Indiana Pacer coach Frank Vogel says his players are tired. Should they be?
Consider the following factoids about the Pacers, the starting five, and their minutes played.
- Through Sunday night’s game, Roy Hibbert’s 2,331 minutes was the fewest of the five starters. Only 60 players across the Association have played more minutes, including all four of his fellow starters. That puts each member of The Five at the 88th percentile or above in minutes played. Paul George leads all Pacers at 2,823 minutes, 6th most in the NBA, followed by Lance Stephenson (16th), David West (41st), and George Hill (54th).
- Much has been made about the compressed March schedule and its 18 games. Between March 1 and April 6, Hibbert stayed in more or less the same place, 58th or 87th percentile. However, Hill’s 691 minutes (second lowest to Hibbert’s 599 minutes) was exceeded by only 15 other NBA players during the time frame. Three of those were his teammates. David West was just ahead of him at 15, Lance’s 722 were good for 8th, and Paul George’s 778 were 2nd only to Chicago’s Jimmy Butler.
A Little Context
Comparing the minutes played by the Pacers’ top five players to the top five players of the other contenders may help provide some context. (Admittedly, the Pacers probably don’t deserve to be considered a “contender” at the moment, but, whaddaya gonna do?)
What you see is that The Five of the Pacers have played — on average — almost 300 minutes more per player than the top 5 for Houston, who hold the second most minutes. That’s 10 30-minute player games per player. The difference becomes even more exaggerated (almost 700 minutes per player) when you compare to paragons of economy: Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
But, it’s not just this year. It’s important to remember that only two teams played deeper into last summer than the Pacers. If you expand the data to incorporate the 2013 regular season and playoffs, the gap grows.
The almost 500 more minutes than Miami’s top five means an extra 17 30-minute games – on average – per Pacer starter. The gaps to the other teams are near or above 1,000 minutes per player.
On an individual basis, the numbers skew even higher. Of the 565 players who have seen at least 1 minute of NBA play over the last two seasons (including playoffs), only 27 have logged more than Hibbert’s 5,295. Once again, Hibbert has the lowest total of his starting brethren, which means that all five Pacer starters are in the 96th percentile or above.
Paul George leads the way, with his 6,575 minutes being only 13 fewer than LeBron James, who has logged the most minutes. George Hill has played the 12th most minutes, Lance Stephenson the 15th, and David West 20th. These figures are buoyed by the Pacers’ deep run last year, which means the team has played 178 games since opening night of 2013. Coming into play on April 8th, only Miami (181) and San Antonio (180) had played more.
Why didn’t the Pacers rest?
It also highlights the only conceivable downside to the Pacers’ consistently good health. Pacer starters have only missed 28 out of a possible 890 player games over the past 18 months or so. No starter has missed more than 11 games (George Hill), while Paul George and Roy Hibbert have missed only 2 apiece. It is absolutely better than the alternative, but it also makes for very few nights off.
Over the past two season, the minutes per game don’t seem all that daunting. Paul George is at about 37, but that’s hardly unheard of for a player of his age and caliber. Hill, West, and Stephenson are all around 33 minutes, with Hibbert at roughly 30 minutes. But, as you can see, the minutes have added up.
They’ve added up for a number of reasons that go beyond the total games played. First and foremost, the bench has been disappointing again this year, forcing Vogel to mix-and-match lineups to keep at least some starters on the floor at all times. Their inability to put bad teams away after the All-Star break cost them valuable opportunities to rest players. However, what is easy to miss is that even when they were blowing teams out through the first few months of the season, the way they did it limited rest for their starters.
Indiana has won 28 games by 10 or more points this season, including 18 by 15 or more. However, this was largely done with dominant third-quarter or second-half performances. Of the 18 wins by 15 or more, they actually trailed at halftime in four of them and led by 9 or fewer points in another eight games. In five of those games, they carried a lead of less than 10 into the fourth quarter — including a 15-point win against Cleveland where they trailed by point with 12 minutes to go.
This practice of seemingly “carrying opponents for a few rounds” meant fewer opportunities to rest the starters. As a result, The Five would only be able to sit for their final fourth quarter rotation, and often not all of that.
Finally, the hiccup that became a slump that became a collapse has resulted in Vogel relying even more heavily on his starters.
Since March 1, the average minutes per player game for the starters from 32.6 minutes to 33.8 per night. That may not seem like a lot, but the way it is happening is meaningful. As expected, PG has seen a slight increase, but the largest increases have gone to the two oldest members of the starting five.
The 33-year old David West saw his per-game minutes increase by almost 10% (from 30.2 to 33.0) while George Hill experienced an 18% jump (from 31 to over 36 minutes a night). Hibbert’s minutes per game are down slightly, but that is almost entirely explained by Sunday’s benching. Perversely, Lance Stephenson, the youngest member, has seen his minutes drop by about 3% per game.
Another thing to keep in mind while considering minutes is that the “smash mouth, blue collar” style Indiana plays demands a great deal of its players.
@TimDonahue8p9s And the Pacers’ style sort of ensures that those are “hard” minutes (Bulls too).
— Seth Partnow (@WhrOffnsHppns) April 8, 2014
Fatigue is a real problem, but not the only one
What all of this indicates is that there is ample support for the idea that The Five — the core of this team’s success — is facing some issues related to cumulative effects of all of these minutes.. In fact, it’s almost irrefutable that The Five has shouldered one of — if not the — heaviest workloads in the NBA over the past two seasons.
However, fatigue is neither their only problem, nor is it the root of their problems. Rest alone will not cure what ails them. The Pacers have had problems with execution — primarily offensively — for quite some time now. A good portion of that is simply discipline. Further, as that has continued, it has created some undeniable frustration and public friction among the members of the team. These are both much bigger problems than simply being tired.
Pacer coach Frank Vogel’s team desperately needs the practice time — so rare at this stage of the season — to address their problems with execution. However, it’s worth remembering that practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. While full practices offer great opportunities to work on flaws, bad practices could move the team even further backward. Resolving their recent woes requires a great deal of focus — both mentally and physically. Tired bodies are undeniably obstacles to crisp execution. Tired minds are equally detrimental to being able to work and play well with others.
Vogel was faced with a beggar’s choice this week: rest vs. rhythm. He chose rest.
After looking at some of these numbers, it seems to me that it was probably the right choice in this situation. But, if that’s true, it could also be another troubling sign for the 2014 Indiana Pacers. With less than two weeks until the playoffs begin, you have to wonder if they have the time to both rest and repair.