Anyone who has had their head above sand over the last month knows full well that the Indiana Pacers are mired in a devastating late-season collapse.
The same team that started the season on a nine-game winning streak and clinched a playoff spot before anyone else has won just seven of 19 games since eking out a 94-91 win over the struggling Utah Jazz on March 2.
Among those 12 losses were three 20-point blowouts at the hands of the Bobcats, Rockets and Spurs. The most recent 19-point drubbing by Atlanta infamously featured 23 first-half points from the Pacers in what could have been their Amanda Bynes rock-bottom moment.
They’ve slid out of first place in the East—their main goal going into this season. Playing on home court was the last bump the Pacers felt they needed to get past the Heat. Now, they can’t even be automatically trusted to get out of the first two rounds of the playoffs. Per Ball Don’t Lie’s Dan Devine:
They're still a lock for at worst the East's No. 2 seed, and they're still just a game — albeit two in the loss column — behind Miami with four games left, but the Pacers now seem vulnerable in a first-round 2-vs.-7 matchup against the likes of the Washington Wizards or streaking Charlotte Bobcats, which was a basically unthinkable sentence just eight weeks ago.
The Pacers have gone from an NBA-best 8.1 net rating through March 2 to minus-6.3 since, seventh worst. This infographic should get you up to speed.
Indiana Pacers: before and after the All Star break. pic.twitter.com/WGUlVZ89RZ— Ed Kupfer (@EdKupfer) April 5, 2014
Indeed, Indiana’s recent play has hit theatrical levels of terrible, with the playoffs on the horizon no less.
Coach Frank Vogel hasn’t done himself any favors as far as the blame game goes. He appears to be losing what was previously thought to be one of the more harmonious locker rooms in team sports, cleaning up dirty laundry that All-Star center Roy Hibbert is dropping all over the media with little regard for the consequences.
Basketball Insiders’ Lang Greene notes that while coaches often get an unfair portion of credit/blame when things are going well/poorly, team chemistry and ego management at the professional level fall squarely on the coaching staff. An All-Star calling his teammates selfish qualifies as failing at that duty.
But Vogel doesn’t get paid to put the ball in the hoop or stop the other team from doing so. And Indiana has been mediocre at both lately.
That falls on the guys wearing the blue and gold. While the team has struggled across the board, three guys in particular seem to have lost their mojo and will need to find it if Indiana wants to make good on its all-in claim.
Calling George Hill a point guard is a bit of a misnomer. In five previous seasons, he never averaged five assists per game, so the fact that his 3.5 dimes per game is lower than 66 other players shouldn’t shock anyone.
No, Hill is not your typical ball-handler, which makes his shortcomings all the more significant for the Pacers. Grantland’s Zach Lowe points out one way his lack of point guard instincts affect the team’s offensive flow:
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.
To be sure, Hill creates just 8.0 points per game with assists
Indiana’s least valuable starter plays arguably the most important position for the playoffs. Per ESPN, Hill's 13.67 PER ranks 42nd among point guards, and his usage ratio beats only Patrick Beverley, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake and Pablo Prigioni at the position.
Hill’s play has taken a dive along with the rest of his team, though relatively smaller than the more heavily relied-upon Pacers. Here are some of his numbers broken down between Indiana’s first 60 games and its last 19:
|Points||3-Point %||Offensive Rating||True Shooting %||Field Goal % in Paint|
Lowe’s article acknowledges Indiana’s severe spacing issues, due largely to having two post-oriented big men with little outside range. Without Hill functioning as a traditional point guard to keep the floor spread and the ball moving—he has more touches per game than Carmelo Anthony—the Pacers shoot nearly 25 mid-range jumpers a game. Only three playoff-bound teams—the Bulls, Blazers and Wizards—take more of the game’s most inefficient shot.
Tony Adragna of SB Nation’s Indy Cornrows notes that Hill has a case of split personalities. One night, he’s a great scorer. The next, he’s a facilitator. The two never seem to coincide, as evidenced by only 11 games of at least 10 points and five assists from Hill, according to Basketball Reference.
Kwame Brown's "bust" season stats from 2003-04 are very similar to this season's All-Star stats of Roy Hibbert http://t.co/l8zulx2k1j— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 1, 2014
That Tweet is something of a “drop the mic and walk off the stage” jaw-dropper.
