To Be Frank (RIP): the Pacers Will Be Worse

By Connor Hitchcock

Originally Posted on Connor’s Medium Account July 3, 2016 | 

The Indiana Pacers recently made a flurry of moves in this nascent offseason, as team president Larry Bird so desperately tries to build a contender in the most basketball-crazed state. Judging by the reaction of some on Twitter, you would’ve thought Bird has succeed creating a challenger to Cleveland for supremacy in the East.

 

I am here to tell you that that is simply not true. In fact, dare I say it, these moves make the Indiana Pacers worse as they head into the 2016–2017 season. Listed below are the Pacers acquisitions thus far (as of 8:06 PM EST, July 3) and some analysis for each.

Nate McMillan

When Bird fired Head Coach Frank Vogel almost immediately following Indiana’s first-round exit, Bird harped on two main reasons for the change:

1) To play faster and smaller.

2) Players needing to hear a “new voice.”

Based on this criteria, one only has to assume that Bird hired a coach with a history of up-tempo offense. This is why he hired Nate McMillan. whose last stint as a coach in Portland yielded the following Pace numbers.

Nate McMillan: Glacial Offense

McMillan was fired in the middle of the 2011–2012- immediately following his firing, Portland’s pace jumped to the middle of the pack (15th) and remained there the following season. This jump in pace, with relatively the same roster, reveals that McMillan didn’t play slow due personnel-rather, his offensive philosophy is to play extremely slow. In short, Bird wants to play faster, so he naturally hired the absolutely slowest coach in the NBA.

As for a new voice? McMillan had previously been an assistant on Vogel’s staff since 2013.

So McMillan is an old voice and runs glacial-paced offenses, but his results as a coach speak for themselves as justify the firing/hiring, right? I’ll let you guess which line below is McMillan’s (top) and which one is Frank Vogel’s (bottom).

Record: 578–541 (.514%), Playoffs: 5/12 seasons, one Conference Semi-Final

Record: 431–250 (.580%), Playoffs: 5/6 seasons, Two Conference Finals

By my increasing snark and the increased pressure with which I pound away on these keys, you can see this hiring is leading to nowhere good.

George Hill (to Utah) for Jeff Teague

I’ve got some news for you-you ready? Okay here it is: George Hill is a better basketball player, and fit for the Pacers, than Jeff Teague.

On the outset, many (including myself) thought this move served the Pacers well. Teague’s box score stats (15.7 PPG, 5.9 AST) look more appealing than Hill’s (12.1 PPG, 3.5 AST). He’s two years younger than Hill, and is more successful getting shots at the rim (399 attempts to 171). However, there is far more that meets the eye than the stated reasons.

Offensively, Hill is a better fit for Indiana in almost every way. As mentioned earlier, Teague’s competitive advantage is his ability to get to the basket, where he took twice as many attempts as Hill last year. Theoretically, Teague’s frequency and threat of driving holds value for drive-and-kick opportunities. But Indiana isn’t Atlanta, where Teague could kick to Kyle Korver (40% 3pt), Mike Scott (39% 3pt), Kent Bazemore (35.7% 3pt) and even Al Horford (34.4% 3pt). Instead, in Indiana Teague has the only has the option of kicking to two league-average or above 3-point shooters: Paul George (37% 3pt), whom opposing defenses certainly won’t leave wide open, and CJ Miles (36.7% 3pt), who (per NBAWOWY) only played with Hill for roughly 1/3 of the starting point guard’s minutes last season. With a lack of shooting around Teague, defenses will be able to sag off of shooters and clog up the lane. This lane-clogging holds especially true for opposing rim protectors, since Indiana’s trio of big men in Myles Turner, Thad Young and Al Jefferson can’t space the floor like Horford and Paul Millsap. For what it’s worth, Hill also was a better finisher (57.9%) than Teague (51.9%) when he did get to the rim.

Finally, Teague will be playing a majority of his minutes with ball-dominant ball handlers in George and Ellis, who, when on the floor, comprised a combined 51% of the team’s Usage. Hill, with a Usage of only 15.8%, complimented the two well and utilized his knock-down 3-point abilities (41% last season, 38% career) to help space the floor and score off the ball. Teague has proven to need the ball in his hands, taking up 26% of Atlanta’s possessions in 2015–2016. Together, Teague, Ellis and George will not all be able to feasibly maintain their respective Usage rates, and it will be interesting to see who takes a step back. While Teague’s 2015–2016 40% 3pt may lead some to believe he can be a similar off the ball threat as Hill, there’s little reason to believe his shooting is sustainable-his prior two seasons he’s shot 32% and 34% from deep, and is a career 35% 3pt shooter.

