Roster construction is what ails the Indiana Pacers. Continuing to search for an identity 70-plus games into the season. Holding the ball too much. Falling in and out of trust with each other. Waxing and waning defense. Paul George’s frustration. All are signs which confirm this diagnosis. Nate McMillan shouldn’t be expected to provide the panacea for the roster’s untenable redundancy, but he could be doing more to alleviate some of the symptoms.
Here are some treatment options that could’ve potentially made the end to the regular season more comfortable:
Relinquish unrealistic expectations:
Enough with the double-plodder, all-bench lineup madness. Seriously, just stop. Rolling with Allen-Jefferson (minus-10.2), Allen-Seraphin (minus-18.1), or Seraphin-Jefferson (minus-4.2) was justifiable when Paul George and C.J. Miles were both sidelined at the beginning of the season. It was understandable when Thaddeus Young missed eight games with an injury.
Foul trouble is the only excuse for continuing to trot out any of these frontcourt combinations.
To his credit, McMillan has made a small tweak to the rotation. He replaced Jefferson’s aging game with Rakeem Christmas’ spryness. The inexperienced sophomore is a more serviceable roll man and has shown flashes of potential using verticality to compensate for his lack of size (when he isn’t racking up ticky-tack fouls). However, tethering him with Allen has just created more of the same mobility and spacing issues.
Beyond struggling to check opposing stretch-shooters, having two big, non-shooting bodies in the paint transforms driving to the rim into an acrobatic act for Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey. Granted, the latter has been mired in a shooting slump, but the paint being packed certainly hasn’t helped.
Stuckey is attempting a career-low 21.5 percent of his field goals within three feet of the rim. With seams in the defense hard to come by, more of his would-be lay-ups are being transformed into cringe-worthy, two-point range pull-ups, which he is converting at only a 36 percent clip.
Aaron Brooks has supplanted Stuckey as the backup point guard the last two games, but he’s shooting his lowest mark from three (33.3%) in five seasons and has a tendency to shot hunt. But even if he was shooting closer to his career-high (40.9%), inserting him into the lineup without having him trade roles with Ellis — the more natural (though sometimes overly reckless) drive-and-kick play maker of the two —wouldn’t make much sense.
Still, if McMillan ultimately winds up circling back to the Ellis, Stuckey, and Allen trio, he can’t add Christmas, Seraphin, or Jefferson to the mix. If he’s going to play Christmas, Seraphin, or Jefferson, he can’t keep surrounding them with Ellis, Stuckey, and Allen. Now that pursuing outside help at the trade deadline is out of the question, it’s time to start better staggering C.J. Miles, Thaddeus Young, and Paul George’s minutes.
Get plenty of rest:
Shortening the rotation isn’t without risk. George is already one of only sixteen players in the league averaging 35-plus minutes. Still, if McMillan is concerned with maximizing rest, it begs the question why he persists in playing the starters late in the fourth quarters of games that are already decided.
Despite being up 23 points over the Charlotte Hornets at home last Wednesday, he waited until the 2:20 mark of the final frame to pull Jeff Teague and Myles Turner. Conversely, he persisted in his attempts to have Paul George and the rest of the first unit ineffectually chip away at a 24-point lead in Toronto when the Utah Jazz were waiting in Indy to face the Pacers the next night.
As August of 2014 goes to show, freak injuries can happen in an instant. Therefore, it seems counter-intuitive to cling to a 10-man rotation whilst also playing the players whose minutes the team is, presumably, attempting to limit in lopsided contests.
Do something new:
If wearing out his franchise player and the team’s already thin wing rotation wasn’t an option, then pairing Al Jefferson with Georges Niang should’ve at least been considered.
Indiana’s lone rookie probably lacks the explosiveness to beat NBA-caliber wings off the dribble as well as the lateral quickness to stay in front of them on defense, but he’s mobile enough to contest spot-up attempts and hedge against the pick and roll as a power fauxward.
Admittedly, the C.J. Miles-Al Jefferson tandem isn’t a net positive (minus-1.6), but it’s closer to breaking even than any of the other bench frontcourt combinations. Niang’s ability to spread the floor would’ve made him the likeliest option to facilitate the bench going small.
It’s strange that a root canal gone wrong motivated McMillan to take a closer look at Rakeem Christmas, but nonexistent wing depth and a 25th ranked aggregate bench net rating never moved the needle for Niang.
It’s too late for an inexperienced player to be integrated into the rotation now, but giving him a try earlier might have made the bench better, and it’s difficult to imagine how it could have got much worse.
The Pacers are currently averaging 0.51 possessions fewer than last season, and they don’t get near enough player movement within possessions. Bird stacking the roster with multiple ball-dominant scorers and sprinkling it with plodders to compensate for erratic shooting obviously ensured a dismal prognosis for the team’s transition to uptempo offense, but McMillan’s rotation decisions have undeniably produced some unnecessary complications.