Shortly after jettisoning Roy Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers began talking about wanting to play faster and smaller. Two seasons have since past and they still haven’t done it consistently, let alone well. Instead, they got into a battle of wills with Paul George, temporarily broke C.J. Miles expecting him to play a role for which he wasn’t prepared, and spent a sizable portion of last season counting on the yet to be demonstrated concept of tempo to compensate for shaky defense and erratic floor spacing.
However, when Miles was inserted into the starting lineup at shooting guard right before Thaddeus Young injured his wrist, they were close.
Take, for instance, the Spacing Rating model developed by Nick Sciria of Nylon Calculus. According to the new metric, Indiana’s unit consisting of Jeff Teague, Paul George, and Myles Turner along with Miles and Young yielded an above average Spacing Rating of 86.6 percent, which means that only 13.4 percent of the lineups Sciria tested league-wide had more space than that particular group.
Of course, the flip side to that boon was that the lefty sharpshooter couldn’t be in two places at once. Without him at reserve power fauxward, the dreaded double-plodder lineups were made worse by the non-shooting threat which emanated from the ghost of Monta Ellis. Unsurprisingly, the most-used all-bench lineup that included the slowed 31-year-old had less space than 86.7 percent of the data set.
This, generally speaking, was the problem with last season’s unbalanced roster, wherein fixing one lineup issue typically only served to beget another.
By comparison, Kevin Pelton’s system projects next season’s team to win 10 fewer games, but at least the lineups have the potential to be less wonky, even if they’re also less talented.
Overall, the 2016-17 squad ranked 27th in the league in terms of three-point attempts per 100 possessions. Increasing that rate will be key now that Paul George’s two-way talent has been replaced by Bojan Bogdanovic’s more one-dimensional specialty. In other words, gone are the days when the four-time All-Star could sag into the paint to make up for leaky 1-5 pick and roll coverage and still manage to recover to his man behind the arc.
Instead, consider this, ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) graded the Croatian sharpshooter’s on-court defensive impact as the worst rotation two-guard in the league last season, directly behind 37-year-old Jamal Crawford. It’s tough to play fast when getting stops is a struggle, but exchanging baskets is a nightmare when threes don’t fall.
As most would expect, then, Collison, Oladipo, Bogdanovic, Young and Turner yield a lower, though still above average, Spacing Rating (58.3) than last year’s starting lineup with C.J. Miles (86.6). This is largely because Oladipo had a considerably lower estimated three-point rate (three-point attempts per 100 possessions/field goal attempts per 100 possessions) than that of his predecessor.
Still, each of the starters has the potential to narrow that gap. Oladipo needs to iron out his month-over-month inconsistency. Collison, who has become a standout shooter off the catch (47%) on too few attempts (1.7), could stand to be more selfish. Young will have to regain confidence in his wrist. Turner should strive to reduce his ratio of mid-range shots (337) to three-point attempts (115), and Bogdanovic would benefit from the additional use of off-ball screens (more on this later).
The bench is trickier to judge, but it’s also more telling.
Spacing Rating is a generalized estimation derived from past performance, so it isn’t impacted by the possibility that Glenn Robinson III’s role may shift from stop-release to shot-creator, nor can it account for the double coverage opponents routinely send to Al Jefferson on the low block, regardless of his level of fitness or lack thereof. It has no record of T.J. Leaf, and it also doesn’t consider that Lance Stephenson’s negative reputation from long-range may continue to proceed him for the foreseeable future.
Because these contextual factors can’t be measured, perhaps taking a closer look at the backup four position, in and of itself, will provide greater insight.
There’s some reason to be concerned about Indiana’s, perhaps, pseudo-stretchy options. Domantas Sabonis, after knocking down 21 of his first 46 tries from behind the arc (45.7%), only converted 25 percent of his three-point attempts over the final two months of the 2016-17 regular season. Leaf, meanwhile, averaged just 3.0 three-point attempts per 100 possessions from a shorter distance. Even so, Lavoy Allen and Kevin Seraphin were complete non-factors from three-point range, and didn’t command much combined attention from mid-range (52-of-130), either.
Youth, inexperience, roster turnover, and defensive shortcomings will likely guarantee that the Pacers still won’t do faster and smaller well, but at least both units will actually be semi-capable of trying.
Of course, that’s assuming that the team employs a more imaginative half-court offense than the, “...let them go and play their game” strategy that Nate McMillan described at the team’s introductory press conference for Oladipo, Collison, and Sabonis earlier in the summer.
Rather than being free flowing, Indiana’s read-based offense displayed a tendency to devolve into standing and waiting last season. On the whole, the Pacers played slow (18th), didn’t move the ball (24th) and didn’t move themselves within possessions (26th).
Without Paul George’s playmaking to bail them out at the end of the shot clock, the ball can’t afford to stick, especially not in the absence of calculated misdirection.
Take Bojan Bogdanovic’s shooting splits from the 2015-16 season, for instance. The Croatian sharpshooter knocked down 32.6 percent of his shots from three when stationed in the corner by Lionel Hollins as compared to 42 percent once Tony Brown took over and prioritized creating open shots, per Nets Daily.
“I don’t think we were terrible at it (moving the ball),” Kevin Pritchard admitted last month. “...but I don’t think we were great at it.”
“You have to have the right players out there,” Pritchard explained. “You have to be able to think the game, and you have to be willing to do the small things.”
The same must go for the coach. Otherwise, the Pacers may still be talking about wanting to play faster and smaller at this time next year.