On the defensive end, it’s not even a close comparison. Metrics for defense are hard, and there are still few that I trust. One of the ones I’ve found generally reliable is ESPN’s Defensive Plus/Minus. Among 81 eligible point guards in the 2015–2016 season, Hill ranked 14th with a .5 DPM, while Teague ranked 53rd with a -1.9 DPM. Additionally, Hill was tasked with guarding opposing teams’ best primary ball-handlers every night in Indiana, while in Atlanta, Teague generally had Kent Bazemore or Thabo Sefolosha take on better opposing threats.

Hill is a much better fit. The Pacers will sorely miss his play off the ball and his lockdown defense on opposing ball-handlers.

Pacers send 20th Pick to Brooklyn for Thad Young

I actually like Thad Young, so there’s the glimmer of hope in this dry land! He can put the ball in the bucket at 15.1 PPG, and is pretty efficient within 10 feet per the Vorped shot chart below. He does well on the offensive glass at 2.4 OREB/G, can switch pick and rolls with his mobility, and causes problems with his 6’11” wingspan in with both steals and contesting shots.

The only issue with the Young trade is that it again goes against the small ball vision that Bird has been espousing. Yes, Young is an undersized (6’8″) 4 with long arms, but he can’t shoot outside ten feet. In today’s NBA, 4’s need to be able to stretch the floor for small ball to work. A quick look at Young’s shot chart shows that he doesn’t make, or take, any threes.

Though intrinsically I really like Young, I just don’t know if he fits into a Pacers team with an already-clogged lane.

Thad Young’s Very Un-Small Ball Shot Chart (via Vorped)

Signing Al Jefferson, (3 years, $30 Million)

Al Jefferson is the antithesis of what Indiana needs or has set out to be. He is slow as molasses, is certainly not small and is a miserable defender who took exactly one 3-pointer last season. Oh, and he’s 31 year-old center with a nagging injury history coming off of a knee surgery. Great pickup!

Granted, he might provide value on the second unit against smaller and worse defenders, where he can bang and throw his weight around more effectively. Still, he only shot 48% last year from the field, good for 54th out of 74 Centers who played at least 40 games. For a player whose calling card is to finish inside, that is not a particularly great number. His defensive woes are well-documented, but for the sake of substantiating an argument, Nylon Calculus Rim Protection stats show that opponents hit 58% of their shots at the rim against Jefferson last season. That figure was good for second worst among all centers, only ahead of noted defensive stalwart Andrea Bargnani.

$30 Million is fine to throw around, especially in the new cap era, but in the last season of this deal Jefferson will turn 35. For a player that’s already on a steep decline and coming off of an injury, I certainly would not call this deal a steal.

Going Forward

As anyone can tell, I believe the Pacers are now nowhere near contending for the top spot in the East. They don’t need a few value contract guys to get there: they need another max contract guy. Despite all the pleading for#KevINDYrant, the Pacers will not be adding a max contract this summer. Even after rescinding Ty Lawson and Jordan Hill’s cap holds, the Pacers only have about $16 Million remaining this summer to work with, and that won’t allow them the room to bring in a player that will elevate them to Cleveland’s level.

Pacers Cap Situation. Figures courtesy of SpoTrac

Eyes then turn to next offseason, where the signings look to be even crazier at a projected cap of $107 Million. The Pacers enter 2017 with ~$30 Million in space, $34 Million should they choose to not exercise their team option on LaVoy Allen. The only real contributor the Pacers will not have back on the books is Jeff Teague and with his Bird Rights, his cap hold figures be around $12.2 Million. Assuming the Pacers bring back Teague, keep Turner and let go of Allen, Indiana will have $22 Million to work with- not enough to sign most max players if all else holds equal. Still, at $22 Million Indiana could sign a very solid contributor (maybe one that can shoot!) or maybe sway a max guy to take less.

Don’t be fooled: unless Kevin Durant or some other Top-10 talent walks through the doors of Bankers’ Life, the Pacers aren’t going to be competing in the Conference Finals. Ultimately, the blame here with Bird, whose transactions certainly don’t fall in line with the vision he has set for this team.

He wants to play faster, so he hires the slowest coach and signs the slowest center in the league. He wants a team that shoots more threes, so signs non-3pt shooters and trades away his best one.

Indiana needs a competitve team, and her native son has failed to deliver.

All stats and salary figures courtesy of NBA.com, NBAWowy.com, Vorped.com, NylonCalculus.com, Basketball-Reference.com, and SpoTrac.com

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Posted in NBA

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