The Road Ahead

Last year around this time, I posted my projection for where I thought the Pacers would finish the season.  I did a lot more work than I really have the time (or the energy) to do at the moment, but I’ll probably revisit this later this month.

In any case, I was looking at a spreadsheet projection I did before the season, and I was mildly surprised to see that I had projected the Pacers to be…(drum roll, please)…16-22 at this point in the season.

Of course, this probably would have been more impressive had I posted this back in October when I actually did it, but that’s sorta beside the point.  Ultimately, the fact that I had the record right makes me far from prescient.  The truth of the matter is that I was only correct on 26 of the 38 games, with the record being the result of being incorrect on the same number of wins as losses.

I’m bringing this up now – and posting the spreadsheet with my projections – for the purpose of how upside down either this season or I have gotten.

Going Backwards

My original forecast for the season, as you’ll see in the file, was for the Pacers to finish at 39-43.  Part of the reason I didn’t post anything about it was that that outlook seemed to border on wild optimism.

A collection of experts for ESPN had put the Pacers mostly between 10th and 14th in the East, with only Chad Ford predicting an 8th seed.   Royce Webb and Matt Wong had projected 31 wins and a 10th place finish.  According to a shared spreadsheet among my True Hoop brethren, eight bloggers projected an average of 28 wins for the Pacers.  Joe Gerrity of Hornets247 was the most optimistic at 34, while True Hoop patriarch Henry Abbott dimly viewed the Pacers and projected 24 wins.

At that time, most of those seemed as pessimistic as mine seemed optimistic, and since I’d taken all of about 5 minutes to spin through the schedule, I decided to eschew the exercise entirely. Now, however, it seems worth unearthing, because I’m honestly not sure which way to go. Though my projection and the actual record are now effectively in identical positions, the two arrived at this point through drastically different routes.

My overall thought back in October was that it would take some time for this team to come together.  Two key components – Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison – were either taking on completely new, expanded roles or new to the team entirely.  The Power Forward position would be an experiment using an athletic journeyman (Josh McRoberts) and a second year player who a year ago at this time was effectively seasick on dry land (Tyler Hansbrough).

I expected a slow start, placing the Pacers at 5-11 through the end of November, but some signs of life in December (8-7) that would leave them at 13-18 as the new year began.  From there, I expected the team to be coming together, though still limited in talent, and going 26-25 in 2011.

Instead, the Pacers jumped out to a 9-7 start.  Road wins over the Heat and the Lakers made Indy the darlings of the league, with no Pacer showing more shine than Roy Hibbert.  December had a somewhat rocky start, but the alarms really started to go off when three straight blowout losses (@ ATL, @ CHI, vs. LAL) dropped the Pacers to two games under .500.  A Dunleavy tip-in salvaged a win against New Orleans before a long Christmas break.

The Pacers returned from their break with three straight losses and a major crisis on their hands.

The Big Three

Instead of the warm-fuzzy-building 8-7 December I had projected, the Pacers went 5-10.  It appears that the holiday season brings out the giving mood in the Blue-and-Gold, as they’ve lost 34 of their 46 December games over the last three years.

The much improved defense remained solid, allowing only 103 points per 100, while the offense completely collapsed.  In the 15 games in December, the Pacers averaged only 98.5 points per 100.  The Pacers were well below the 106.7 points per 100 league average in 14 of their 15 games, including eight where they could not even manage to score a point per possession.

All of this can be traced back to what Pacer fans might very loosely refer to as “The Big Three” – Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert.  Take a look at their numbers by month:

December was a complete and utter debacle for the three of them.  Combined, they posted an eFG% of .436 – which was 65 points below the league average of .501 and 17 points below league-worst Milwaukee.  Their True Shooting % (a measure of scoring efficiency that factors in Free Throws) of .483 was 57 points below the league average .540 and 14 points below Milwaukee’s standard for worst in the league.  Considering that these three players account for 47% of the Pacers’ offense, this is absolutely crippling.

At the core of this meltdown was Roy Hibbert.  For the first time in his career, he was a focal point for the offense.  In November, it was a promising – occasionally beautiful – thing.  In December, he became the focal point for the opponent’s defense for the first time, as well.

Hibbert wilted.

That’s almost putting it kindly.  As you can see from his numbers above, his performance has the same trajectory as a plane that’s going to crater 100 yards short of the runway.  A bad December has only gained momentum in January, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch (if at all) to say that Roy Hibbert is playing the worst basketball of his career.

