least half of those turnovers came on lazy, careless and inaccurate post-entry passes.
The second area is a lack of complexity. At this point Frank Vogel has been the Pacers' head coach for 107 games. When he first took over from Jim O'Brien he promised a refreshing return to simplicity - pick-and-rolls, post-ups, smash-mouth basketball. I assumed that those promises were about keeping the Pacers in playoff contention and getting them through the end of that season. I assumed that over time his simplistic approach may continue to guide the Pacers' offensive intentions but that the complexity of the offense would be ratcheted up as coaches and players spent more time together. 107 games later the Pacers don't seem to have come that far.
As the Pacers struggled to close out the Kings, through regulation and two overtimes, on Saturday night they repeatedly went to the same high pick-and-roll with George Hill and David West, daring Sacramento to stop them. The problem is that more often than not the Kings did stop them. A pick-and-roll is meant to be a multi-dimensional offensive attack, but the way the Pacers were, and have been running it, it's essentially an isolation for West. Hill handles the ball but nearly the entirety of his focus is given to getting the ball to West. He has rarely taken angles to attack the defense and frequently backs off or dribbles sideways after coming off the screen. A ball-handler who isn't looking to attack takes all the heat off the defense and gives the defense a single option to defend. Throw in the fact that there is no movement on the other side, just Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson standing behind their defenders watching, and it's amazing the Pacers have been able to score with it at all.
This was a continuous problem last year. The Pacers' pick-and-roll was not very effective, and their balance was more tilted towards the screener than almost every other team in the league. These passive, overly-simplistic, and under-executed pick-and-rolls are also why the Pacers end up with so many isolations and forced jumpshots at the end of the shot clock.
Obviously the basic problems need to be fixed first. If the Pacers can't make an entry pass or take a good angle around a screen, than it doesn't really matter what sort of parallel actions they run. But I really think the offense is screaming for another layer. Adding to the offense mid-season is not going to be hugely successful, so I'm hoping that seeds were sown during the preseason, and that with a little water and sunlight we'll get to see a mid-season harvest.