Ugly Stretch Run Won't Stop Indiana Pacers from Contending

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Ugly Stretch Run Won't Stop Indiana Pacers from Contending
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It speaks to the depth of the Indiana Pacers' struggles when Chris Copeland's game-winning runner against the worst team in the NBA stands out as a highlight of the season's second half.

But things have been absolutely awful for the Pacers lately, so on a night when head coach Frank Vogel mercifully rested all five starters in hopes of rejuvenating his team, Copeland's unlikely bucket felt like a big one.

Indy finished March with an 8-10 record and has started April just 2-2 despite a soft Eastern Conference schedule it probably would have comfortably swept just a few months ago.

Its offense has fallen apart amid player-on-player sniping and NBA.com indicates that its defense dropped from No. 1 in the league before the All-Star break to No. 7 after it.

Put simply, this looks bad for Indiana—so bad that many close to the team are writing it off as a contender:

Even Grantland's Zach Lowe, one of the most level-headed thinkers among basketball writers, is so struck by the Pacers' recent dive that he's ready to sound the alarm:

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.”

If you've been paying attention, you know the basics. Indiana can't score, has had more trouble defending than ever and is utterly exhausted. "We probably haven’t had that since the season started,” Lance Stephenson told reporters after sitting out against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Any rest can help us right now.”

To drive the point home, here's a quick snapshot of Indiana's key splits:

Indiana Pacers: Before and After All-Star Break
Split Games ORtg (Rank) DRtg (Rank) Net Rtg (Rank)
Before 52 102.2 (19) 93.6 (1) +8.6 (1)
After 27 99.4 (29) 102 (7) -2.6 (19)

NBA.com

To some extent, the widespread panic is justified. There's no way the Pacers can contend for a title if they continue to play this way in the postseason.

However, of all the numbers on the chart above, the most important ones are 52 and 27. Those represent the number of games Indiana played before and after the All-Star break, respectively.

Yes, the numbers after the break are atrocious.

With that said, we've got a sample size nearly twice as large with numbersmost notably a net rating of plus-8.6 that was the league's bestsuggesting Indiana absolutely was a title contender for a huge portion of the season.

It's common to argue that the more recent numbers—the ones coinciding with Indy's slide—are of greater predictive value. They indicate how the team is performing right now, which, logically, would seem more useful in predicting how it'll perform in the future.

But it turns out a recent sample doesn't actually have more predictive value for the playoffs than one from an earlier point in the season.

What does matter most for purposes of prognostication is the size of the sample.

Jacob Frankel of Hickory-High.com did a thorough study of NBA teams' in-season splits and playoff performance. He explains the results: "The conclusion: sample size trumps recency. In fact, how teams perform after the All-Star Break adds almost no predictive value.”

In other words, we should care more about Indy's long-forgotten early-season dominance than its current struggles because that earlier period lasted so much longer.

Going further, Frankel also determined that it doesn't really matter when a team is playing its best during the season. When it comes to guessing about playoff performance, teams that are "hot" early in the year or late in the year don't have any real advantage.

"I tested all sorts of dummy variables—a team’s best month being November, worst month being March etc. None proved significant,” Frankel said.

A team trending up at the end of a season didn't have a greater chance of performing well in the playoffs than a team "trending" down. Basically, the concept of "peaking at the right time" is a myth insofar as its predictive value is concerned.

If you think about it, isn't this the sensible way to approach teams like the Pacers?

Those 52 games before the break—or whatever arbitrary split you want to use—really happened. There was a huge chunk of the season when Indiana was the best team in the NBA. In fact, that was the case for most of the year.

It's not like that team simply disappeared.

The same key players are on the roster, there's been no catastrophic injury and Vogel hasn't drastically altered the Pacers' schemes in a way that changes their team identity.

Seeing as we have nearly twice as much data saying the Pacers are really good than data saying the opposite, shouldn't we conclude, at the very least, that they're closer to contender status than not?

That isn't how the narrative is unfolding, though. We all have a tendency to place more value on recent evidence and it's simply difficult to imagine the current version of the Pacers contending.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What seems undeniable now, though, is that there's little reason to expect the current version of the Pacers to be the one that shows up in the playoffs.

That's a difficult mental leap to make. Frankly, it feels wrong to think that.

With all the chemistry issues, the broken offense and the clearly exhausted starters so obviously dragging the team down, it's hard to conclude those things will just go away—or at least recede to the point where the Pacers look more like they did in the first half of the season than the second.

But that's what the data says is likeliest to happen.

Can the Indiana Pacers still contend for a title?

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It's tempting to panic, and it's entirely possible the severity of Indiana's drop-off indicates that its larger sample size of good play won't matter. But if the early part of this season means anything, this Pacers team is still capable of contending.

In other words, Copeland's game-winner probably won't be the last high point of the season.

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