In a scant few weeks, the Georgetown big man has gone from solid foundation piece to a boat anchor threatening to drag this season beneath the waves.  Through November, the Pacer offense had produced at a very impressive 111.4 points per 100 with Hibbert on the floor, and the Pacers had outscored their opponents by 9.5 points for every 48 minutes that Roy had played.  Since then, the offense has sputtered to only 96.6 points per 100 while #55 mans the post, and the Pacers are being outscored by their opponents by 8.3 points per 48 minutes during that time.

Hibbert’s performance has also created some collateral damage among his young teammates – though arguably while creating opportunities for others.  Josh McRoberts, who had started the first 29 games at power forward, has managed only 15 minutes and five DNP-CD’s in the last seven games.   He is the victim of the need for more offense, and the victim of the need to try to stick with Hibbert.  His starting slot has been given to Tyler Hansbrough, and his minutes are spread between Hansbrough, Foster, and arguably, Paul George (in small ball lineups).   McRoberts makes a nice pairing with a productive Hibbert, but when Hibbert is in this funk, it just leaves two dead spots on the floor.

On the Way Up, Or On the Way Down?

Picture a still photo of a basketball game, all you can see is the rim, the backboard, and the ball.  In this shot, the ball is to the right of the rim and even with it.  Is it a picture of a ball about to go in the basket, or a ball that has just missed? It all depends on whether the shutter clicked when the ball was on the way up or on the way down.

The current snapshot of both my projection and the actual results show the Pacers at 16-22.  However, I was definitely heading on the way up after the first of the year when I was forecasting, and it’s hard to argue that the Pacers aren’t on the way down in real life.  Therefore, I’m hard pressed to believe that come April 13th, the actual results will meet or exceed my 39-win projection.

I had them winning three of the next seven games (including tonight’s at Golden State), then putting together an 8-5 February before playing .500 ball over March and April.  The Pacers have to get much more consistent and much better if they’re going to achieve that, but they have made some strides since the Holiday doldrums.

The offense has shown signs of life, scoring over 111 points per 100 possessions over the last four games.  On the down side, the defense over those four games has slid, giving up just over 110 per 100.

This has largely been the result of adjusting the offensive game plan to basically reduce (or, in some cases, remove) Hibbert’s role, and emphasize Darren Collison.  Collison’s minutes are up to 33 a game, and he’s averaging 17.9 points and 6.6 assists.

Along with this move, there has been more small ball and more Foster.  The other positive has been both Collison and Granger have been much more efficient in January (as measured by True Shooting %), jumping up to .557 and .570 respectively.

Indiana will have to find a new equilibrium that will make them more consistently effective with this new attack/structure, while figuring out a way to move back closer to the defensive effectiveness they had in the first two months.  It’s a tall order.

I can see a smaller, more aggressive offense centered around Collison and Granger having some success – perhaps even enough to approach the 39 wins in my projection.  And 39 wins in the Eastern Conference this year certainly seems good enough for a playoff spot.

But, I am not hopeful.

I am not hopeful, because moving towards Collison and Granger and away from Hibbert very much seems like gnawing through your ankle to escape a bear trap.  I can understand the thought that Hibbert may not be a major part of the solution in this year’s playoff hunt, but I’m nowhere near ready to think he’s not a part of the solution for the Pacers’ long-term future.

When I wrote this piece back in November, I was caught up in the emotion of the time.  I was thinking about a good foundation getting better and being able to leverage the contribution of guys like Solomon Jones, James Posey, T.J. Ford, Josh McRoberts, and others to push above .500 and be a good team.

These days, I watch only the core.  Hansbrough’s 23 & 12 against the Spurs was nice, but it ultimately didn’t matter when Granger, Hibbert, and Collison all turned in subpar peformances.  Righting the ship isn’t going to be achieved by nibbling around the edges with small ball or Hansbrough or George or Price or Posey or Foster.  It’s only going to stabilize by getting consistently effective contributions from  all three of  the main players – Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert.

So, essentially, this team won’t be stable until Roy Hibbert becomes stable, and I don’t know when – or if – that will happen.  Right now, the Indiana Pacers have a lot – the playoffs, the future – riding on what’s going on in the one square foot of real estate that sits atop Hibbert’s 7’2″ frame.

And I can’t say I’m the least bit comfortable with that thought.

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Tags: Danny Granger Darren Collison Roy Hibbert

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