Tonight the Pacers will take on the Clippers and fans in Indy will get their first look at Leandro Barbosa in the blue and gold. Word on the street is that George Hill is being moved to the back-up point guard spot, and Barbosa will be taking over as the back-up shooting guard. This rotation move, and the acquisition of Barbosa in general, are meant to shore up the two clearest weakness this team has - consistent scoring and a lack of bench production. For all the talk by national media about the Pacers' depth and impressive collection of young pieces, the success this season has been fueled primarily by the five members of the starting rotation. The only consistent producer off the bench has been George Hill.
On the surface adding Barbosa would seem to be a solution to both problems. The Pacers got an NBA player, essentially for free. As John Hollinger pointed out, the Pacers were under the minimum salary floor, and thus the money they are now spending on Barbosa would have been distributed among the rest of their players anyway. There's also no long-term risk as Barbosa's contract expires at the end of this season and if he doesn't work out he can quickly become a mere memory. There is certainly some inherent value in the second round pick they gave up, but it wouldn't do anything to address either problem in the short-term and may not have helped at all in the long-term either.
Despite all those variables seeming to line up well, I still found this trade incredibly frustrating and I'm worried about the ramifications to an already fragile rotation.
My first concern is that this trade is attempting to solve a problem by addition only. While the financial implications place it in a wholly different realm than the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at whatever top-tier free agent happens to be on the market, it reminds strongly of the same troubling mindset - that the solution to the problem is always exterior, that if we can just add the right piece we'll having everything we need.
The Pacers certainly lack scoring, especially from their bench. What they don't lack is scorers. I get that at some point the rubber has to meet the road and that those scorers have to, you know, actually score points. My point is that the Pacers' offensive struggles are not stemming from a lack of resources but from ineffective allocation, an issue that encompasses both the bench and the starting lineup.
Danny Granger is shooting 39.1% from the field and still taking 15 shots a game. David West is shooting 46.1% from the field, his lowest FG% since 2005, taking 10.7 shots per game, the second most on the team, and still hasn't seemed able to find a rhythm on consecutive nights. Tyler Hansbrough is shooting 40.1%, after shooting 46.5% last season. Darren Collison is shooting 39.4% on three-pointers and taking 1.5 per game. A.J. Price is shooting 29.9% on three-pointers and taking 2.2 per game. There an incredible number of confusing and frustrating aspects to the way the Pacers' have approached the offensive end of the floor this season. On a night-to-night basis I still feel like the team is not entirely sure what they would like to accomplish or who they would like to accomplish it.
The offense is struggling because the players are struggling, not because they aren't good enough. The idea that the bench, in particular, has been less than productive because the players aren't capable of being productive strikes me as ludicrous and removes a tremendous amount of well-deserved blame from Frank Vogel and the coaching staff. Fixing how the bench players are used seems to me as every bit as reasonable a solution as adding a new player.
For example, the idea has persisted that the Pacers' offense struggles for lack of a single player who can go out and create his own shot off the dribble. I don't think the roster lacks that type of player. He's sitting way down at the end of the bench, and his name is Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson has the potential to be a terrific isolation scorer, drawing fouls and bulling his way to the basket. Of course he's hasn't produced much of that. Last season too much isolation earned him a one-way ticket out of the rotation and this year he was asked to play point guard. He has had only 28 opportunities to use a possession in isolation this season, but watching the video from mySynergySports reveals that a majority of them were forced isolations with the shot clock winding down, after the initial offensive action had failed to produce a quality look. If the Pacers want an isolation scorer, how about asking Lance to do what he does best instead of trying to jam his square-peg skill-set into the round point guard hole?
My personal preference would be for the Pacers offensive problems to be addressed first with coaching and system solutions not roster and rotation fixes. But this is not the entire issue. The low-risk, low-cost nature of the trade means the paragraphs above are mostly about me being at aesthetic odds with the management decision. However, the Pacers acquired Barbosa and certainly mean to play him. To begin that's going to be accomplished by asking Hill to play point guard more.
