As I am writing this I am watching Shaq on the TNT halftime show advertising for the Heat Pacers game this sunday. While doing so he made a very telling statement "A lot of people around the league believe the Pacers have the best chance at beating the Heat (in the east)" This sentiment makes sense, since the Pacers have fluctuated between the second and third seed in the east all year.
In closely following the Pacers all year I have an entirely different view, I expect them to be the first high seed to go home early. The Pacers defense and rebounding is elite (although you could make the argument that their 29th most difficult schedule in the league helps) but a woeful offense will be their in the NBA tournament. In this post I will attempt to point out the Pacer's specific deficiencies that would cost them.
The Pacers committed 926 turnovers thus far this season, that is good for 21st in the league, not a positive ranking but not an awful one either. However, this number looks better than it is because the slow pace of Indiana (26th slowest pace) allows for less offensive opportunities which lead to less opportunities for turnovers. To adjust for pace, we look to their turnover percentage (the percentage of turnovers committed per offensive possession) which has them more accurately at 27th in the league.
That last paragraph should have conveyed the message that the Pacers do not take good care of the basketball. This problem should only be magnified when Indiana is facing stiffer playoff competition, more likely than the average team to create turnovers. To me, the main culprit lies within their lack of a floor general to regulate the offense and make sure teammates get the ball in situation that are unlikely to end in turnovers.
Lack of Scoring Opportunities:
The lack of a true floor general, does not only hurt the Pacers ability to keep control of the ball, it also ensures that their scoring opportunities are more difficult. The Pacers are full of players who can score if good conditions such as driving lanes, open shots or fast break opportunities exist. Unfortunately for the Pacers this is a team almost entirely devoid of shot creators who make the game easier for their teammates. This is evident when looking at their 27th ranking in assists and field goal percentage.
Although, George Hill is a very good player and a solid scorer his lack of play-making should spell an early exit for the Pacers. This team needs a point guard who is good at attacking the basket to free up his teammates whether it be in isolation or off the pick and roll. Hill happens to be at his worst offensively in these two situations, scoring a reprehensible .6 Points per possession in isolation situations and a mediocre (at best) .89 points per possession as the the ball handler in pick and rolls. Compare that with a .98 points per possession scoring rate overall and it is obvious that George Hill is not the type of point guard to lead this team on a deep playoff run.
As a Pacers fan you might answer this criticism of George Hill and thus your team as a whole by pointing to the emergence of Paul George as improving the quality of shots Indiana takes. Well, in the two areas most likely to end in shots created for teammates (ISO and Pick and Rolls) Paul George is also poor. His .7 points per possession as the primary ball handler in pick and rolls is worse than Hill's and his isolation is only slightly better (that Hill's) at .7.
With their inability to create easy shots for teammates you would expect the Pacers to find alternate ways to score, such as cuts, offensive rebounds and transition hoops. This would be a good intuition but is not the case in practice. The Pacers only get 8% of their offensive opportunities off cuts, 7.2% off offensive rebounds but a solid 11.2% of their offense comes from transition. The problem with their transition opportunities is when they don't score, they often turn the ball over (13.2% of the time) leading to fast break situations for their opponents.
Inability to Score in the Clutch:
Just as defenses improve with a heightened effort in the playoffs, they further improve during the end of playoff games. In these situations, teams pressure ball handlers, contest passing lanes and generally rotate better defensively. This improved play causes offensive sets to be thrown out, with a renewed reliance on star players making plays from the outside in (since improved defense decreases the likelihood of post entry passes). At these clutch junctures isolation, pick & roll, and wing shot creation become even more important.
This lack of clutch scoring shown extremely bright in their most recent game against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics (not exactly an offensive juggernaut themselves) outscored the Pacers 11-0 to end the contest. At times in which they needed their all star scorer, Paul George, to step up and carry them, he was not able to do so. At this point in his career he is ill suited to put the Pacers on his back in the closing minutes. While Danny Granger could help cure these late game scoring droughts, relying on a player who is less than 100% after returning from injury is a tenuous matter at best.
The Pacers are an excellent defensive team. The Pacers are one of the better rebounding teams in the league. Despite those two superlatives they are an average offensive team that will have the areas they excel at, constricted by strong playoff defense. With an inability to create good shots, get easy baskets and score through isolation in the clutch don't be shocked if the Pacers go home early this year.
NOTE: All statistics in this article were obtained from basketball-reference.com, 82games.com and mysynergysports.com