Indiana Pacers guard Aaron Holiday (3) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 19, … [+]
The NBA season has come to a halt. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world and throughout the league, sporting events have been indefinitely put on hold.
With nothing imminent to look forward to on the basketball court, looking back is a better option. And for the Indiana Pacers, looking to the past is a rather rosy and fun exercise.
Few who cover the league anticipated that the Pacers would be as successful as they were before the league’s hiatus. 39-26 is a fantastic record for a team that has dealt with as much roster overhaul and injury adversity as the blue and gold have. They were on the cusp on clinching a playoff berth and were in the hunt for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference when the association was put on hold.
Why were they able to accomplish so much? Because most players lived up to, or exceeded, the expectations set for them (by me) before the season. Let’s revisit some of those predictions to get a better feel for why Indiana has been a strong team throughout their 2019-20 campaign.
These predictions were not standard predictions. Instead, they were key stats to monitor for each member of the roster; the idea being that if each player thrived in this statistical area the team would succeed.
Malcolm Brogdon: Assists per 100 possessions
Brogdon was one of the players that had a stat to monitor represented by a specific number: 10 assists per 100 possessions.
“The President”, as he is occasionally called, was brought in to be a creating point guard, a role he had never played before. His career high assists per 100 possessions figure was 8.1, roughly the rate of a solid secondary creator, not a lead point guard.
Brogdon would have to prove that he could set up his teammates for scoring opportunities. And that he did. When the season was suspended, the 6’5 guard was averaging 11.4 assists per 100 possessions.
He has gelled with the Pacers starting five. Over half of his assists have gone to T.J. Warren or Domantas Sabonis, two players he has remarkable chemistry with. Brogdon has the IQ to get those guys, and the rest of his teammates, the ball in advantageous positions. He excelled as Indiana’s primary playmaker for a majority of the season,
Victor Oladipo: Games played
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 21: Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during the first … [+]
When the season opened, it wasn’t clear when Oladipo would come back from the ruptured quad he suffered in the 2018-19 season. All fans knew was that it would be a long time before the two time All-Star returned to basketball.
The more games Oladipo played for the Pacers this season, the better. He would need time to ramp up to full speed after returning, but playing more games would give him more chances to do that.
At the time the league was suspended, if the former Indiana Hoosier was able to play in every game for the remainder of the season, he would have reached 30 games played. That isn’t much. Many of his early performances were rough, too. He needed a few weeks to get up to speed.
In his final performance prior to the hiatus, he poured in 27 points against the Celtics. He was finally rounding into form. But it took until March for that to happen because Oladipo missed a ton of time this season.
That isn’t an indictment on anyone. It isn’t Oladipo’s, the Pacers’, or any doctor’s fault that it took a long time for Indiana’s star to heal from a ruptured quad. But the Pacers postseason outlook would be better if the former All-NBA guard could have returned earlier.
T.J. Warren: Three-point percentage
During Warren’s final season in Phoenix, he hit 42.8% of his three-pointers. In the four years prior, he hit just 28.3% of his outside shots.
It wasn’t clear if his shooting during the 2018-19 campaign was a flash in the pan or a growth in skill. That’s why Warren’s three-point percentage was such a key stat to monitor this season; he needed to prove to the Pacers, and the NBA, that he was a legitimate threat from deep.
And boy did he. Warren hasn’t been as accurate this season as he was last year, but he still canned 37.5% of his 180 three-point attempts this time around. That’s a solid figure, it’s good enough to force defenders to cover Warren no matter where he is on the court, which in turn makes it easier for the wing to score from the inside.
Warren has been a consistent key contributor for Indiana all season long. His outside shot is a huge part of why he is able to be successful.
Domantas Sabonis: Fouls per minute
The Pacers committed to starting two centers this season — Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis — and both had to make adjustments to make the pairing work. Turner had to sacrifice shot attempts on offense while Sabonis had to adapt to containing perimeter players on defense.
For the Lithuanian big man, that is a big change. Sabonis isn’t particularly light-footed, keeping up with players when defending away from the rim has always been a struggle for him. Doing so full time meant that is was likely he would flounder a bit more often on the less glamorous end of the floor.
Domantas had issues on defense prior to this season, even when he primarily was matched up with centers. He fouled often, 4.7 times per 36 minutes to be exact. Controlling quicker players seemed like an impossible task for Sabonis, he would need to improve tremendously to keep his fouls down and not send opposing players to the free throw line.
