USA TODAY Sports
After early season struggles the Pacers have crawled their way back towards the top of the Eastern Conference. They've made their move with stout defense and solid individual contributions from their starting lineup. However, they're still plagued by maddening inconsistency when they go to the bench.
Two weeks ago I wrote about how the Pacers' march back to respectability had come mostly at the expense of inferior competition. At that point the Pacers were just 2-9 against likely playoff teams from both conferences. In the past 14 days they've made some progress, losing to Atlanta and Boston on the road, but beating Memphis and Milwaukee at home. They've climbed into the top half of John Hollinger's power rankings, currently sitting at 11th, behind only Miami and New York in the Eastern Conference. In terms of actual wins the Pacers currently lead the Central Division by a half game over the Bulls, and hold the 4th playoff seed in the East.
The Pacers find themselves in this position because of the strong play of their starters, particularly the recent consistency from Lance Stephenson and Paul George. They also find themselves in this position despite an enormous dearth of production from the bench. Last week Jared Wade, of Eight Points, Nine Seconds, penned a terrific post on the importance of Lance Stephenson. One of the key pieces of evidence he cited was how much worse the starters have played with Gerald Green or Sam Young in place of Stephenson (8.5 and 16 points worse per 100 possessions, respectively).
Danny Granger hasn't played a single game this season, but Frank Vogel has been committed to stretching his rotations regardless. Since the season began he's used at least 10 players on a regular basis, and now that Ben Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph are getting run the Pacers are often using 11-12 players. The NBA season is a lengthy grind and keeping the starters healthy and rested for the playoffs is an admirable goal. But holding down the starters minutes is also making every game a little bit tougher than it needs to be.
The Pacers are 10-4 since the beginning of December, but watching the team on a nightly basis you don't sense any of the dominance that record indicates. The second-unit struggles have dragged the Pacers down in more than a few games, and are one of the big reasons the team hasn't been able to carry momentum into big games against top teams.
The table below shows the Pacers' Offensive, Defensive and Net Ratings from this season separated by rotation size. For example the top row shows the numbers for the five starters together. The next row shows the Pacers' numbers for lineups using a six man rotation, the starters plus Gerald Green. The next row shows the Pacers' numbers for lineups using a seven man rotation, the starters plus Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough.
|Rotation||Players||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|5||Starters (Hill, Stephenson, George, West, Hibbert)||105.0||96.3||+8.7|
|6||Starters + Gerald Green||103.0||95.0||+8.0|
|7||Starters + Green, Tyler Hansbrough||103.1||95.3||+7.8|
|8||Starters + Green, Hansbrough, Ian Mahnimi||103.1||96.3||+6.8|
|9||Starters + Green, Hansbrough, Mahinmi, Sam Young||101.5||102.5||-1.0|
|10/11||Starters + Green, Hansbrough, Mahinmi, Young, D.J. Augustin and Ben Hansbrough||98.6||96.7||+1.9|
To put those numbers in context, the starters' Net Rating of +8.7 falls right in between the +8.4 and +9.0 season-long numbers the Spurs and Clippers have posted. The +6.8 Net Rating the Pacers have posted when their rotation is stretched to eight players slightly edges the +6.7 the Knicks have posted this season. When you push the rotation to nine players and add in Sam Young, the Pacers' Net Rating falls to -1.0 roughly equivalent to the season long number for the Utah Jazz. Things improve slightly when you factor in the minutes played by D.J. Augustin and Ben Hansbrough, but it's still nowhere near the effectiveness the Pacers have displayed when they use eight players or less.
It's clear the turning point is when Sam Young is added to the rotation. His inclusion alone costs the Pacers a net 8 points per 100 possessions. Young was released by the Pacers' on Sunday, but plugging in Dominic McGuire, or any of the other names mentioned as possible replacements, is going to leave the Pacers in roughly the same situation.
I don't know exactly what the overall numeric trade-off would be in shortening up the rotation, removing some of the ineffectiveness at the end of the bench, but having the starters play more minutes. I do know that it is probably not a long-term sustainable solution to carry the Pacers through the rest of the season. This problem will get solved to some degree when Danny Granger returns, but that doesn't help in the short-term.
If the Pacers were going to shorten their rotations for a quick bump it would need to be a move made under very specific circumstances, for a very specific reason. I think one of those circumstances is in front of the Pacers right now. The Pacers don't have a single marquee win this season. They have won 20 games, but I don't see a single measuring-stick win that they can point to and say, "this represents our best, this is how good we are." This week they'll get two chances to earn wins of that caliber. On Tuesday and Thursday this week the Pacers' have Miami and New York, both at Banker's Life Arena.
Although it presents a challenge, the schedule has done them a favor. They see two of the three teams ahead of them in the standings, both at home, with a day off in between. It seems to me this would be the perfect time to shrink the rotations, use Stephenson at point guard with the second-unit a little, keep Augustin's minutes to single digits and essentially go with an eight-man rotation. Approach these two games as must-win playoff games. The Pacers' best chance to win is by playing their best players as much as possible. Ben Hansbrough, Augustin and Young's replacement are hopefully going to play tiny roles come playoff time, so there is no reason to feed them minutes in preparation. Let the starters carry you.
The other gift of the schedule is that after these two games they'll play the Bobcats, Nets, Bobcats again, and then the Magic; a perfect opportunity to dial back the starter's minutes and let them recover from the exertion of pushing against the Heat and the Knicks. The Pacers should be able to win all four of those games with their rotations set they way they have been for the past few weeks.
The Pacers can make the playoffs with a high seed, even without pushing themselves against the league's best. But if they have hopes of making noise in the playoffs they need to prove to themselves they can beat some of those teams now. A week with wins against both Miami and New York could be a psychological game changer for a team that still doesn't look totally certain of its place in the league.