Missing six of their top seven players, the Indiana Pacers do not at all resemble the 2013-14 version of themselves. In what could be described only as bizarro world, Roy Hibbert is the last starter standing. Chris Copeland is the team's leading scorer. Donald Sloan is the starting point guard, and Solomon Hill, having only appeared in 28 games last season, is being asked to fill part of the void left by Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Gutted by injuries and one significant free agency defection, the calculus of this era in Pacers' history as fundamentally changed. Rather than positioning themselves to face LeBron's team in the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana must once again focus on the journey rather than the light at the end of the tunnel.
In a down year, evaluating talent, measuring growth, and determining fit are imperative. What works and what doesn't? How does this team want to look in a year from now? Who fits best around Paul George? These are questions that the Pacers have an entire year to answer, but the NBA's Player Tracking data already reveals a lot about the new look Pacers:
Donald Sloan controls the Pacers' offense:
As the lone point guard available to Indiana for the first five games of the regular season, it should not come as much of a surprise that Sloan is leading the Pacers in terms of time of possession by a wide margin. Per NBA.com's Player Tracking data, the fourth-year player possesses the ball for 8.6 minutes. In second, is temporary replacement A.J. Price at 5.0 minutes (29th in the league). When only considering the members of the roster that have appeared in each of Indiana's first nine games, the next nearest teammate to Sloan is Solomon Hill at 1.9 minutes of possession (ranking 100th league wide).
Sloan's usage rate (21.1%) ranks sixth on the Pacers, behind Rodney Stuckey (35.5%), A.J. Price (27.9%), Chris Copeland (26.1%), C.J. Miles (24.7%), and Roy Hibbert (22.4%). Which means that Watson's former understudy is more responsible for beginning the Pacers' possessions (orchestrating offense and everything in-between) than he is for ending them.
Given that Indiana necessarily has to rely on Sloan for most of the team's ball handling responsibilities due to the unforeseen absences of George Hill, C.J. Watson, and Rodney Stuckey, these findings comparing the second-year guard only to his teammates are well within the realm of the expected.
What is considerably more eye-opening is when his numbers are compared to that of other starting caliber guards.
Ranking just 17th in minutes per game (34.2) among all guards, the once back-up to Indiana's back-up is leading the entire NBA in total touches (868), ranks fifth in front court touches (87.0), and ranks second in time of possession (8.6 minutes).
Consider this: Donald Sloan, in fewer minutes per game, has touched and possessed the ball on the Pacers' offensive end of the court (87.0) more than John Wall has for the Wizards (86.6), Kyrie Irving has for the Cavaliers (77.5), and Stephen Curry has for the Warriors (75.6).
The only snag here is that Sloan, while averaging career highs himself in several categories (13.7 points, 4.9 assists), is not leading a particularly productive offense. The Pacers, as of Wednesday's game against the Miami Heat, rank 29th in points per game, 26th in turnovers, and 30th in assists. Per NBA.com's On/Off Stats, Indiana scores just 95.1 points per 100 possessions with Sloan on the court, compared to 103.2 points with him off.
Roy Hibbert is doing what Roy Hibbert does best:
Without Paul George, one of the best (if not the best) perimeter defenders in NBA, the Pacers still have the No. 3 ranked defense in the league (allowing just 92.4 points per game) mostly because of one player: Roy Hibbert.
By the end of the 2013-14 season, the Pacers' two-time All-Star went from allowing just 89.0 points per 100 possessions in the month of November to giving up a rather woeful 106 points in March. Once a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Roy Hibbert eventually admitted to NBA.com's David Aldridge, "I was letting the lack of touches on offense really affect my defense."
Then seemingly impacted by a crisis of confidence, Roy, granted in limited sample size, has returned to his bread-and-butter and regained his status as an elite rim protector.
Per NBA.com's defensive impact stats, opponents are converting just 35.1% of shots taken at the rim when Roy Hibbert is on the floor for the Pacers.
How impressive is that number?
Compare that percentage to that of the three most recent recipients of the Defensive Player of the Year award: Joakim Noah is allowing 43.2% of shots at the rim, Marc Gasol allows 43.5%, and Tyson Chandler is at 51.5%.
