How to Fix the Pacers

I last saw the Pacers live three weeks ago, when the team sleepwalked its way to a weirdly close win over the hapless Sixers in Philly. That ended a streak of games in which I ran into the Pacers wherever I went — Toronto, Orlando, Boston, Philly — and watched them play some ugly ball every time.

The vibe around Indy was off that night. Frank Vogel, normally unflappable, was frazzled, angrily challenging reporters to find one possession on which the team had not played its hardest. When the locker room opened, Paul George and Roy Hibbert were seated next to each other, having a loud argument about the team’s crumbling offense. George complained that Hibbert was posting up at the wrong times, getting in everyone’s way. Hibbert was saying something about getting touches. They kept at it in front of the few reporters that had walked in right away. They were mad, but the discussion was civil. It looked like the kind of talk a mentally strong team should have during a bad streak. I didn’t think much of it.

But the Pacers have collapsed since then, and their offense, long the team’s weak link, has reached a point at which it might disqualify them from title contention. These Pacers have never been a good offensive team. They ranked 19th in points per possession last season, and even at their best this season, they topped out around average. They lack the mechanisms to create easy shots at the rim.

Everyone knows the rest of the key problems. The team’s offensive rebounding, a crucial strength last season, has fallen away; Tyler Hansbrough’s blind rampages now happen in Canada and Hibbert isn’t producing nearly as many extra possessions. George’s shooting has regressed past the expected mean and into some netherworld. He’s more of a side-to-side ball handler than a straight-line guy, which means he doesn’t really puncture defenses; they can slide along with him, closing the best passing lanes as he meanders.

The team can’t stop turning the ball over or throw effective entry passes. Luis Scola is in major decline. David West hasn’t been the same player, and when the Pacers face a team against which West can’t bully his way to easy points, they are in trouble. C.J. Watson’s absence has been an underrated factor. He was a key stabilizer on bench-heavy units, working as a threatening off-ball shooter as Lance Stephenson ran the show. The starting lineup with Watson in George Hill’s place remains Indiana’s third most-used unit, and nobody guards his replacement, Donald Sloan.

Evan Turner hasn’t worked out, leaving Vogel to experiment in the last two weeks with a pile of sudden rotation changes. Hey, there’s Rasual Butler! Whoa! A Chris Copeland sighting! Wait, did Vogel just call a post-up for Copeland out of a timeout? Stephenson, West, and George have all entered and exited at different times than usual as Vogel struggles to rediscover a workable rotation.

Hill is more combo guard than point guard. He averages just 2.7 drives per game, the second-lowest figure among all starting point guards, per SportVU tracking data. He just isn’t going to generate any easy drive-and-dish buckets. Stephenson and George are better equipped for that, but neither is an elite ball handler, and Indiana’s roster construction will never offer ideal spacing. That is the penalty for playing just about every meaningful minute with two post-oriented big men on the floor; when I wrote this piece trumpeting George’s rise to superstardom, several front-office executives from other teams wondered what he might do with better spacing.

The team has never been diligent about spacing. The perimeter guys, especially George and Stephenson, have a habit of randomly standing inside the 3-point line, too close to the paint, when they don’t have the ball. Stephenson loves to lurk along the baseline instead of spotting up in the corners, and he sometimes darts toward the rim at unpredictable times.

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Those extra couple of feet might not sound like much, but they matter. They place help defenders a step or so closer to the paint, and that emboldens defenders near the basket to help more aggressively on the ball; they know someone close by has their back. Stephenson’s baseline cuts produce some baskets and offensive rebounds, but he’s still learning to balance hunting his own and keeping the overall offense healthy. Watching Indy play San Antonio, the gods of spacing, was eye-opening.

It took the Spurs years of practice and acquiring the right personnel to master the offense that now looks so effortless and stands as the envy of the league. The NBA schedule just doesn’t allow for much practice. Coaches will tell you that emphasizing improvement on one end of the floor carries a price: You may backslide on the other. We may be seeing something like that with Indiana. Vogel and his staff reinvented these guys as a historically great defensive smasher, but they have never developed much complexity or continuity on offense.

Other teams know what is coming, and when they stop it, Indiana too often stagnates into one-on-one ball.

Why Indiana Fans Should Be Worried

The last two months have been something different. The Pacers have scored just 99 points per 100 possessions since early February, the second-worst mark in the league, ahead of only the Sixers. At this point, “ahead of only the Sixers” basically translates to “you are the worst among real NBA teams.” The Pacers for the season have now scored 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league’s overall average, according to Basketball-Reference.

That is a big, blinking light screaming, “This team is no longer a title contender.” Since the league introduced the 3-point line in the 1979-80 season, 136 teams have appeared in the conference finals. Only two of those teams finished 2.5 points or more below the league’s per-100-possessions scoring average: the 1999 Knicks and 2012 Celtics. Only 15 of those 136 teams sported offenses that ranked even 0.1 point per 100 possessions below average. And again: Indiana’s offense is worse than all but two of those teams, relative to league average.

This is not rocket science. To advance far in the playoffs, you generally need to be good at offense and defense. Some studies, most notably this one by FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine, have found that having an elite defense is slightly more important in building a championship team than having an elite offense, but some follow-ups have argued for the nearly equal importance of both sides.

The Pacers are almost the perfect team to buck these historical trends. Fifteen “exceptions” out of 136 teams is actually not a small number, though Indiana’s offense has gotten bad enough that the Pacers would be an extreme outlier even among these impotents. A bunch of the exceptions over the last decade or so have been Eastern Conference teams sporting stingy defenses during down years for the East. Sound familiar? That formula worked for the 1999 Knicks (a wacky lockout team), the 2002 Nets and Celtics, the 2004 and 2005 Pistons, the 2007 Cavaliers, and last season’s Pacers — all teams that got into the NBA’s final four, and sometimes further, despite below-average offenses.

