Indiana Pacers Mailbag: Trades, expectations, and how to fix the lineup

Adam Silver, NBA Draft (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Adam Silver, NBA Draft (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /
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Indiana Pacers
Jalen Smith, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images) /

From @IndyInThePaint

Why is Jalen Smith not working in the starting lineup? Should we be concerned?

To truly answer this question, we have to examine the assumption that Smith in the starting lineup is indeed not working. If you’ve watched many Pacers games this season, it is understandable for you to see with your eyes that Smith’s fit with the starting group is… awkward, at least. Let’s try our best to be objective, though. What do the numbers tell us?

Per Basketball Reference, the starting (and the most frequently used) lineup of Haliburton, Hield, Nembhard, Smith, and Turner has a points differential of -3.6 in just over 122 minutes. That number isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly not great. If you’re starting unit can’t muster a positive points differential, it’s going to be pretty tough to consistently win games, which is true of this team.

So, having established that the starting lineup has some issues, what is the source of those issues? One thing to consider is that the Pacers are the worst first-quarter team in the league. They score the least first-quarter points in the league (25.8) and have the worst per-game points differential as well (-5.2). Even though they usually start the third quarter with the same lineup, the team averages 3 more points in that quarter and they have only a -0.3 points differential. It’s possible that the bad starts are making this lineup look worse than they are. That idea gains some support when you examine the starting lineup without Smith in it. Several times recently, Rick Carlisle inserted Aaron Nesmith into the starting 5 in place of Jalen. That lineup is an abysmal -22.2 points in 71 minutes.

Still, there is reason to believe that Jalen Smith is partly responsible for some of the problems with the starting unit. For one thing, Smith is the only member of that lineup whose presence on the court decreases the team’s offensive rating. The team’s offensive rating is almost 2 points higher when Smith is off the floor than when he’s on it. In my mind, this is an indictment of Jalen’s lack of offensive skill, especially at the 4 spot.

An NBA team, especially one that tries to play as fast and shoot as many 3s as the Pacers, needs a 4-man who is able to make 3s efficiently and take advantage of broken defenses by getting into the lane off of the dribble. Smith is currently shooting only 27% from three and averages less than 1 drive per game. Both of those numbers have to increase in order for Smith to work well in the starting lineup.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, and fans of the team, Smith improving organically is about the only solution to this problem to be resolved. While both Nesmith and Brissett are shooting much better from distance, neither of them averages more than 3 drives per game, and neither of them has the positive rebounding impact that Smith does bring. So, all-in-all, yes Pacers fans should be worried about Jalen Smith’s fit in the starting lineup, but we should also be worried about our utter lack of forwards who do fit with the rest of the starters.