I know there has been a swell of support to move Hill to point guard full-time, possibly even supplanting Collison in the starting lineup. As much as I love what he's brought to the court and appreciate how instrumental he's been in the Pacers' success, I think that's a huge mistake. Hill has been much more effective as a shooting guard. 82games.com tracks player statistics by position. As a point guard Hill has posted a PER of 10.5, shooting 43.0% from the field and averaging 4.0 assists per 48 minutes. As a shooting guard he has posted a PER of 16.7, shooting 56.3% from the field and averaging 3.4 assists per 48 minutes.
Not only has Hill struggled more as a point guard, but the Pacers' have been much worse off. The table below shows the Pacers Net Rating this season broken into three scenarios - when Hill is playing shooting guard alongside Darren Collison or A.J. Price, when Hill is playing with Lance Stephenson, and when Hill is playing point guard alongside Dahntay Jones or Paul George.
|Lineup||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Hill at SG||107.5||98.3||+9.3|
|Hill at PG||76.0||103.2||-27.3|
For the record, I separated out his minutes with Stephenson because, being another ball-handling-capable combo guard, that scenario seems the most similar to what Hill will see playing with Barbosa. Looking at those numbers it's hard to argue that having Hill play more point guard is going to help anything. We're not talking about a small sample either, he's played over 200 minutes this season at point guard or with Stephenson.
I know this is confusing for many people because Hill is a solid ball-handler and is more than capable of slashing to the basket and finding the open man. Even when he's playing shooting guard he the ball in his hand much of the time and is capable of making things happen. But as Jared Wade pointed out at Eight Points, Nine Seconds, that's just not the same as being a point guard -
Most of his best stretches of play this season have come while Price has brought the ball up and initiated the play. Often these plays quickly make Hill the primary ball-handler, but make no mistake: this is Hill creating opportunities from the off-guard spot not having a nuanced understanding of when to call his number and when to facilitate the offense through others. He rarely is tasked with the distributing duties that Collison and Price have manned for most of this successful 2011-12 campaign for Indiana.
I want to make clear that I'm not trying to tear down Hill or his contributions in any way. The numbers simply imply that both he and the team have been better off when he operates in a certain scenario. I don't see any compelling reason to ask to him move outside that scenario.
If you think getting Barbosa's offense onto the floor is a compelling enough reason, then let me offer up a few more numbers. He still carries, from his time in Phoenix, a reputation as an instant offense sub, a guy who excels in transition and can get his own shot in the half-court. The only problem is that reputation was earned by a player six years younger. Barbosa is shooting a lukewarm 43.5% from the field this season. More than a quarter of his shots have been long-two pointers, on which he is shooting 28.0%. He has more turnovers than assists this season. As a pick-and-roll ball handler and in isolation, the two areas the Pacers offense could use a shot in the arm, he's averaging 0.76 and 0.89 points per possessions respectively.
The one place Barbosa makes sense to me is in a three-guard lineup with Hill and Price. A post is coming on this soon, but the Pacers' have the least variability in pace among their top-ten lineups across the entire league. They play at the same speed, regardless of the personnel; there are no change of pace units. A three-guard set with Hansbrough and Amundson seems like it could some real damage in the right situations. But again I think that could be accomplished with Stephenson in for Barbosa.
The final frustrating aspect is that the Barbosa trade seems like a missed opportunity. Louis Amundson has filled in admirably for Jeff Foster, but is simply overmatched as a center. That was a real position of need and something which couldn't have been filled with the current roster. I'm sure there were reasons these deals weren't struck but Nene, JaVale McGee, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman were all out there and could have helped much more than I think Barbosa will. I also would have been thrilled with the addition of an actual point guard to facilitate things on that second unit and get the most out of what those offensive players have to offer.
Forgive the negative tone of this piece and if it seems I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. A record of 25-18 at this point in the season is a tremendous success and a huge step forward from the team that the Pacers' put on the court last season. But that still doesn't wipe away the frustration of watching players individually and in concert, perform to less than their potential. As wonderful as the 25-18 start has been, this roster could have and (probably) should have done more.
I hope I'm wrong. I would be thrilled to be wrong. I would love for George Hill to excel in a role that primarily asks him to facilitate. I would love for Leandro Barbosa to be the dynamic scorer that jumpstarts this offense. But I'm not holding my breath.