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Why the Pacers are struggling to prevent second-chance opportunities

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And the side effects of trading Victor Oladipo.

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Pacers are 4-10 this season when they get outscored in second-chance points, a win-percentage much worse than their overall record (12-12). Interestingly enough, however, through their first 10 games of the season, this was far less of an issue than it’s snowballed into of late. In fact, over that span, Indiana actually posted a positive average scoring margin in that particular category (+0.5), while only outright losing the second-chance battle in three contests. Since then, their garbage collection efforts have taken a turn for the worse, surrendering an average deficit of 4.6 second-chance points per game. Worse still, they’ve recycled fewer points than their opponents in all but two of the last 14 games, and it has nothing to do with their own output, which has actually jumped slightly from 11.4 points per game to 12.6. Rather, it’s a product of what’s happening on the other end of the floor, where during that range of games, Indiana’s 17.6 opponent second-chance points per game ranks dead-last in the league, representing roughly a six-point increase over the earlier portion of the season, while also putting forth a 28th-ranked opponent offensive rebounding rate.

From players being in an out of the lineup to differing pools of opponents, there isn’t necessarily a tidy explanation for the abrupt drop-off that’s occurred from mediocre to terrible with regard to keeping opponents off the offensive glass, but it’s certainly curious that the dividing line coincides with the departure of Victor Oladipo, whose last game in uniform for the Pacers was also the team’s 10th game of the season. Generally speaking, rebounding is more a function of defense than individuals, but individuals can certainly impact how defensive schemes function, therefore impacting rebounding. For example, watch how much ground Oladipo covers on this one possession. Not only does he peel off of the back-screen in an attempt to take a charge, he swaps recovery paths with Aaron Holiday from the opposite side of the floor — all before guiding Mikal Bridges into a block and snatching the rebound.

Without his pervasive closing speed, the Pacers don’t quite possess the same ability to fill holes when flying around in rotation. For one, they’ve taken fewer charges as a team over the last 14 games (3) than Oladipo did individually prior to the trade (6). But his magic as a help defender also extends beyond just teleporting in front of the ball and out to the three-point line. Compare and contrast these two slot drives.

Here, with OG Anunoby bulldozing his way to the basket, Myles Turner rotates over to help but no one boxes out DeAndre’ Bembry on the weak-side.

Now, watch as Oladipo in a similar scenario, smashes in front of Larry Nancy Jr. as JaVale McGee floats up a wild balloon in the lane.

To be fair, the rebound caromed over Oladipo’s head, but that sort of unpredictably also highlights the importance of carving out space and making your own luck — which Oladipo was more apt to do than some of his current replacements, whether walling off a big in the paint, sneaking in front of a cutter, or hugging a back-screen like a box-out.

That said, the Pacers defensive rebounding rate on possessions featuring missed shots was only marginally better in the minutes when he was on the floor (0.728) compared to when he was off (0.726), so it doesn’t seem as though the loss of those efforts alone paint the full picture of what’s been going on in his absence. Of course, on/off numbers also don’t always paint the full picture of a player’s impact — at least with regard to changes in scheme. Per Synergy, the Pacers have run twice as many zone possessions on average since Oladipo’s last game (10.9) as before it (5.1). Again, from the strategic choice to box-and-one Steph Curry to attempting to mask for the loss of Myles Turner’s rim protection against Dallas and LA, other factors have to be considered with that increase, but compensating for what the team lacks in rim deterrence, sometimes as a product of over-pressuring but also as a result of no longer having their stoutest defender in the gaps, is certainly among them.

Take the game against Milwaukee, for instance. Because the Pacers were struggling to contain the ball, as can be attested to by the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo never attempted a jump-shot while going 7-of-8 at the rim, Nate Bjorkgren made the adjustment to mix in some 2-3 zone. There was just one little problem: While the change in coverage kept the ball out of the paint and produced a few (initial) stops, it also led to second shots.

This also occurred against the Pelicans, when Sabonis raced out to the corner to contest a shot as the back-line outside defender, only for Willy Hernangomez to bat the ball back out to the three-point line.

In part, that speaks to the drawbacks of playing zone, when box-out assignments are less clear-cut, but it also highlights some of the trouble that ensues when Sabonis is expected to help-and-fly, especially for a team that aims to run opponents off the line with incredibly aggressive closeouts. Consequently, when he’s defending out on the perimeter at the four spot and flying by as the system calls for as opposed to using choppy feet, he’s no longer in position to rebound as the team’s best rebounder.

Once more, there’s no accounting for the exact trajectory of where the ball will ricochet, but it isn’t exactly ideal that his fighting spirit is out of range with his teammates packing the paint, as was the case with the latter zone possession. Moreover, like last season, the Pacers still aren’t particularly adept at corralling long rebounds precipitated by longer shots, but the bigger concern has now flip-flopped to around the rim, which also seems to underscore the impact of scheme changes.

Stats via PBP Stats, filtered for any missed FG

On the year, in cleaning up for odd-man advantages and the excesses of ball pressure, the Pacers have surrendered the most field-goal attempts at the rim of any team in the league, topping the second-place Lakers by a margin of four in fewer games played. In turn, plenty of opportunities for contests are being funneled to Myles Turner, who leads all players with 64 rim blocks, but the lack of aforementioned rim deterrence circles back to what was spotlighted earlier about the imperativeness of sinking into bigs from the weak-side. Turner and Sabonis can’t contest these types of shots/passes and box out Dwight Howard. Instead, as Oladipo demonstrated in the previously cited examples, McDermott has to slide in front, here, with either Brogdon or McConnell zoning up the shooters.

It’s probably also worth questioning if the sheer volume of contests is resulting in some fatigue, especially with Sabonis playing entire quarters at a time with a deep bone bruise and alternating between crashing from the perimeter and defending at solo-five. Admittedly, rebounding rate is a percentage of misses collected, but the eye test suggests that going through the motions around the basket with such rapidity in a motion-heavy system might be having a depressive effect on their legs, as well as that rate.

Here, for example, is Sabonis giving up multiple efforts to Howard on the same possession during a quarter in which he scored 12 of his 21 points and had already logged over 25 minutes for the game. All the while, his teammates stand watching complacently —- not boxing out Howard, nor covering Seth Curry on the potential kick-out until the last second.

And, yes, the Pacers have played four of the top-10 teams in offensive rebounding rate over the last 14 games (i.e. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Utah, and Memphis), but the same can be said through their first 10 (New Orleans, Cleveland, and Boston X2), when they posted a positive average scoring margin in second-chance points. That’s why, without Oladipo to buzz, here, there and everywhere in this system, the multitude of combo guards left in his stead are either going to have to develop a better sense for sinking from the weak-side and boxing-out bigger wings and forwards in zone schemes, or the ball pressure that’s producing a constant stream of field-goal attempts at the rim for opponents may need to be relaxed. Otherwise, smaller measures can be taken, like flip-flopping the defensive assignments of Turner and Sabonis against certain match-ups, but that risks displacing Turner’s rim protection, just like Sabonis’ rebounding.

Whatever the case, without Caris LeVert’s slippery playmaking and T.J. Warren’s bucket-getting to make up the difference, something has to give. Because, as their 4-10 record goes to show, the Pacers have yet to prove that they can consistently find other ways to win while getting outscored in second-chance points. Consequently, if they can’t stop opponents from hitting reset on possessions, they may need to reset certain aspects of their defense — at least until they can get healthy.