During the Frank Vogel era, the Indiana Pacers, heavily reliant upon their smothering defense and physicality to finish possessions and generate more second chance points than their opponent, never completed a season ranked in the bottom half of the league in rebounding percentage (a team’s percentage of total rebounds grabbed). Rather, barring Paul George’s rookie season and last season’s on-again, off-again infatuation with small-ball, Vogel’s teams were annual fixtures among the top ten. Now, with Indiana prioritizing speed and offensive efficiency, Nate McMillan has proactively targeted his team’s ability to clean the glass as a potential area of weakness.
“One of the concerns, or things we will have to improve on, is our rebounding,” McMillan admitted while speaking on 1070 the Fan at the Pacers annual golf outing. “...we’ve played pretty much a big lineup the last couple of years, we’ve been able to rebound the ball. We’ve got to rebound the ball this year, that’s going to take a team effort.”
Given that it is not atypical of teams that exchange size for pace to struggle on the boards, McMillan’s concern may actually be misplaced. Paul George (563) led the Pacers in rebounding last season, and Thaddeus Young (15.6%) grabbed a slightly higher percentage of his team’s available rebounds than Ian Mahinmi (15.3%). But, even if those numbers don’t hold with Young further away from the basket, or prove to be skewed by makes or misses, of greater issue will be Indiana’s ability to win the turnover battle.
In fact, surrendering rebounding opportunities in the name of small(ish)-ball will be an acceptable trade-off, if the uptempo starting lineup can generate enough fast-break points to make up the difference. Three seasons ago, as ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh explains here, the Miami Heat won the East, despite ranking 27th in the league in rebound percentage, because they thrived in the open floor, finishing second in points per game off turnovers (19.3).
Even so, replicating this delicate balance will be challenging for the Pacers for a couple of reasons. One, it requires defense, which Indiana seemingly exchanged for scoring, to force turnovers.
“We’ve been talking about pace and style of play,” McMillan said following the team’s first practice, before emphasizing the importance of getting stops. “It starts with the defensive end of the floor.”
And, two, even if Dan Burke manages to get several meh defenders to adhere to the team’s defensive principles and schemes, the Pacers were notoriously sloppy with the ball last season and have the potential to be worse still in 2016-17, per Debbie Considine of 8 points, 9 seconds:
Jeff Teague turned over the ball 218 times, at a 16.2% turnover rate, for the Atlanta Hawks in 2016, good for 15th on the turnover list. In contrast, George Hill had just 101 and turned over the ball only 11.1% of the time last year with Indiana.
This gives Indiana three high-turnover ballhandlers on the perimeter, meaning that Nate McMillan will have to find a way to keep their tendencies from derailing too many possessions.
If George, Ellis, and Teague have the same number of turnovers next year as they did in 2015-16, the trio will have 107 more turnovers than the George, Ellis, and George Hill trio combined for in 2016.
Theoretically, the Pacers can get killed on the glass and still win games, but not if they give the ball away more often than they capitalize on their opponent’s miscues.
Myles Turner wants to finish top three in the East, and Paul George says he’s ready to challenge LeBron. Dropping outside of the top ten in rebounding percentage alone probably won’t cause the Pacers to fall short of their goals, but failing to do what’s necessary to compensate for that potential drop-off will.