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C.J. Miles and the unlikely problem of being too open

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Examining the Pacers' contested versus uncontested field goal percentage differentials via SportVU Player Tracking reveals the validity of a commonly used phrase: "It is a make or miss league."

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With 25.9 seconds remaining in the third quarter and the Pacers trailing the Blazers 59-61 on the road, C.J. Miles caught the ball on the right wing with the opportunity to tie the game or take the lead. None of Portland's defenders were within reaching distance of the career 34.4% three-point shooter. Though he was wide open, he appeared to be frozen in time, paralyzed in thought with his feet firmly planted beyond the arc. A second and a half later, the Pacers' newcomer finally arrived at the decision to shoot the ball. The shot barely grazed the front of the rim. Taking it should have been second nature to a player, who, just last season as a Cavalier, dropped 21 points on 61.5% shooting against Indiana. Instead, his shooting instincts failed him.

And thus has been the struggle of C.J. Miles the Pacer.

In his first five games donning the Blue and Gold, the 6'6" shooting guard connected on only 25.3% of his 63 field goal attempts. During that same period, the starting unit, which consisted of Miles, Donald Sloan, Solomon Hill, Luis Scola, and Roy Hibbert, went 1-4 and posted a woeful -37.4 Net Rating.

To be fair, Miles' general health status and injury struggles have likely had an impact on his transition to Indiana. He missed four games due to migraine symptoms, and then returned for one game against Denver only to be sidelined for three additional games due to a calf injury. The new Pacer has had little opportunity to both find, let alone maintain, a scoring rhythm. Under those circumstances, it would not be surprising if he were struggling to combine the mechanical and mental aspects of shooting, which would almost certainly prompt over-thought and hesitation.

Unfortunately, since he returned to the playing rotation, Miles' slump has worn on. Barring the exception of a solid 17-point effort against the Phoenix Suns, the now back-up guard has made only 11 of his 46 field goal tries and is shooting 27.5% on the season.

Following the Pacers' game against the Atlanta Hawks in early November, C.J. Miles told Pacers.com with regard to his slump, "It's like you miss four shots, then you make make one and you're so mad because you feel you should have made the last four, and you never stop to think you made one."

Miles scored five points against the Blazers last Thursday, knocking down two field goals and misfiring on six. It is in the open looks, those attempts when he has time to recall the prior misses, that Miles continues to struggle. He went 0-of-5 on uncontested field goals (shots attempted when the defender does not have a shooter within his vicinity equal to 3.5 feet) in Portland and 0-of-2 in Sacramento.

On the year (as the below table indicates via SportVU Player Tracking), Miles has shot better on contested field goal attempts than uncontested field goal attempts.

Player CFGM CFGA CFG% UFGM UFGA UFG% Difference
Miles 21 68 30.9% 11 52 21.1% -9.8%

Noticing her son's scoring troubles (3-of-13) following the Pacers' early season loss in Atlanta, C.J. (Miles not Watson) received an encouraging text from his mother, Mark Montieth of Pacers.com reports:

"Relax. It will come. You've been through this before."

Good advice, even for some of his teammates.

Miles should not be singled out as the only Pacer who is curiously shooting the ball better when a hand is in his face than when he is open. Below is how the numbers shake out when accounting for only those Pacers with at least 70 field goal attempts and an average shot distance of at least 10 feet.

Player Avg. Dist. CFGM CFGA CFG% UFGM UFGA UFG% Difference
Allen 10.6 feet 35 61 57.3% 27 64 42.2% - 15.1%
West 14 feet 17 34 50.0% 15 40 37.5% - 12.5%
Hill 12.2 feet 51 118 43.2% 32 86 37.2% -6.0%
Scola 11.2 feet 42 85 49.1% 33 72 45.8% - 3.3%

West's differential can probably be considered as somewhat of an anomaly here, given that he has only been back in the line-up for five games. Still shaking off the rust and currently posting the highest average field goal distance (14.0 feet) and lowest field goal percentage from between 16 feet and the 3-point line (35.1%) of his entire career, there is strong reason to believe that the law of averages is likely to soon win out.

As for Allen, Scola, and Hill, there are moments, not unlike Miles' struggles, where open has simply been too open. Solomon, at times, seems more at home relentlessly attacking the rim or muscling in a put-back attempt than striking up an open three-point try. In contrast to last season, when Luis Scola attempted over 100 more long twos than shots at the rim, this season his field goal distribution between the two distances has nearly drawn even (46 attempts at the rim; 66 from between 16 feet and the three-point line). As such, his increase in contested paint opportunities coupled with short-armed open jumpers likely due to increased playing time may account for his slightly negative differential. Though Allen is a capable shooter, his bread-and-butter has been his ability to grab offensive rebounds (ranked third in the league in ORB%) and score at the rim (77.1%).

Whatever the rationale for each of the five Pacers who are posting negative differentials, the fact remains that Indiana, as a whole, ranks 28th in the league in field goal percentage (42.5%) and 27th in 3-point field goal percentage (32.8%). Per the NBA's Team Tracking data, the Pacers are knocking down just 40.0% of open shots when a defender is within 4-6 feet. With a -2.8 point differential, Indiana sits in the bottom third of the NBA.

With numbers like that, Indiana's whole roster could stand to heed Miles' mother's advice, "Relax. It will come. You've been through this before."

In short, it really is a make or miss league.

Statistics from NBA.com (SportVU Player Tracking) and Basketball Reference