Every summer NBA franchises make decisions that positively or negatively effect their future. This is the latest in a series of articles detailing transitional teams. I.E., teams that have had notable offseasons, and thus, are must-watch television during the 2016-17 season. For our last article on this subject, regarding the Washington Wizards, click here.
Sometimes NBA analysts and metrics underrate and/or ignore future contenders. The most recent example being the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks, who most analytical models and NBA commentators had as a treadmill, ~.500 team each year. This upcoming season, though, the Indiana Pacers are that team, the one everyone seems to be missing.
For example, Jonathan Tjarks recently wrote a great piece about potential new “death lineups” during the 2016-17 NBA season. He mentioned the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Not once were the Indiana Pacers mentioned.
Furthermore, ESPN.com’s NBA analysis has partially become famous for its “real plus-minus” (or RPM) statistic. This uses a regression model based on players’ on/off court statistics to evaluate said players individual impact. Moreover, by combining the RPM’s of various players, one can predict win totals. In ESPN’s recent RPM-projected records for the 2016-17 season, the Indiana Pacers finished as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, one win ahead of missing the playoffs.
Finally, NBA Statistics website Nylon Calculus projects Myles Turner as the sixth best 2015 draftee during the 2016-17 season. This is in the face of Turner’s borderline elite numbers in small-ball lineups, analyzed here by Tjarks.
Thus, the analytic community simply does not understand the Indiana Pacers. They see the George Hill trade for Jeff Teague as a downgrade. Numbers suggest Al Jefferson is a one-way, average-efficiency post player, and not a true, dominant NBA center. Stats view Myles Turner as a good small-ball player who will eventually regress to his college norm, whereas Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell will eventually be the better talents. Finally, nearly every metric suggests Monta Ellis is a significantly overvalued NBA player.
So why should anyone be high on the Pacers? Essentially, the moves they have made are certain to maximize superstar wing Paul George’s talents, develop young center Myles Turner, and create a team with near-perfect roster balance.
Let’s think about the biggest problems that plagued Indiana last season. First, the Pacers could not score without Paul George on the court. This was never more present than in their first round series against the Raptors.
As is clear from the chart, one could feasibly argue that the Pacers’ playoff destiny was negatively changed by their inability to play without Paul George. Oddly enough, Indiana’s poor play without George was statistically similar to the Cavs’ play in 2008 without LeBron.
In fact, what one sees using simple point differential stats is that Paul George was as, if not more necessary on the court to the 2016 Pacers than James was to the 2008 Cavs. This, therefore, was Larry Bird’s primary challenge during the offseason. Indiana is a small, midwestern city that does not necessarily attract significant NBA talent. Further, they have a new head coach who is being implored to run a system that may not fit the talent in Indiana. So what could the Pacers do to solve the fundamental problem of being unable to play without Paul George?
First thing was first, Indiana had to trade George Hill for Jeff Teague, a move that nearly every regression-based advanced stat claims is a downgrade. The fact is, however, Jeff Teague can be the primary offensive option on a good team (see the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks), whereas Hill cannot. During the 2014-15 season, Teague had the second highest Player Impact Estimate – or the percentage of positive plays a player is responsible for – on the Hawks. Essentially, while no superstar, Teague can be the primary offensive player on a top-seed playoff team.
Moreover, the addition of Al Jefferson also serves to make Paul George’s offensive burden less than in the previous year. Last year Ian Mahinmi was Indiana’s starting center, and while the veteran big had a career season, he was still very limited offensively. For comparison, Al Jefferson scored more points in his forty-seven game season during 2015-16 than Mahinmi had during any previous year – outside of 2015-16 – of his eight-year NBA journey.
Further, Jefferson posts-up more than anyone in the NBA, and with reason, as he is the king of easy buckets. This will be a welcome addition to Indiana, where Jefferson will come off the bench, as it allows George even more rest. Thus, while Bird and Nate McMillan primarily want to push pace while George and Turner are on the court, Jefferson allows easy buckets when either of the two franchise players are resting.
The additions of Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson guarantee Indiana will not struggle nearly as much while George rests during the 2016-17 season. Consequently, Larry Bird did indeed address the first problem facing the Pacers’ future. Yet, what about the two players’ fit with George? How do they effect Indiana’s identity? Specifically, during 2015-16, Bird wanted his team to push pace, ex-head coach Frank Vogel liked his teams to play slow with a focus on defense, and the Pacers’ talent did not fit either style.
This upcoming season, the picture is clearer, as all signs point to the Indiana Pacers attempting to run other teams off the court. This is a style that fits franchise cornerstones Paul George and Myles Turner and one that President Bird has been clamoring for since Indiana’s elimination from the 2014 playoffs. On paper, all seems like it will fit, Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis can push the pace with PG13 and Turner, Al Jefferson comes off the bench as a pace changing big, and shooters such as C.J. Miles create additional floor spacing. But more importantly, the Pacers quietly received forward Thad Young from the Nets, a move that figures to pay serious dividends.
Point blank, Young is an incredibly versatile player who can guard both perimeter-oriented and post-oriented NBA forwards, has a respectable midrange offensive game, and constantly ranks in the top-100 NBA players in VORP (value over replacement player) – or a stat that uses regression analysis to project the total value a player brings to his team. More specifically to the Pacers, Young’s defensive versatility allows him to defend multiple positions, which creates significant roster balance in Indiana. Let’s examine their potential depth chart:
PG: Jeff Teague/Aaron Brooks
SG: Monta Ellis/Rodney Stuckey
SF: Paul George/C.J. Miles
PF: Thad Young/Lavoy Allen
C: Myles Turner/Al Jefferson
Thus, as can be seen above, the versatility and length of Paul George and Thad Young to play a variety of positions gives Indiana nearly infinite lineup possibilities, all of which have a variety of value. And while the Pacers’ bench may be limited, their top-eight players (Teague, Ellis, George, Young Turner, Jefferson, Miles, and Stuckey) are arguably as talented as any team in the East outside of Cleveland.
So, if Indiana’s offseason was so great, why do analytics dislike it? Frankly, this is a case where numbers have not caught-up to reality. Larry Bird’s moves, while analytically questionable (George Hlll ranks highly in every advanced metric, Al Jefferson’s defense is questionable, Monta Ellis is highly problematic on offense, etc.), actually have created a team whose talent fits together nearly perfectly.
Consequently, Indiana’s length will be problematic for all teams in the East, they have the second best player in the conference, and superb long-term strategy. Because of this, as well as their positional versatility, do not be surprised to see the Indiana Pacers to finish with a top-three seed and be the Cavs’ greatest competition in the East during the 2016-17 season.