The Indiana Pacers and The Glory Days of Fall

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.

On November 10th the Indiana Pacers defeated the Sacramento Kings and reached the middle of a four game West Coast road-trip. At that point they were 9-7 with wins against the Nuggets, Lakers and Heat. Third-year center Roy Hibbert was averaging 16.1 Pts/G, 9.5 Reb/G, 3.1 Ast/G, and 2.1 Blk/G on 48.8% shooting; looking like a lock for the league’s Most Improved Player Award. The team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons seemed assured.

Since then the Pacers have gone 9-20. That includes three separate losing streaks of 3 games as well as a 6 game losing streak. The Pacers fell out of playoff position, Roy Hibbert completely regressed, and the bottom dropped out of the team’s morale. Things came to a head last weekend with a loss to Chicago on Saturday and the firing of Head Coach Jim O’Brien on Sunday.

There have been several issues contributing to this huge collapse over the past two months. The first is the distribution of minutes. The second is the tremendous decline of Roy Hibbert. The third revolves around reasonable expectations. Let’s start by looking at the distribution of minutes. The table below shows the position, minutes played, Adj. WP48, WP48 and Wins Produced for each of the Pacers this season (numbers taken originally from the Automated Wins Produced numbers provided by Andres Alvarez).

Thus far there are four players who have been producing wins in the negative range for the Pacers. Three of those four, Solomon Jones, T.J. Ford and James Posey, were playing significant minutes off the bench under Jim O’Brien. Minutes for those three players came at the expense of much more productive players like Jeff Foster, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts.

n addition players were not always used in ways that played to their strengths. James Posey has been played primarily at power forward. This may be the position he’s most suited to play at this point in his career, but it certainly doesn’t make it a good choice for the team. Towards the end of his tenure O’Brien began to change his rotations but it was a case of too little, too late.

The second issue is the curious case of Roy Hibbert. On December 13th, already two weeks into his slide, I wrote a post for IndyCornrows looking at the Pacers and Wins Produced. Up to that point in the season Roy Hibbert had posted a WP48 of 0.211. As of the first of February his WP48 is 0.023. In the span of two months he went from playing like an All-Star to barely keeping his production in the positive range. To find out how that could be possible let’s look at some of his individual statistics for those two time periods.

The table below shows Hibbert’s numbers for October and November compared to his numbers for December and January and his numbers for last season. The values in red are below average for a center.

Hibbert’s numbers for October and November were a significant improvement over last year’s performance. However, his numbers for December and January were among the worst of his career and much worse than what he produced last season. While his performance the first two months of the season may have been an unsustainable anomaly, his performance the last two months appears to be equally anomalous.

This is Hibbert’s third season in the NBA, a time when players typically show improvement. In addition, he spent the summer refining his fitness level, dropping nearly 20 pounds. He began receiving treatment for “athlete-induced” asthma, a previously undiagnosed ailment which plagued him for years and drastically impacted his endurance.

Everything appeared in concert for Hibbert to step forward as a legitimate NBA contributor, and for two months we saw that and more. So why the sudden drop off? The answer is probably a mix of learning to play at a lower weight, receiving an increase in defensive attention with his early season success, being utilized poorly by your coach and a loss of self confidence. How could a player having a breakout season suddenly lose confidence? Maybe if he heard his coach say this:

“I think that Roy would say – and I certainly share this belief – I don’t think he’s having a very good season. I think that he can play at a much, much higher level right away than he’s doing right now. I don’t think he’s being the facilitator of our offense that I think he’s going to become; I think he’s a great passer. I think he can be a much better rebounder. And my expectations probably aren’t as high as Roy’s expectations. So even though he could be mentioned as Most Improved, I think he has a long way to go and he has a long way to go this year.”  – Jim O’Brien speaking to the media after a loss to the Chicago Bulls 12/13/10

Hibbert’s struggles have also affected his teammates. Hibbert spends most of his time on the floor with Mike Dunleavy, Brandon Rush, Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough, and Josh McRoberts. You can see from the Wins Produced chart above that of those six only Dunleavy and McRoberts have been producing at an above average level. Dunleavy and McRoberts are also the only two who’s WP48 have increased compared to last season.

Hibbert is not solely to blame for their struggles. For better or worse the Pacers’ offense this season was constructed with him acting as a focal point as both scorer and distributor. When he was playing well things were very easy for his teammates. Since he’s been struggling things have gotten much more difficult for his teammates.

The last issue to examine is the idea of realistic expectations. I wrote a piece on the Pacers in this forum in early August and at that point they looked like a 32-33 win team. When they won 9 of their first 16 games expectations shot through the roof. Fans and many in the media saw them as the 2008 Atlanta Hawks, a young team on the rise, ready to make the playoffs and challenge some of the NBA’s elite. Perhaps a better comparison would have been the 2007 Atlanta Hawks, a 30 win team still putting the pieces together and figuring out how to use their talent to win games.

Still, the Pacers are lucky to be playing in a dilapidated Eastern Conference where even a collapse of this magnitude hasn’t eliminated them from playoff contention. As of February 1st they trailed the Charlotte Bobcats by just one game for the 8th and final playoff spot. They trailed the Philadelphia 76ers by just two games for the 7th playoff spot.

The Pacers had a terrific October and November but those two months weren’t a true reflection of the status of the team. They had a horrific December and January but those two months weren’t a true reflection of the team either. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The playoffs aren’t out of reach and the path for new Head Coach, Frank Vogel should be clear. Clean up the playing rotations, slashing minutes for those negative contributors and find a way to get Hibbert playing the way he was early in the season. One game does not a season make, but a 104-93 win over Toronto in Vogel’s first game Monday night, along with a 24 point, 11 rebound performance by Roy Hibbert leads me to believe he’s thinking the same thing I am.

- Ian Levy

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