(Photo: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Indiana Is Where Bench Players Go to Die: Is Frank Vogel to Blame?


One of the more interesting and polarizing discussions hovering around the Pacers this season (other than that thing about the team turning into trash after looking like the best team in the NBA) is how many bench players seem to play well on other teams but not so much in Indiana.

Just look at Gerald Green/Miles Plumlee thriving in Phoenix, D.J. Augustin rejuvenating his career in Chicago, and Darren Collison balling in Los Angeles. Now compare that to Luis Scola and Evan Turner being relative disappointments so far wearing the blue and gold.

Do these struggles has something to do specifically with the way the Pacers run their offense. Do Frank Vogel and he Pacers’ front office deserve some blame? Is it just a coincidence? Is the corn-based Indiana diet to blame?

I looked at the stats of 10 players who either are on the Pacers’ bench this season or were in seasons in the past, comparing their numbers in Indy to their numbers from their previous/new team. (Note: I only included players that actually had a significant role at some point on the team which is why Miles Plumlee and such aren’t included.)

So we might as well start by looking at the first example of a guy the Pacers brought in to revamp the bench, from Frank Vogel’s first full season as coach.

Leandro Barbosa

Barbosa
(Note: All stat charts are per 36 min)

Leandro Barbosa was actually pretty solid in his short time in Indy, although it will probably be overshadowed by the shooting slump he hit in the playoffs, where he missed 17-of-20 threes and only shot 37% from the field overall. But prior to that, in the regular season, once the Pacers realized he was best used as spot up shooter instead of a ball handler, he was quite efficient, shooting 42.4% from beyond the arc. His numbers didn’t really change too drastically the year after in Boston before an ACL tear effectively ended his career as a high-level contributor in the NBA.

Darren Collison

Collison

None of these Darren Collison seasons jump out at me as better/worse than the rest, except for the 2011-12 season where Collision was really used much less than he was in the previous season (a 17% usage rate compared to 21.9% in 10-11).

Gerald Green

Gerald Green

This is the prime example right now, as Gerald Green was awful in Indiana and is pure gold in Phoenix. First let me recap his career prior to his stint with the Nets: He had a couple “eh” seasons with the Celtics before he played his way out of the league, then the Nets took a chance on him, and in his 31 games on a horrible Nets team, he showed that he can shoot the 3 decently — and of course dunk on everyone’s head.

This was the main reason the Pacers gave him a deal. However, in the Pacers’ more structured, less-fluid (to be kind) offense, he shot his way out of the lineup and left Pacers fans with memories of him being unable to throw an entry pass into the post in the playoffs. This year he’s thriving in the Suns’ free-flowing offense, which I honestly think is the only offense he’d be playing this well under. But it is concerning how his 3-point percentage took such a big hit during his time in Indy. (Spoiler alert: This will be a theme among the players we examine here.)

Tyler Hansbrough

Tyler Hansbrough

Tyler Hansbrough was a useful, if unspectacular, reserve under Frank Vogel. He is clearly producing less in Toronto than he was in Indy though he has done it more efficiently. Then again, he is also shooing just 40.7% shooting in 13 minutes per game during the Raptors’ 13 last games.

D.J. Augustin

DJ Augustin

D.J. Augustin’s number were already starting to drop into the “why are you playing in this league?” territory during his Charlotte days, but it’s concerning to see his assists per 36 min go down to just 5.0 after being at 7.8 with the ‘Cats. Tom Thibodeau was somehow able to resuscitate his career, however, and he’s now having his best season since his rookie year. And although, Augustin didn’t shoot above 40% from three in his two seasons before coming to Indy, he is now scorching nets just a year after leaving Indy.

Jeff Ayers (formerly Jeff Pendergraph)

Pendy

It’s no surprise that Gregg Popovich isn’t relying on an unproven newcomer, so we’re dealing with some sample size issues here. But while Jeff’s counting numbers have dropped since his limited time playing in Indiana, his field-goal percentage has spiked.

C.J. Watson

CJ Watson

C.J. has been the Pacers’ most solid and consistent bench player this season although, once again, it raises a question mark to see another player’s 3-point percentage drop when he joins the Pacers.

Luis Scola

Scola

Luis Scola started off the year great, but lost his shot — and seemingly his way — after a hot few months. Since, he largely has been disappointing for the Pacers. but it’s clear to the eye that he’s missing a bunch of open mid-range shots. As a big man on the wrong side of 30 who was already showing a statistical drop in recent years, his best years might simply be in the past.

Danny Granger

Granger

Danny Granger was actually playing quite well for the Clippers before his calf injury. His field-goal percentage in particular shot up by 7% in his 12 games with the Clippers.

I think a key reason is because the interior presence of Blake Griffin (not to mention the attention given to Chris Paul) has often left Danny open to shoot. For instance, when Danny was still with the Pacers he shot much better with Roy Hibbert on the court (41.7%) than with Hibbert off the court (33.7%). With the Clippers, he’s shooting 51.4% from the field and 52.9% from 3-point range with Griffin on the court, compared to 36.2% from the field and 17.6% from three when Blake is on the bench.