Being in the East is a godsend for one-way teams. That said, the notion the Pacers in this crippled state can just walk into the conference finals is bogus. If you are the worst non-Philly team on offense (or defense), you are guaranteed nothing in the postseason. Not even one round, especially if the Pacers remain in the no. 2 spot and draw a frisky team — either Washington or Charlotte — in the first round. (Wednesday’s Charlotte-Washington game could be huge in determining the no. 6 and 7 seeds, by the way.)

Indiana’s defense is so good that it would rightfully be the favorite to win that series, perhaps in short order. But if the next round brings Toronto, Brooklyn, or Chicago, it would be hard to consider Indiana in this state to be a clear favorite. That is how bad it has been.

How It Began to Come Apart

The Pacers have been bad in an especially worrisome way. They haven’t slipped in one or two particular and easily identifiable areas; they have just gotten worse across the board, in ways that are hard to detect. They’ve taken fewer 3s and shots at the rim, and more midrangers, since early February, but their shot-selection profile has always been shaky. The Pacers have the type of offense their own defense tries to foist upon other teams.

If you’re looking for evidence of stickiness, you won’t easily find it. The Pacers are passing the ball about 300 times per game, right around their pre-February figure, per SportVU data provided to Grantland. They are collectively running the same distance, suggesting any decline in cutting has been negligible. They’re taking about the same number of contested shots per game as they were early in the season, according to that SportVU data; they’re just missing far more of them.

Their fast-break game has fallen apart; they’re averaging just seven fast-break points per game since the first week of February, last in the league by a mile. Only three teams have forced fewer turnovers per possession in that span, and the transition points have vanished without those turnovers. That’s why it was such a relief to see Stephenson go on one of those productive insane-person streaks in the second quarter against Detroit on Wednesday night.

The Pacers have just been a worse version of themselves. As Mike Prada noted at SB Nation earlier this week, the Pacers need to double down on the little things — setting picks, cutting hard, making sure not to stand in the freaking way.

They are just horribly out of sync. Twice in a row against Cleveland last week, the Pacers ran a play with great intentions — a Hill-George pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor, followed by a swing pass to West on the other side. But Hibbert slid into a post-up right in George’s cutting lane, mucking up the play:

Also, Lance Stephenson: SHOOT THAT CORNER 3!

Here’s the same play, with the same initial result, on the next possession:

Discordant things like this have been happening much more lately. The Pacers have been more confused than usual early in possessions, with players yelling and pointing at each other to move in various ways. They are missing passes. Here’s Hibbert looking off a wide-open Stephenson in order to try a high-degree-of-difficulty hook:

Here’s Hibbert jacking a pick-and-pop jumper with two weakside shooters wide open in predictable places:

The Pacers need to make the extra pass. It is the only way they can produce enough clean looks against good teams. But making the extra pass is hard for them. Their best passers, with the exception of Stephenson, aren’t good at getting into the lane off the bounce to suck in defenses, and even Stephenson isn’t all that good at that within the half-court. Hibbert and West are both capable passers, but when teams crowd them in the paint, they have a hard time making quick decisions. Hibbert is a bit of a slow decision-maker, and West can’t jump high enough to see over long help defenders. Scola has the same problem, and Ian Mahinmi has been a terrible passer most of his career.

Indiana’s poor spacing makes those choices harder, since players in traffic often have no clean angle to a spot-up shooter. An open player isn’t open if there is no passing lane to him. There’s a reason the Pacers rank 22nd in corner 3-point attempts per game.

How They Can Fix It

Their number of 3-point attempts is a good way to know if Indiana is functional. They bumped up their offense in the playoffs last season in part by redistributing some long 2s behind the 3-point arc. Moving the ball from one side to the other is essential in creating those shots, and a West pick-and-roll on one side is the easiest way to do that:

Those are misses, but they are great shots — the kind that won Indiana playoff games last season. What it can’t do with the dribble, Indiana must do with cuts and passes. Sometimes it’s just about varying the way the big men set screens — or don’t set them — on one side of the floor, and then sensing instantly what passes are available:

The first pick-and-roll is not the end goal. It is just a way to bend the defense toward one side of the court, and see what opens up from there. It might be a spot-up 3 on the other side. West might kick the ball over to George on the weak side for a quick-hitting pick-and-roll against a defense that isn’t locked in on that play — a great way to get into the middle of the floor instead of being stuck on the side.

And, crucially for Indy’s mental health, this side-to-side stuff is a great way to get Hibbert deep post-up position. When West or some other screener rumbles down one side of the floor, Hibbert’s man has to slide off and into the middle of the paint on a help assignment. If Indy swings the ball over to Hibbert’s side, that guy has to scramble back toward Hibbert, allowing Hibbert to pin him deep in the paint. This is precisely how the Pacers got Hibbert easy post-ups against Miami in last season’s conference finals.

This really just boils down to being better at basketball. The Pacers don’t have outstanding offensive players, but when they’ve been fully engaged, they’ve been able to squeeze out enough points. Vogel is an ace at drawing up plays out of timeouts, and the Pacers are good at using back screens to create 3-point shots out of the post. If they rediscover their good habits, they should get back on track for their date with Miami. But if they don’t, we shouldn’t be surprised if they are out much earlier.

Filed Under: NBA, Indiana Pacers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA