Prior to the start of Indiana’s five-game west coast road trip, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann’s latest installment in his “One Team, One Stat” series paid special attention to the fact that the Pacers’ reserves have an aggregate net rating (minus-11.8) that ranks 29th in the league. It’s a startling figure, but it probably shouldn’t be. Though that mark represents the lowest valley posted by an Indiana bench in the last decade, the surrounding peaks are not particularly awe-inspiring. The bench has only posted a positive aggregate net rating twice in the Paul George-era, topping out at plus-2.8 in his lost season.
Injuries haven’t helped the 2016-17 iteration. Aaron Brooks missed the first three games of the season due to a sore right knee. Rodney Stuckey’s hamstring strain cost him 10 games. On the same night he returned to game action, C.J. Miles went down with a knee injury. Meanwhile, Glenn Robinson III’s number has been called to fill-in for Paul George, who is still dealing with lingering ankle soreness. All of which has contributed to the bench’s inability to find its footing. Building chemistry is tough when the originally intended second unit — Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Lavoy Allen, and Al Jefferson — has yet to log even a single minute together.
Still, the fit of that group is awkward.
For instance, Stuckey is attempting a career-low 16 percent of his field goal attempts from within three feet of the rim and is converting those looks at a career-worst rate of 40 percent. Granted, returning from injury may be causing him to be somewhat hesitant to drive hard toward the rim, but having Lavoy Allen parked on one block and Al Jefferson stationed on the other isn’t making finding seams any easier.
The same has been true in the reverse for Al Jefferson. Barring a few solid performances here and there, the anachronistic center has oscillated between appearing tired and old. Despite posting the worst field-goal percentage of his career, smaller opposing lineups are still consistently sending double coverage to him on the low block out of fear of being roasted. His teammates need to be able to take better advantage of that shift in gravity.
Instead, putting a plodder on the floor with guards who need the lane to be unclogged to be most effective has proved problematic.
Which is why the notion of using Monta Ellis as the bench’s primary ball-handler next to Rodney Stuckey for extended minutes should bring with it plenty of reason for pause.
Further complicating matters on both sides of the ball is Lavoy Allen. The five-year veteran is grabbing the highest percentage of his team’s misses, but he hasn’t provided many other compelling reasons to leave him on the floor beyond head coach Nate McMillan’s dearth of other options.
Him shooting a woeful 18 percent from mid-range and taking up space on the opposing low block isn’t making converting looks at the rim any easier for Jefferson.
Granted, Allen’s ability to generate second-chance points can be an asset against certain lineups, but his lack of mobility continues to be a liability against opposing stretch shooters.
Barring a trade for an interchangeable forward, playing C.J. Miles spot minutes at back-up four (gasp) is the only remedy the current roster provides to mitigate some of these problems.
The oft-injured wing will give up size at the power forward position, but he is far better equipped than Allen to provide the bench with offense where his defense may conditionally lag. Such was the case, here, when he used a back screen set by Al Jefferson to leave Dirk Nowitzki in the dust.
When Paul George returns, sliding Glenn Robinson III’s newfound confidence into the bench’s small forward position should be an added boon. He (36.4%) and Miles (46.2%) are both significant upgrades off the catch from deep, which makes them better suited to open driving lanes for Stuckey and convert some of his mid-range pull-up attempts into lay-ups while taking advantage of Jefferson’s gravitational pull. It would also be easier to compensate for a likely drop-off in rebounding rate with multiple three-point shooting threats on the floor.
Of course, moving Miles to the four doesn’t come without risk. His willingness to bite the metaphorical bullet by switching from the wing to power forward came at great cost to his body last season.
"I was in great shape to play my position (on a wing), but not in great shape to get beat up," Miles told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. "I had never been in that position before, I had never been hit that way, at least that much for a period of time. It wore me down, and I was trying to figure out how to keep from getting hit (while playing).”
"It was slowing me down and taking me away from the extra work I like to do. I was trying to make sure I had the legs and energy to heal up and play in the game. It was tough; it was different. And we were starting to win games, so I definitely wasn't going to complain about it. If that's what I had to do to make us better, that's what I had to do."
He’s already missed six games this season due to a knee injury he suffered against the Phoenix Suns, which means asking him to do what’s best for the team may not be what’s best for him. That being said, it remains to be seen whether playing short bursts of minutes against reserve-level fours on a situational basis would be more taxing than guarding starting caliber wings, as continues to be suggested ad nauseam.
Given that Indiana is the league’s worst second quarter team (minus-13.8), it may be worth it to take a chance and find out if the small-ball theory can pan out in practice.