In addition to altering shot attempts, Hibbert is averaging 3.3 blocks per game, good for second best in the league. As it currently stands, Roy (895 career blocks) only needs 10 more blocks to pass Dale Davis (904) for fourth place on Indiana's All-Time career blocks leader board.
The Pacers need more purposeful passing:
Let everybody eat.
That was the team's aim heading into the 2014-15 season, according to Roy Hibbert:
When only evaluating Indiana's player and ball movement, the Pacers - at least on the surface - seem to have achieved their goal. They rank seventh in the league in passes per game (324.1), fifth in touches per game (449.8) and third in total distance traveled (149.6 miles), which means they are collectively doing a decent job of moving themselves as well as sharing the basketball.
Where things start to get dicey is when it becomes apparent that their increased number of passes is not generating an increased number of points.
Ranking 27th in the league, Indiana creates just 43.1 points from assists per contest. Worse yet, the Pacers average 90.1 offensive possessions per game. Of those, 17.8 result in an assist and 16.2 end with a turnover on average. Which means, Indiana may now have a more equal opportunity offense, but it is still not particularly efficient.
With an offensive rating of 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the Pacers rank 27th of 30 in the NBA.
The Pacers' Rebounding and the Lance effect:
With a 27th ranked offense and 28th ranked field goal percentage, maintaining a top tier defense and generating second chance points is essential. Notably, both of these contingencies are dependent upon rebounding.
Without Paul George (6.8 rpg), Lance Stephenson (7.2 rpg), and David West (6.8 rpg), the Pacers are without their three top rebounders from last season as well as 20.8 of their 44.7 total rebounds per game.
Yet, in the absence of three key starters, Indiana has out rebounded eight of their first nine opponents, with the most lopsided differential coming against the Miami Heat where the Pacers finished plus 25 on the boards. As of that contest, the Pacers rank first in offensive rebounds (12.9 per game), second in defensive rebounds (33.9 per game), and second in total rebounds (46.8), per basketball reference. According to NBA.com's rebounding opportunities stats, the Pacers - with 421 total rebounds - rank fifth in percentage of rebounds per chance at 61.3%.
With a lot of rebounds up for grabs, Indiana has received help from Luis Scola and, perhaps more notably, Lavoy Allen during the season's early going. Allen, with 7.8, currently leads all non-starters in rebounds per game.
Admittedly, defensive possessions can be cut short by forcing turnovers or getting a steal, but the mainstay has to be a team's ability to clean the glass after forcing a missed shot. And on that note, Roy Hibbert deserves a lot of the credit. Through nine games, the 7-footer is corralling nearly as many defensive rebounds per game (6.3) as he grabbed total rebounds per game last season (6.6). An underrated accomplishment for someone tasked with putting himself in position to alter shots at the rim and cursed with a slow second jump.
Per NBA.com's Player Tracking data, Roy is currently grabbing 58.2% of his rebounding chances up from 49.6% the prior season.
Whether Hibbert is simply making a more concerted effort in his teammates' absence or is finally corralling the rebounds he once supposedly had swiped is unclear. What is certain is that there seems to be some sort of correlation between his and Al Jefferson's numbers before and after each player shared the court with Lance Stephenson. During the 2013-14 season, Roy averaged 6.6 rebounds with Lance and Big Al averaged 10.8 boards without him. As of now, the Pacers' center (sans Lance) is averaging 8.7 boards per game and Jefferson's average is down to 6.8.
Of course, other factors beyond just rudimentary numbers should be considered such as system and role, but Lance's comments to Grantland's Zach Lowe about taking rebounds from teammates seem to ring true, "That means I'm hustling more than them. If I'm taking your rebound, you gotta hustle more."
Faces may change but old habits die hard. Even with a revolving door of line-up changes, the Indiana Pacers remain a team of attrition. Unable to replace those injured with greater talent, Indiana continues to pride itself on being a balanced attack. Though they continue to rebound with authority and may move themselves and the ball more (a step in the right direction), the Pacers remain dependent upon sustained defensive pressure and continue to be plagued by a bottom-tier offense. Therefore, while they may appear quite different on paper and will likely yield very different results, the new look Blue-and-Gold's blue collar style actually does bear significant resemblance to what once was a few short months ago.