The big man from Georgetown has had a rough go of it lately. Hibbert publicly called out certain players—Lance Stephenson, ahem—for being selfish after he only took eight shots in a loss to the Wizards on March 28.
A few days later, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Hibbert felt the team was “splintering” and “in a downward spiral”, and he even suggesting therapy.
He was also widely quoted as saying the Pacers don’t deserve the East’s No. 1 seed.
Then on April 6, he was unceremoniously benched after going 0-of-5 with one turnover in just nine minutes of Indiana’s shellacking courtesy of the Hawks. He also ducked out on the media after the game.
Per Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star, it wasn’t so much a benching as it was a convenient time to get Hibbert some “planned” rest:
I considered resting Roy before tonight's game because he looks worn down; he's a 7-2 player that's played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He's giving good effort, but he looks to me to be worn down.
Truth be told, Hibbert has played in all of Indiana’s 78 games, the fifth time in six seasons he’s suited up for at least 70 contests. Only seven centers have covered more distance than Hibbert, so fatigue is a legitimate concern despite playing only 30 minutes a night.
Yet Hibbert is still producing the worst statistical season of his career. Per ESPN, his 14.05 PER is below the 15.00 league average for the first time ever. Hibbert’s 9.0 rebounds per 40 minutes have never been lower while his turnover ratio is just 0.1 off his highest mark.
Though Hibbert seems to have an issue with his teammates not sharing, he still gets six close touches (within 12 feet of the basket) per game—tied with DeMarcus Cousins. But with one of the worst field-goal percentages from within five feet of the hoop, it’s no wonder he produces just 0.44 points per frontcourt touch, 39th among big men.
This isn’t to say Hibbert hasn’t contributed positively this season. Indiana has won 53 games after all and had the NBA’s best defense for over two-thirds of the year.
Hibbert is still one of the Association’s elite interior defenders. He’s fourth in blocked shots, and only Brook Lopez holds opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim while facing as many attempts.
But his offensive game is in decline over the last five weeks.
Through the first 60 games, Hibbert shot 49.6 percent from within eight feet of the hoop. That number is down to 44.2 percent since March 4. The reality is that he just isn’t a major offensive weapon in Vogel’s offense; his 19.6 percent usage rate is 24th among centers who have played at least 50 games.
The moral is that Hibbert needs to improve his offensive efficiency for the limited touches he does get in order to become more involved in the offense.
The biggest drop in play has come from the Pacer with the most pressure on his shoulders.
George flung himself into superstar status in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and was living up to that billing before Indiana began to unravel. His 22.7 points per game through the first 60 games was good for 10th in the league. At 56.6 percent, his true shooting percentage wouldn’t blow anyone away, but it beat Carmelo Anthony.
The reality in Indiana is that as George goes, so go the Pacers.
He is capable of this:
But his play of late has been very suspect.
As Indiana’s high-volume deep threat, George’s three-point shooting is down six percent in this recent slide. While he’s doubled the number of shot attempts in the paint outside the restricted area, he’s hitting just 17.6 percent of them.
The biggest issue is that Indiana’s stagnant offense has led George—and Lance Stephenson—to play a lot of hero ball, getting away from his strength as a catch-and-shoot killer. He averages 6.4 points in catch-and-shoot scenarios—13th in the league—and his 43.5 percent shooting is on par with snipers like Klay Thompson (44.5 percent) and J.R. Smith (45.4 percent).
SB Nation’s Mike Prada gets to the heart of the issue:
It'll pay to simplify things, remove the guards' tendency to try to do too much and make the big men lay some wood on screens. It'll help if Indiana remembers that George is best catching and shooting off screens and off-ball movement like this instead of creating with the ball in his hands.
Personal issues can explain some of George’s regression, but that’s not up for speculation.
Teams seem to be figuring out how to guard him, which he admitted to Zak Keefer of USA Today. Still, George is not a natural ball-handler, so he won’t be creating a ton of offense off the dribble. He just needs to remember that and let the offense come to him.
If Indiana wants to make noise in the playoffs as it has been expected to all year, these three guys—and every Pacer, if we’re being honest—needs to reevaluate their play over the last five weeks. Otherwise, Vogel and a large portion of the roster could be looking for new jobs this summer.
All stats via NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted and are accurate as of April 7