So far, so good. His defense hasn’t been perfect, especially on less interior minded guys, but he has done well to keep his foul count down. He’s cut his per-36 foul tally to 3.3, substantially fewer than last season. That allows Sabonis to stay on the floor as much as possible and keeps the other team off the free-throw line. It’s been an imperative improvement.
Sabonis’ defense still has a long way to go, but his foul-prone nature being a thing of the past has been important for the Pacers two center experiment this year.
Myles Turner: Shot attempts at the rim
The other center who had to adapt his play style.
Before the season, it wasn’t particularly clear what Turner’s offensive role would be. Given that the sweet-shooting big man has spent most of his career operating as a floor spacer, it was reasonable to assume that Turner adding some shots at the rim could make him, and the Pacers offense, less predictable; and thus more effective.
That did not turn out to be the case. Given the way the Pacers deploy Sabonis, it is rarely advantageous for anyone if Turner wanders into the paint. If Myles was taking more shots around the rim, it would impede Sabonis’ elite ability to initiate offense around the basket and roll into the paint after setting a screen.
The Texas product is taking 21.1% of his shots from 0-3 feet, a career low. He has traded those shots for three-pointers; 44.3% of his shots have come from the outside, a career high by a mile. In actuality, this is a good thing for the team. My prediction for Turner being more useful with shots around the basket was incorrect. His floor spacing is invaluable, he should remain on the perimeter unless he has a matchup advantage.
Aaron Holiday: Shooting percentage
Aaron Holiday shot 40.1% in his rookie season and is current shooting 40.7% during his sophomore year. That zoomed out look at his accuracy makes his season look like a failure in this statistical category.
But that isn’t the whole story.
There were seven instances in Holiday’s rookie campaign in which he shot eight or more times and hit less than 30% of them. That’s unacceptable. High-volume shooters can’t waste that many possessions with misses.
This year, that has only happened four times. And three of those four games were times in which Holiday started, and played big minutes, due to injury. He still shouldn’t be jacking up tons of shots if he’s not feeling it, but he is clearly learning when he does and doesn’t have it on any given night.
Additionally, in the four games where Holiday was chucking despite not being accurate, he averaged 5.5 assists. Rookie Holiday wouldn’t sniff that number. The former UCLA guard is still learning the best situations for his skills in the NBA, but he’s clearly been better as a scorer and a ball-handler in general this season despite the percentages not reflecting that improvement.
Jeremy Lamb: Unassisted shots made
Indiana Pacers guard Jeremy Lamb (26) plays against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half of an … [+]
The appeal of Jeremy Lamb’s skillset is his ability to score without having a play called for him. In Charlotte, when Lamb was in the game without All-Star guard Kemba Walker, Lamb hit a ton of his shots without an assist. That’s what the Pacers needed him to do.
Only 36.8% of Lamb’s made two-point shots this season were assisted. That is exactly what the blue and gold hoped they would get from the eight-year veteran, a scorer that could generate points on broken possessions.
When a play is cut off, Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan can be confident allowing his players to simply toss Lamb the ball and let him try to score. He’s pretty good at hitting those shots, and any shot for that matter. He only shot under 30% ten times this season, his consistency is one of his more important attributes.
When Lamb played with no other starters, half of his made two-pointers were unassisted. He was exactly who the Pacers needed him to be before his season ending injury.
Doug McDermott: Three-point attempts per 100 possessions
It was almost painful watching the way Doug McDermott was used during his first season in Indiana.
He set a career high in three-point attempt rate and three-point attempts per 100 possessions. Which is good in a vacuum. But long distance shooting is McDermott’s only significant NBA skill, if he’s only taking 7.5 threes per 100 possessions, he’s being wasted on most of his other trips down the floor.
In my original post, I suggested that number reach somewhere between nine and ten to make McDermott more useful useful. The Pacers figured out how to make that happen. The 6’7 wing is taking 10.4 threes per 100 possessions, a career high by a mile. Not coincidentally, McDermott’s Offensive Box Plus-Minus, a stat that attempts to measure a player’s total offensive impact, is 1.5. League average is zero.
Indiana finally figured out how to use McDermott, and now he and the bench are a perfect fit together. He has been tremendous this season, and the Pacers are better for it.
T.J. Leaf: Minutes played
The important stat to monitor for T.J. Leaf this season was minutes played. That is boring, but playing time would pretty clearly tell the story of Leaf’s season.
Leaf topped out at 522 minutes in a season during his first two NBA campaigns. He couldn’t stay on the floor and the Pacers chose to play veterans instead of letting him work through his mistakes and develop.
