After a blazing fast hot start, the Indiana Pacers find themselves in a dog fight with the defending champion Miami Heat for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference. Indiana has long coveted the top seed in the playoffs, believing (real or imagined) that had Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals been in Indianapolis, the Pacers would have played against the San Antonio Spurs for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Many players on the roster have spoken loudly about Indiana’s determination—and some might even say need or obsession—to clinch home court in a playoff series against Miami, and for the first half of the season, Indiana did look well on their way to obtaining that goal. But in the last month or so, disturbing results began to pop up for Pacers fans. Indiana has gone 9-5 since the All-Star break, accounting for nearly a third of the team’s losses this season. This prolonged slump has loosened Indiana’s once-strong grip over the top spot in the East, as the Pacers now find themselves in a dogfight with the Heat for the East’s top record.
A closer look at Indiana’s statistical breakdown during this slump provides the reason for Indiana’s recent problems. The most glaring statistic that shows Indiana’s mediocre play in the last month has been that its defense hasn’t been up to their lofty standards. While Indiana still boasts the highest Defensive Rating (the number of points a team would score against them per 100 possessions) per NBA Stats for the season at 95.6, this number has slipped since the All-Star Break. Indiana has fallen to tenth overall in this statistic with a rating of 102.9, giving up an extra seven points per 100 possessions. Teams are clearly scoring more easily against this Indiana team in the last five or so weeks, doing so on improved shooting. Whereas throughout the season the Pacers’ opponents have shooting splits of 41.7/34.2, teams are now shooting an impressive 44.2/38.2 from the floor against Indiana since the All-Star break (14 games). For a team like the Pacers, which is built on a very strong defense but has a shaky offense, a slip in defensive categories like this, where teams score seven more points and shoot nearly four percent better from everywhere on the court, can be a death sentence for their chances at a championship.
But what about Indiana’s offense? Surely the additions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum (two players that can create their own offense) can improve the Pacers attack to a higher level? NBA Stats seem to point out that recent additions and replacements have improved Indiana’s offense slightly, improving the team’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) to 103.9 in the last month from the overall season number of 102.6. However, Indiana’s shot distribution during that period is showing a disturbing trend. Most people agree that some of the worst places to shoot are in the mid-range area; players should either try to get into the paint, where the shot attempt will be closer to the basket, or out behind the three-point arc, where a made shot will provide an extra point. Indiana’s offense during this span has started doing the exact opposite. Per Vorped’s shot charts, the Pacers have begun to attempt more mid-range shots:
Indiana’s shot distribution in the last five weeks
Paint Midrange 3 Point W-L
2/9-2/15 (pre All-Star) 36.6 39.5 23.8 1-2
2/16-2/22 (Trade Deadline) 43.4 29.2 27.2 2-1
2/23-3/1 45.6 36.9 17.4 3-0
3/2-3/8 36.7 43.8 19.4 1-3
3/9-3/15 45.9 30.2 23.7 3-1
It’s no coincidence that some of Indiana’s worst losses have happened while the team is attempting fewer and fewer three pointers. Since the addition of Turner, in particular, the percentage of midrange attempts has skyrocketed at the expense of both paint and three point attempts. Only in the last week (in which the Pacers played the fearsome gauntlet of Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit) has the shot selection returned to a more favorable allocation, with more shots at the rim and behind the arc. If Indiana wants to right the ship and return to their winning formula, it might be wise to regain their spacing via the three pointer.
Look, Indiana is the one pre-season contender who made big moves before the trade deadline. They acquired three players (Lavoy Allen, Andrew Bynum, Evan Turner) who are solid rotation pieces to a team that had the best record in the league. Three players who, prior to joining the Pacers, were playing on dysfunctional teams with little to no desire to play defense or generally execute an offense that could win games. It’s not going to be easy to integrate them into a system that’s proven it can win games this season, and to purge the tendencies they picked up playing in Cleveland or Philadelphia. It’s up to Frank Vogel and the Pacers’ leadership to get them playing Pacer basketball; they’re too valuable to this team’s chances at a title to not find their way. But these three aren’t the main reason for Indiana’s stretch-run slump; the whole team is struggling on defense, and they’ve strayed from their standard offensive strategy. It’s there—on the court—where Indiana’s improvement has to come from. If not, the Pacers could not only be looking up at Miami in the standings, but they may also find themselves victims of a premature exit.