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Fun (or lack thereof) with Pacer lineups

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The Pacers' current starting lineup is being outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions. Mired in a six-game losing streak, it may be time for Indiana to go back to the drawing board.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

By mid-January of last season, the Pacers' starting five - George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibberthad played 637 minutes in 32 games together. This season, the team's most used starting lineup - C.J. Watson, Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill, David West, and Roy Hibbert - have played only 201 minutes in 16 games together. This five-man unit has been outscored by opponents by a margin of 13.8 points per 100 possessions - a mark which ranks 64th league-wide (minimum 100 minutes played).

Of course, it is no secret that the Pacers' starting lineups - no matter which iteration - have mostly been dominated by opponents this season. For evidence, look no further than these few additional examples of starting lineups that found themselves in the red this season (minimum 40 minutes played):

2014-15 Starting Lineups MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg
Sloan, Miles, S.Hill, Scola, Hibbert 64 71.5 110.1 -38.6
Stuckey, S.Hill, Copeland, West, Hibbert 54 89.6 116.9 -27.2
Sloan, Stuckey, S. Hill, Scola, Mahinimi 44 87.4 100.9 -13.5
Sloan, Stuckey, S.Hill, West, Hibbert 50 83.0 88.8 -5.8

The most successful starting lineup - and one perhaps worth revisiting at least until George Hill returns - has included C.J. Watson and C.J. Miles joined by Solomon Hill, David West, and Roy Hibbert. In fourteen games played, that five-man unit has put up 113.2 points per 100 possessions and has actually outscored opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions - the best Net Rating of any starting lineup utilized by head coach Frank Vogel this season (minimum 40 minutes played).

The only problem with reuniting this group is that doing so would in turn necessitate breaking-up a bench unit that has served as the lone bright spot during what has otherwise been a very dismal month of January. When Miles has been joined by Donald Sloan, Damjan Rudez, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahinmi off the bench, that unit has actually outscored opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions, but only in 42 minutes played.

Why has this unit found success?

Averaging a team-high 6.7 drives per game, Donald Sloan is the team's most likely option to generate drive-and-kick baskets, per SportVU tracking data. If Sloan fails to connect at the rim himself - he averages 4.0 points per game on drives - the option is there for him to kick the ball out to Rudez  or Miles for three or simply to allow either Ian Mahinmi or Luis Scola to collect his miss off the glass. Mahinmi grabs 11.4% of Indiana's missed shot attempts whereas Scola corrals 8.5%, good for second and third best on the team respectively.

For the most part, the opposite is true of the current starting lineup.

Having been sidelined by two separate foot injuries this season, C.J. Watson still appears to - no pun intended - be attempting to regain his footing.

"They both hurt. They're not going to be pain free," Watson told the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "I knew that when I started to work my way back in, my right foot isn't going to be pain free for the rest of the season. Just taking it day by day, if I can play, I can play. If I can't, I can't."

According to SportVU tracking data. Watson (3.2 drives per game) is not even averaging half as many drives per game as his understudy. In other words, the second-year Pacer is not generating drive-and-kick baskets to the same degree as Sloan. This, of course, may not be a terrible thing given that Solomon Hill and Rodney Stuckey are each, coincidentally, only connecting on 25.0% of their shots from behind the arc during the month of January.

The starting back court's inability to stretch the floor is only compounded by the fact that David West is in the midst of his worst stretch as an Indiana Pacer. All month's compared, West's January plus-minus (-10.4) as well as his offensive rating (96.0) are the lowest those particular marks have been since he first donned the Blue-and-Gold four seasons ago. As if this were not disturbing enough, it should also be noted that the 12-year veteran currently has the worst on-court net rating (-9.2) of any Pacer this season, per NBA.com/stats.

Attempting to weigh all of the available data, it is difficult to discern the root cause of the starting lineup's problems. Are West and Hibbert struggling because of the lack of space provided by those around them, or are those around them struggling because Hibbert and West are taking up too much space?

In other words, is it the chicken or the egg?

The Pacers get outscored by 8.8 points per 100 possessions with both Hibbert and West on the court. While that is  not Indiana's worst two-man net rating, it is an unsettling mark for the team's lone two returning starters.

Indiana's second unit has found moderate success going small-ish this season. Indiana's most effective reserve lineup this season (minimum 25 minutes played) has been Lavoy Allen, Luis Scola, and Damjan Rudez joined by C.J. Miles and C.J. Watson. That five-man unit is allowing just 88.8 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponent's back-ups by 22.8 points per 100 possessions. Substitute Copeland for Damo and you have Indiana's second most effective reserve lineup, that unit is outscoring opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions.

The results are similar when Lavoy plays alongside David West. In the most used lineup including both Allen and West, joined by Solomon Hill, C.J. Miles, and Donald Sloan, that unit is holding opponents to 84.7 points per 100 possessions. Granted, none of these lineups have appeared in more than seven games this season so the sample size is small; however, the early returns do seem to indicate that the Pacers are more than capable of playing without a traditional center on the court, but likely only against opponent's reserves.

Taking all of this into account, it seems that the most viable option moving forward may, in fact, be to reinsert C.J. Miles back into the starting lineup alongside Watson, Solomon Hill, David West, and Roy Hibbert. Though reuniting this group will require to Miles to abandon his role as bench juicer, substituting him for Rodney Stuckey will likely help the starters regain some much needed shooting as well as space.

Here is how this proposed group has compared to the current starting lineup during the month of January as well as on the year:

January Pacer Lineups OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg
Current: Watson, Stuckey, S. Hill, West, Hibbert 90.3 99.5 -9.3
Proposed: Watson, Miles, S. Hill, West, Hibbert 102.3 96.6 5.7
2014-15 Pacer Lineups OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg
Current: Watson, Stuckey, S. Hill, West, Hibbert 93.8 107.6 -13.8
Proposed: Watson, Miles, S. Hill, West, Hibbert 113.2 98.9 14.3

Notably, the five-man unit of Sloan and Stuckey joined by Rudez, Scola, and Allen has been the the Pacers' most effective reserve lineup during the month of January. Appearing in only two games since the first of the year, that unit is scoring 116.3 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 36.3 points per 100 possessions. Whether or not it is wiser to utilize Mahinmi or Allen should probably be left up to individual match-ups.

At the beginning of January 2014, there was no question who would start for the Indiana Pacers. A year later, the Blue-and-Gold have been mauled by the injury bug, as thoroughly explained here by 8 points, 9 seconds' Jared Wade, and finding lineups that are healthy let alone ones that jell is clearly far more daunting for head coach Frank Vogel. However, with over 53% of the season in the books, it is now easier to discern which units are clicking and which very clearly are not. Waiting idly by for George Hill's return to once again buoy the Pacers is not going to help matters in the immediate. Mired in a six-game losing streak and getting outscored by opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions, the time to make changes to the rotation and restore some of the team's morale is now.

"I'm a competitor and obviously it doesn't sit well. I don't sleep after these games," said David West to the Indianapolis Star after his team's recent loss to the Houston Rockets. "It just doesn't sit well, knowing where we've been. It's hard going through this."

(Stats cited are from NBA.com/stats, SportVU player tracking, and basketball-reference)