This season, if Leaf played more than 522 minutes, it would show that Indiana’s patience with his growth paid off and that he was able to contribute to winning. If his minutes count was low, it would show that he continued to flop and had his opportunity taken away from him. Again.
Currently, Leaf has played 193 minutes this season and hasn’t cracked 10 minutes in a given game since November 16, 2019.
The third-year forward was given a chance to show what he could do. He received minutes in the rotation for 15 of the Pacers first 17 games. On his best night, had 13 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Bulls. The blue and gold don’t win that game without him.
But most of his opportunities went poorly. He didn’t show that he belonged in the rotation, and now that he has played three seasons in the NBA and not showed much in terms of impact or ability, his future with the team could be in jeopardy. He needs to shine basically every minute he plays the rest of the season, should it resume, or else he may be playing elsewhere soon.
Goga Bitadze: Pacers’ defensive rating when on court
As soon as the Pacers drafted Bitadze, a center, in the NBA draft, his future was in question.
Indiana already has two talented young centers. A third one seemed superfluous even though it was clear from Bitadze’s game footage in Europe that he is skilled.
If Goga was going to prove he belongs in the NBA, and that he had value around the league, he needed to show he could positively impact the game on at least one end of the floor. And the way the league is going for centers, it was more important that it was the defensive end.
With the Georgian big man on the floor, the Pacers conceded 930 points on 866 possessions, good for a defensive rating of 107.4. For reference, the sixth ranked defense in the league has a defensive rating of 107.6. The Pacers bench in general was terrific on defense this season, which helps Bitadze’s defensive rating. But Goga was good enough on D to help keep that number low. He had quite a few hiccups on that end of the floor, but he was generally good enough to show he has a future in this league.
Edmond Sumner: Free throw rate
For all the good things Edmond Sumner does — play defense, supply energy, and keep things moving — he scarcely uses that energy and speed to draw fouls and get to the free throw line.
Sumner is a deft driver. He can attack the basket at will thanks to his agility and capabilities moving with the ball. But he rarely draws contact, and prior to this season he wasn’t good enough as a finisher to turn those drives into efficient scoring. Improving his free throw rate seemed imperative in improving his efficiency and impact on offense.
The athletic guard did improve his efficiency, his true shooting is currently a career high. But it wasn’t because he improved his ability to draw fouls, his free throw rate is actually down from last season. Instead, Sumner improved his finishing ability substantially. He’s hit 69% of his shots from 0-3 feet this season, making him supremely effective as a rim attacker despite his inability to get to the free throw line.
Sumner oozes potential. He just has to master when to use each of his skills. He will have a long NBA career if he can figure it out.
T.J. McConnell: Drives per game
Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell (9) looks to pass during the first half of an NBA basketball … [+]
T.J. McConnell has been electric for the Pacers this season. He has been terrific for the second unit and has made life easier for all of his teammates thanks to his ability to set guys up and manipulate a defense.
Much of his ability to make opposing players scramble on D comes from his talents penetrating into the lane and getting everybody, on both teams, moving. He’s so quick with the ball and is one of the best players in the league at spotting holes in the defense and bursting into them.
Because of his skill getting into the paint, I mused that nine or so drives per game would be a good number for McConnell to reach to maximize his effectiveness. At the time of the NBA suspending play, McConnell was averaging 9.2 drives per game. His ability to get into the paint made the Pacers bench great, and when combined with his ability to read his teammates it makes him one of the better backup point guards in the entire NBA.
Justin Holiday: Shooting percentage
Justin Holiday has truly transformed himself this season.
Prior to joining the Pacers, he was hardly considered an accurate shooter. In five of his first six seasons, he shot worse than 40% from the floor and never eclipsed a league average shooting percentage from beyond the three-point line. Nothing about his statistical profile suggested that Holiday was a good, or efficient, scorer.
The perception of Holiday now is entirely different. Overall, he’s shooting 44% from the field, a career best. But that number on its own isn’t that impressive, and anyone who doesn’t follow the Pacers closely wouldn’t be blown away by that figure.
That number is not the story of his accuracy. The oldest Holiday brother is shooting 42.4% from deep, a career high by nearly seven percent, and 47.2% from inside the arc, the second best figure of his vocation. The reason his overall shooting percentage isn’t overwhelming is because two-third of his shot attempts are three-pointers.
The former Washington Husky has been remarkably efficient, especially when contrasted with his prior seasons. His 59.8% true shooting is a career best and a top-50 mark in the league. Holiday has blown shooting precision expectations out of the water, and it has allowed him to be a mainstay in the rotation for Indiana this season.
