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The Pacers' Pick-And-Roll, And Other Difficult Truths

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Going 16-7 through the first 23 games has to be considered a success, sliced in any direction. The Pacers have taken a huge leap forward in confidence, intensity and defensive performance, firmly planting their flag on the right side of playoff demarcation. However, for every inch of optimism gained by stifling defense, a good portion has been given back by frustratingly impotent offense. The Pacers are giving up just 98.5 points per 100 possessions, the 5th best mark in the league. They are scoring just 102.1 points per 100 possessions, 18th in the league. There have been massive explosions and utter fizzles but, by and large, the nightly best case scenario for the offense has been 'just enough.'

Every Pacers' fan was hoping for a leap of similar proportions this season, but I don't think most expected it to be accomplished primarily with defense. David West was supposed to provide an offensive focus, slotted at 1b alongside Danny Granger as 1a. George Hill was supposed to provide efficient offensive depth that was lacking the past few seasons. Continued development from Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George was supposed to fill in the gaps, giving the Pacers a versatile and potent attack.

A prong of that attack, discussed repeatedly this off-season, was a new focus on the pick-and-roll. Integrating West's unique skill set, and increasing the pick-and-roll frequency for Hansbrough and Hibbert was the final piece in a long march away from the offensive principles of Jim O'Brien. However, this set in particular has been a problem for the Pacers' offense and serves as a microcosm for their larger offensive problems.

The Pacers are averaging just 0.71 points per possession on all pick-and-rolls, the 3rd lowest total in the league. Hidden in that number is another numeric oddity of striking proportion - they have the most balanced pick-and-roll attack in the league. On the season 57.6% of the Pacers' pick-and-rolls have been finished by the ball handler, 42.4% have been finished by the screener. The league average split is 68.4% and 31.6%.

Looking around the league it's clear that a certain split of those possessions is not necessarily a template for success. However, the fact that the Pacers' have swung so far away from the norm, AND been so inefficient, should be red flag that something is wrong. The Pacers' are getting less than expected production in the pick-and-roll from certain players, but they are also giving plenty of possessions to players who probably shouldn't be getting them. The tables below show how the Pacers' pick-and-roll possessions for the ball handler and screener are broken down by player.

Player % of Plays PPP
David West 42.5% 0.76
Tyler Hansbrough 25.1% 0.81
Roy Hibbert 19.2% 0.84
Lou Amundson 6.0% 1.00
Danny Granger 4.2% 0.43
Jeff Pendergraph 1.8% 0.67
Jeff Foster 0.5% 3.00
Paul George 0.5% 2.00

Ball Handler
Player % of Plays PPP
Darren Collison 38.3% 0.77
Paul George 16.4% 0.86
George Hill 14.0% 1.00
Danny Granger 14.0% 0.60
A.J. Price 5.6% 0.00
Dahntay Jones 5.1% 0.91
Lance Stephenson 4.7% 0.40

The most obvious problem is the struggles of Collison and West. That Collison is struggling is not terribly surprising. He scored 0.72 points per possession in the pick-and-roll last year and just 0.68 points per possession as a rookie in New Orleans. He's never really flashed much potential at exceptional performance in this area. He's improved but the pick-and-roll may never be his forte.

That West is struggling has been a real shocker. Last season, before his injury, West was scoring 1.05 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, shooting 52%. His numbers this season, 0.76 and 40%, are more than disappointing. It's tough to point to injury recovery as the exclusive culprit, and I think it has more to do with psychology and fit than physical issues.

I'm of the opinion that both Collison and West are suffering from the same disease, brought on by different scenarios. I think Collison has over-internalized the idea of being a floor general. His FGA/36 minutes have declined each season and so has his FG%. Even more surprisingly, so have his Ast/36. While the intention may be to shift his role, what he's actually doing is minimizing it. Collison is an effective player, and I'm happy to have him in the blue and gold, but rarely have we seen the ferocious attack mentality we saw when he was a rookie in New Orleans. This lack of aggressiveness in looking for his own shot also closes down passing lanes, and makes the entire team easier to defend.

On some level, West seems to be struggling with the same thing. Although his jumper hasn't been as accurate as the past few seasons, he's also passing up a ton of shots that he would have taken in New Orleans. The Pacers average just 18 assists per game, 28th in the league. This is not for lack of passing, but for lack of taking shots. The focus on sharing the ball has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Just about everyone except Hibbert, Granger and Dahntay Jones are passing up shots, swinging the ball to a teammate even if that scoring situation isn't any better than the one they find themselves in. The Pacers' are looking for great shots, and in doing so are passing up some good ones. There are several players on this team who can score and shot attempts can and should be balanced. However, that balance should be struck through aggressiveness.

A few other thoughts:

- The Pacers need George Hill back soon. His offensive performance has been inconsistent to start the year, but it's vastly preferrable to A.J. Price who has consistently struggled. As the ball handler in the pick-and-roll Price is now 0-10 with 2 turnovers on the season.

- Where are the screens for Lance Stephenson? The fact that he's scoring just 0.40 points per possession as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls speaks more to experience than his potential. In his 295 NBA minutes, Lance has taken a shot in this possession type just 27 times. His size, handle and passing ability present a template for terrific effectiveness in these situations, but he hasn't been getting the chances to make that a reality. To his credit Lance has played much more under control this year, and has shown an increased understanding of what he's not supposed to do; shot-hunt, turnovers, pound the ball on the perimeter for 15 seconds. The problem is he still doesn't seem to know what he IS supposed to be doing. In my mind that's a failure of the coaching staff. A commitment to playing him as the back-up point guard has pluses and minuses. Right now it seems like all the focus is on minimizing the negatives instead of exploiting the positives.

- The Pacers need to define Granger's offensive role, beyond 'star-scorer.' In years past the Pacers needed Granger's scoring to win games and couldn't be bothered with worrying about efficiency. That's just no longer the case. With upgraded personnel and a more coherent, suitable offensive system the need for Granger to 'go get his' isn't there. Granger's struggles on both ends of the pick-and-roll aren't as troubling as the fact that he keeps showing up on those offensive possessions. All due respect to Granger, but his best offensive skill is his shooting. In almost any Pacers' pick-and-roll his skills can be best used by spotting up on the wing or cutting to the basket on the weak side. Instead, 19% of Granger's offensive possessions have been used as either the ball handler or screener in a pick-and-roll or in an isolation set. With points per possession marks of 0.43, 0.60, and 0.52, the question has to be asked why they're even bothering. Granger's eFG% this season is a career low 43.7%. If we remove those pick-and-roll and isolations possessions his eFG% is 48.9%. It's time to give some serious though to where Granger's offensive skills can best help the team, because the answer is no longer everywhere.

The Pacers' are in a much better position than they were 23 games in last season. However, this roster is capable of much more. Answering some questions at the offensive end will go a long way towards helping them maximize the pieces they have.