Evan Turner

Turner

Evan Turner as been a major disappointment so far with the Pacers, but I think to a certain extent the Pacers haven’t given him enough freedom on offense. His usage rate with the Sixers was 24.3% while with the Pacers it’s only 19.5%. When Turner was having success with the Sixers earlier this season it was because he was creating things for himself. So far 40% of the time he’s been on the court Lance Stephenson has been beside him, which doesn’t allow Turner enough freedom that other good bench creators (such as Jamal Crawford and Gerald Green) have this season.

The Final Verdict

In short, it’s rather obvious that the shooters and creators who Indiana’s front office has acquired in recent years haven’t succeeded. while they have succeeded on other teams. That leaves the question of why.

In regard to the players such as Evan Turner or even a guy like D.J. Augustin, who was brought in to run the offense with the bench unit, I think they simply haven’t been given enough of a chance. D.J. is having a great season thanks in large part to the freedom he’s been given on offense in Chicago, where his usage rate is up to 22%. That number was only 15.1% while he was with the Pacers. (If you think the reason is because at first he was given a chance and then lost it due to bad play, that’s wrong as his usage% was still only 18% in his first 20 games with the Pacers.)

The Pacers’ starting unit has been able to get by offensively (before they were a terrible team) by being run in an organized and disciplined manner; establish the post game and that will open up the outside shots. A lot of the most successful bench units in the modern NBA, though, don’t work that way. That’s not to say that those teams don’t run any plays, they just make the plays for the bench more fast paced.

Now, the Pacers would be able to run their bench the same way that they run the starting unit if they had the personnel to replicate the solid interior presence that Roy Hibbert and David West provide. Ian Mahinmia, Tyler Hansbrough, and Luis Scola, however, aren’t intimidating enough on the inside to draw in the defense and open up shots for the shooters.

Example: Darren Collsion, who is shooting 39.1% from beyond the arc this season, shot 38% from three in 2011-2012 when Roy Hibbert was on the court with him. When Hibbert wasn’t that dropped all the way to 26.7% — when the interior presence consisted of Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson.

The same thing can be said about D.J. Augustin last year, who shot 41.9% from deep (exactly what he’s shooting this season in Chicago) while Hibbert was on the court, compared to 33.3%  when Hibbert was sitting.

Even look at Rasual Butler, who’s been the Pacers’ best 3-point shooter this season (45.8%), whose percentage goes up to 50% with Roy and 44.7% without Roy.

So there are two faults with the bench as far as I can see.

The first one is more based on personnel, and that is, that the Pacers try to bring in a bunch of bench shooters but don’t have any interior presence on the bench to draw the defense in and give the shooters open looks. (This is also a reason why it would be a huge deal if Andrew Bynum comes back for the playoffs).

The second fault is on the coaching aspect. Since the bench has no interior presence, you can’t run the offense the same way that you do with the starting unit. The offense from the bench unit needs to be much more free flowing. Evan Turner has been pretty crafty around the basket and is very good once he gets in open space. If more plays were run where he was the pick n’ roll ball handler he might be able to create more. After all that’s what Larry Bird brought him in for — not to toss the ball into Ian Mahinmi at the high post and go set a scree.

This insistence on maintaining the same strategy even when the personnel is vastly different is, to my eyes, the biggest problem, and the bench won’t improve as long as the offense stays stagnant, slow-paced and uncreative.

Tags: C.J. Watson D.J. Augustin Darren Collison Featured Frank Vogel Gerald Green Indiana Pacers Luis Scola

  • Jack Wright

    I think your verdict is probably right. Let the bench guys play more like it’s a pickup game, basically.

  • Ian

    I think a lot of what you have said is correct, though its hard to know how much Augustin’s improvement is due to him getting in better shape (he looked really SLOW on the Pacers, which was a bigger problem than any shooting issues).

    Green has been much better this season but his numbers are misleading. His PER is around 15-16 most of the season despite how hot he has been from 3 because he doesn’t do much else.

    I do think the game against the Bucks showed that the 2nd unit can only be effective by playing more up tempo and stressing ball movement. Also playing Copeland would help. Amazingly he’s been even more efficient with the Pacers than he was with the Knicks last year, he just doesn’t get any playing time. I think Vogel needs to accept his defensive weaknesses are more than made up by how well he scores the ball (he’s averaging over 22 points per/40 and has a TS% over %60)

  • Central States Recovery

    I mostly agree with your verdict. I have argued that Green was brought in as a bench player but had to be used as a starter, and it didn’t work. He later failed off the bench. I felt he wasn’t used properly off the bench and could have excelled in special situations. I think the same thing is happening to Copeland this year, plus he needs minutes. A good coach will try to put players in a position to succeed and use their talents, not force feed players who’s talents are different from the system. For example I feel Hill is under way too much pressure to be a point guard, while he is a spark player, a player that can back up the one sufficiently, and a good scoring guard. He seldom has an adequate backup to relieve that pressure. I don’t know if Larry and Frank are on the same page. Larry brings in talent that can score, and Frank wants them to play a disciplined offensive style with accent on defense. I say unleash the hounds and confuse the opponent. If the opponent comes back with a bump and grind, bump and grind, they come in with run and gun, you can’t tell me we can’t give them match up problems

  • Joe Betz

    Thanks for tackling this story! I have written offhand that the Pacers bench is where players go to die several times out of frustration, so it was nice to see this researched and argued well. Thanks, Avi.

  • Ben

    When you say CONCERNING, you really mean DISCONCERTING. Common error, but it don’t need to be