Once Again the Pacers are Hoping Players Get Better

Ian Levy is a Third-Grade teacher by day and amateur basketball analyst by afternoon. (He usually sleeps at night.) Ian suffers from a rare psychological condition known as Anti-Homeritis which renders him incapable of rooting for hometown teams. He grew up in Upstate New York and has therefore been a lifelong Indiana Pacers fan. He writes his own basketball blog, Hickory High, and is a contributor at IndyCornrows. Ian currently lives in Boise, Idaho, where he roots against the Boise State Broncos.

By completing a four-team trade and acquiring Darren Collison and James Posey, the Pacers finally accomplished their stated summer goal of a point guard upgrade.  The prize for the Pacers was Collison, a young, speedy point guard who should be able to step in and start next season. As part of the trade, the Pacers sent Troy Murphy to New Jersey. Lost in the excitement of the Collison acquisition is the tremendous loss of Murphy’s production.

Views on Murphy’s value vary widely among Pacer fans. Those who are familiar with The Wages of Wins and Wins Produced are generally the fans who appreciate and recognize Murphy’s worth to a team. Murphy was among the most productive front court players in the league last season, posting a WP48 of 0.281 and producing 13.7 Wins over the course of the season. Murphy has obvious limitations at the defensive end, but is an extremely efficient scorer and a very strong rebounder. Murphy scored 1.10 Point Per Shot last season and grabbed 15.1 Reb/48. His 28.1% Defensive Rebound Rate over the past three seasons was bested by only Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, Joel Pryzbilla and Marcus Camby. Replacing him is going to be no small task.

And at first glance, it looks like the Pacers are not going to be able to complete this task. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the Pacers’ roster for the upcoming season.  The following table reports for these players minutes played, WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] and Wins Produced numbers from last season for each returning player.

Although these numbers are unsettling, we must remember that the Pacers’ roster is still unsettled. Lance Stephenson’s recent legal problems make him a question mark to start the season. Second round pick Magnum Rolle hasn’t been signed yet, despite all indications that he will be joining the team. The Pacers have also discussed a buyout with T.J. Ford, and are reportedly looking to acquire another experienced front court player through free agency or a trade. If you do the math you’ll see 16 players on the roster, meaning at least one player on this list won’t be with the team next year.

That being said, without Murphy’s production the Pacers’ cupboard has been looks as if has been left quite bare. The team did well to acquire two above-average players for Murphy, but the 13.7 wins he produced last year will be sorely missed, as the returning players on the roster produced only 22.3 wins last season. Despite the loss of Murphy, the situation is not quite as dire as it looks.

The returning players totaled only 18,041 Minutes Played last season, leaving roughly 1,600 minutes available. Assuming individual per-minute production stays the same, those free minutes — and a re-allocation of other minutes — makes the team’s potential Win Projection look slightly rosier. Re-allocating the minutes for next season, could put more productive players on the floor, as well as allowing some players to spend more time at their natural position. Below is a rough approximation of what the numbers might look like for next season (I used estimates for the WP48 totals of rookies Lance Stephenson, Paul George and Magnum Rolle and some WP48 numbers were changed because of position adjustments).

This prediction has the Pacers winning roughly 33 games. Even with a little leeway in the numbers, this puts the Pacers in essentially the same place they finished last season (32 wins). So, by moving some minutes around the Pacers can theoretically off-set the loss of Troy Murphy. Despite the excitement about roster changes, the Pacers will be entering next season in a familiar position, relying on players to make large jumps in individual production in order to push the team to the next level.

The Pacers have had a relatively poor record with player development over the past few seasons, but there are reasons to feel optimistic.

  • Darren Collison is entering his second season and will likely be the named the starting point guard to begin the season. With a 0.100 WP48, Collison was above average for a rookie, and provided average production from a point guard overall. There is every reason to think he will make some improvements in his second season.
  • Tyler Hansbrough missed significant time due to injury last season, but by all accounts will be healthy to begin this year. Hansbrough posted some strong numbers last season, but his WP48 was dragged down by his incredibly low FG% (only 36%). If he can push this number above 40%, he should be able to contribute much more effectively as a back-up power forward.
  • Danny Granger struggled shooting the ball last season, especially on 3PTs. Hopefully, being surrounded by more offensive weapons will allow him to take better shots and score the ball more efficiently. In addition spending more time at small forward could help his numbers.
  • Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert both improved from their rookie to their sophomore season. Rush improved his WP48 from 0.000 to 0.076. Hibbert went from -0.077 to 0.007. Even modest additional improvements on both of their parts could account for an extra win or two. (Look for big things in particular from Roy Hibbert, who was much more effective last season when he was paired with any Power Forward besides Troy Murphy.)
  • Josh McRoberts also improved dramatically last season, pushing his WP48 from 0.069 to 0.135. If he can continue to rebound the ball well — and increase his FG% — he should be a solid power forward replacement for Troy Murphy.

The Pacers will probably not be challenging the upper-echelon in the Eastern Conference next season, but some modest individual player improvement and a thoughtful distribution of minutes could push them towards a win total in the high 30s.  And this might keep them in the chase for the 8th playoff spot. In addition, a number of expiring contracts give the team the potential of making a move before or during the season.

As in the past the team will enter a season needing many things to go their way in order to stay competitive. And once again, Pacer fans will be left hoping that their team can perform better than they look on paper.

- Ian Levy

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