Alize Johnson: Games played
Alize Johnson is one of the Pacers developmental projects. He isn’t in the rotation and he rarely plays. He spends more time in the G League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants than he does with the Pacers.
Most of his playing time with the pro team comes in garbage time, any other minutes he receives is a plus for his development but usually signals something abnormal is happening with Indiana’s health. He played 14 games his rookie season, if he could reach that mark, or exceed it, that would be a benefit for his growth and the Pacers outlook.
So far this season, he has played in 13 games, on pace to participate in 16 contests. That isn’t much more than his rookie year, but it’s certainly helpful for both the Pacers and Johnson.
Perhaps more important is that the raw forward received a brief stint in the rotation earlier in the season. When Indiana was dealing with copious injuries in mid-November, Johnson filled in ably as a reserve forward and the Pacers won two games with him in the rotation. Alize has done more than anyone could have hoped for this season despite not playing in many contests.
JaKarr Sampson: Pacers’ offensive rating when on court
JaKarr Sampson was the final player the Pacers signed this summer. He wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a warm body; somebody who could help in practices and could occasionally play if the situation needed it.
He has been much more than that. The scrappy forward has been a member of Indiana’s rotation many times this season, he even started 10 different times. He provided much more than was expected of him, especially on defense. And that would still be true even if he doesn’t receive another minute this season.
Sampson is limited on offense. He can’t shoot or handle the ball well. If he was going to help the team win, it was imperative that he didn’t impede the rest of the Pacers on that end of the floor when he checked into the game. With Sampson on the court, the blue and gold posted an offensive rating of 111.1, a tidy number. Sampson did well to fit in when Indiana had the ball despite his limited personal skillset. He was a boon for the squad all season long.
Brian Bowen II: Minutes played
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – NOVEMBER 12: Brian Bowen II #10 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during a game … [+]
Bowen II is on a two-way contract, but he was still one of the Pacers two rookies. The more playing time that McMillan, or the Mad Ants, could find for him, the better.
With Fort Wayne in the G League, Bowen II played a ton. He received nearly 1,000 total minutes with the Pacers affiliate club, posting averages of 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. After a slow start, he really picked things up for the Mad Ants and showed that he was one of the better players in all of the minor leagues.
With the pro club, Bowen II only amassed 29 total minutes. There just weren’t enough opportunities for the young wing to get serious playing time. However, early this month, the stars aligned for Bowen II. Warren and McDermott were both out with injuries, and the Pacers coaching staff didn’t want to disrupt the second unit, so Bowen II got a start against the Chicago Bulls.
It was the final available day on Bowen II’s two-way contract, and while he didn’t score any points, the rookie proved himself useful in his 15 minutes of playing time by grabbing four rebounds and contributing on defense. Indiana outscored Chicago by three points with Bowen II on the court that night, evidence that he didn’t hinder the squads operations.
He still has a long way to go to prove he can contribute to winning basketball at an NBA level, but Bowen II showed that he has tons of room to grow. He’ll just need more minutes.
Naz Mitrou-Long: Assists + Points
Mitrou-Long was signed to be injury insurance for the Pacers as well as an initiator and playmaker for the Mad Ants.
He was a stud for the SLC Stars in the G League in years past. Fort Wayne needed him to be a quality scorer and distributor when he played for them. Unfortunately, injuries prevented him from having the impact many hoped he would have with Indiana’s G League affiliate. He struggled with the Mad Ants and never left his mark on the team throughout his 15 appearances.
Fortunately, Mitrou-Long was a boon for the pro club at times this year. When the roster had multiple injuries to point guards in mid-November, the former Iowa State Cyclone was called up from the G League to be the backup point guard. He had only accrued 2:35 of playing time in the entire season before this stretch, he was coming in with essentially no game experience with the Pacers.
And yet, he helped the team win. In his first appearance as the backup, Indiana fell to Milwaukee, but the two teams played to an even draw with Naz on the floor. On his second night in the rotation, he scored 12 points and dished out three assists as the Pacers thumped the Nets. Mitrou-Long kept the team afloat while they were banged up with multiple injuries.
That was the last time we saw Mitrou-Long for the Pacers, but he gave the blue and gold as much as he could be expected to despite not scoring or distributing as frequently as the organization might have hoped.
Nearly every player on the Pacers roster did well in the statistical areas that I thought would be important for the success of the team. Most members of the roster gelled and showed they were able to help the team win when called upon. That’s why the Indiana Pacers were exceeding expectations before the league was suspended, and that is also why this iteration of the roster has such a rosy outlook.