Just over a month ago, the Indiana Pacers were 44-13, sitting high atop the Eastern Conference and in the midst of a five-game winning streak. They had the league's best defense by a mile and a competent offense that, though it had to work hard to get them, produced just enough points on a nightly basis to get them by most every team in the league.
Since March 1, however, things have taken a drastic turn for the worse. There's been some defensive slippage, but the real problems have come on the other end of the floor.
The competent offense Indiana was sporting through the season's first four months has cratered almost beyond belief. After averaging a respectable if not electric 102.5 points per 100 possessions (good for 18th-best in the NBA, according to NBA.com) through the end of February, the Pacers scored just 95.6 points per 100 possessions in the 18 games they played in March, the second-worst mark in the league.
The players seem befuddled by the decline. George Hill was quoted by Candace Buckner of the Indy Star last week as saying, "I don't know what's the right or wrong answer. I'm not sure. I mean, we just got to play for each other. Move the ball. You can't turn on the light switch. You can't just go on and off."
Within the same piece, center Roy Hibbert said, "We've been in this rut for a month. I don't know. I made my suggestions. You take one step forward and three steps back. So, I don't have a sound bite for you. I really don't have anything to say. I don't know how to fix this."
It's fitting that no one has an easy solution, because there's not an isolated problem here. It's not just one or two things that have gone wrong for the Pacers—it's everything, all at once.
Take offensive rebounding, for instance. Last year, the Pacers grabbed 30.3 percent of their available misses, per NBA.com, the fourth-highest share in the league. Prior to March 1 this season, that number was already down to 25.3 percent, which ranked 17th, and since the beginning of March it's dropped all the way to 24.0 percent, which ranks just 22nd.
This precipitous drop becomes all the more concerning when you take a look at the numbers from last year's Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.
The Pacers were able to take Miami to seven games in that series despite turning the ball over on nearly one-fifth of their possessions on the strength of their offensive rebounding. Indiana grabbed an insane 34.6 percent of their available misses during the Eastern Conference Finals, a share that would lead the league pretty much every season.
Defensive rebounding is one of the few weaknesses Miami has this season (their 72.5 defensive rebounding percentage ranks 26th in the NBA), and if the Pacers aren't able to take advantage of it, they won't stand much of a chance of advancing past the Eastern Conference Finals, should they get there once again.
Advancement is even less likely when you considered how the Pacers' biggest weakness matches up against Miami's greatest strength.
The Heat are the best team in the league at forcing turnovers, according to NBA.com, with their opponents having given up the ball on 17.6 percent of their possessions this season. Turnovers are akin to death against the Heat—they average 19.4 points off turnovers per game, second to only the Los Angeles Clippers.
Indiana, unfortunately, has been a turnover-prone mess right from the jump, giving it away on 15.9 percent of possessions both before and after March 1, a rate which puts them firmly in the bottom third of the league in terms of taking care of the rock.
The Pacers have also taken a big hit in points in the paint, points off turnovers and second-chance points. They were only middling in each of those three areas through February, but since the beginning of March they're in the bottom seven teams in all three categories.
When you're turning the ball over a lot, you need to compensate in other ways in order to generate offense, whether it's by securing offensive rebounds or getting to the free-throw line. The Pacers have gotten worse in the offensive rebounding department since March 1, and while their free-throw rate has increased, it's only ever so slightly, and certainly not enough to make up for the disastrous, team-wide decline in shooting they've experienced.
Through the end of February, Indiana had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 49.6, which ranked 15th in the NBA. Since that time, Indiana's eFG% is only 46.0 percent, the very worst mark in the league, behind even the lowly 76ers, who've won just one game in that span of time.
Shots that previously went through the hoop have not been doing so lately, and it's not exclusive to just one or two players. It's everyone. Look at the numbers just for the starting lineup, before and after March 1:
Hill went from a top-10 true shooting percentage (TS%) for guards to outside the top 70, per Basketball-Reference.com. Paul George dropped from the top 25 for forwards down to the mid-60s. Hibbert nosedived even further down the centers' leaderboard.
Given that he uses the greatest number of possessions, it's George's decline that has hurt the most, and he's having the most trouble close to the basket. He finished over 60 percent of his shots in the restricted area prior to March 1, but since then he's made less than 50 percent of those tries, per NBA.com.
He's making easy finishes tougher on himself than they should be, and he's also missing bunnies he easily made earlier in the season.
Similarly, much of Hill's decline has come beyond the arc. Though he's the nominal point guard, Hill's offensive role is mostly that of a spot-up shooter, and if he's not making those catch-and-shoot threes, he becomes a bit of an offensive liability. He's made only 33.3 percent of his threes since March 1, a steep decline from the 38.2 percent mark he was sporting early on, per Basketball-Reference.
Then there's Hibbert, who just can't seem to buy a bucket anywhere these days.
He was already on the lower end of the spectrum in shooting percentage for centers, but it's somehow gotten even worse of late. He scored just five baskets and shot only 33.3 percent out of the pick-and-roll in March, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). He also shot only 33-of-69 out of the post, missing a number of his trademark hook shots.
Hibbert is normally one of the best in the league at getting post position, but lately he's been getting pushed further off his spots than he'd like, forcing him into more difficult looks.
The shooting struggles for the starters turned what was possibly the league's best five-man unit through the first four months of the season into an ordinary one. The Pacers' starting five blitzed the league with a 107.0 offensive rating in 1,044 minutes through the end of February, according to NBA.com. Coupled with an elite defense, they outscored opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions.
Since then, the group's offensive rating has fallen nearly 10 points all the way to 97.2, the equivalent of dropping from the Phoenix Suns' eighth-ranked offense to the second-worst offense in the league.
Indiana's saving grace offensively was that their starters could score even when the bench could not. That's not been the case in the last month or so.
The result was an 8-10 record in March and a drop into a virtual tie for first place in the Eastern Conference with the Heat. The Pacers have talked all season long about how important getting home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is to them, and they've had the Heat's name in their mouths since the start of the year.
Earlier this season, George boasted that the Heat couldn't beat the Pacers without home-court advantage, which the Pacers at the time had a leg up on. They've now deteriorated to the point where Hibbert is essentially conceding the top spot in the East to Miami.
Whether they end up finishing first in the conference or not, though, is not the big issue here. Turnovers, horrid shooting and poor offensive rebounding have been the Pacers' undoing over the last month, and if they don't get that squared away, they won't stand a chance against the defending champs at home or on the road.