Pacers Betting on Offensive Growth Without Defensive Slip
Read between the lines of the Pacers' offseason moves and the intent is clear, Indiana wants more offensive punch.
George Hill, one of the better defensive points guards in the NBA, was shipped to Utah while the Pacers landed Jeff Teague, a solid defender in his own right, but more well-known for his offensive creativity as a player.
Out is defensive anchor Ian Mahinmi, who was signed away by the Wizards, in is Thaddeus Young, a springy rebounder who has averaged double-digit points in 10 of his 11 seasons in the NBA.
Perhaps the most notable exit was head coach Frank Vogel, who was commended for his defensive chops during his six seasons as coach of Indiana.
Enter Nate McMillan, who as a head coach, piloted the 2008-09 Portland Trail Blazers to a league-best 113.9 offensive rating (per basketball-reference)
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All of the moves and transactions point to the conclusion that the Pacers want to continue their offensive growth that began last year, and hopefully take another leap this season.
In 2014-15, when Paul George sat out the majority of the season recovering from his leg injury, Indiana's offensive rating was a paltry 100.9 points per 100 possessions. When George made his return and Indiana shifted to a faster paced offensive system, the team's offensive rating jumped to 102.4, which, while an improvement, perhaps fell short of the team's expectations.
But by bringing in offensive-minded players, will the Pacers slip on defense? Team president Larry Bird believes strongly that assistant coach Dan Burke can keep the defense near the top of the league.
"Our defense with Dan Burke has been great like it has every year," Bird said at the presser in which he announced Vogel's departure. "It's all about scoring some points."
While losing the reliable rim protection of Mahinmi is a punch, Myles Turner's expected move to starting center somewhat negates the loss. As a rookie, Turner flashed shot-blocking instincts that hinted he is capable of being one of the league's elite defensive centers. His biggest issues as a defender seemed to occur when he was operating as a power forward and trying to guard quicker stretch fours such as Marvin Williams. Playing more center, that issue likely won't crop up as often in the 2016-17 season.
George Hill's last mark on the Pacers' defense was keeping Kyle Lowry out of sync for nearly the entire seven-game First Round series with the Raptors. But according to NBA Stats, Teague outpaces Hill defensively in some key defensive areas, such as opponent field goal differential — defined as "the difference between the normal field goal percentage of a shooter throughout the season and the field goal percentage when the defensive player is guarding the shooter."
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This past season, George Hill caused opposing shooters to be on average -.8 percent worse than their normal field goal percentage, while Teague forced shooters to -3.8 percent their normal percentage.
The point being, even though the Pacers have shipped out and lost reliable defenders, their replacements are comparable in defensive aptitude, and in most cases, superior offensively.
Under McMillan, who has coached successful offensive teams in the past, the pace of Indiana's offense will be closely watched.
His best offensive team, the aforementioned 2008-09 Trail Blazers, played at the slowest pace in the league. That slow-it-down, grind-it-out style has fallen out of favor in the era of Warriors-style small ball attack, so it remains to be seen how McMillan can continue to grow Indiana offensively while implementing an offense that moves faster than his teams in the past.
There was a heavy emphasis on random, flow-of-offense attack last season, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see that philosophy carried on in the 2016-17 season. Paul George, who flashed resistance to playing power forward last year, seemed to be more open to the idea in his end-of-season interview with Pacers.com, stating: "Playing in the post definitely opened my eyes, it's an area that I wanted to be at all season long, but it just wasn't talked about in terms of with spacing and units that are out there. But I think that playing in the post is definitely the direction i want to go towards and figuring out how to be complete in that area."
With a roster loaded with versatile players both willing and capable to playing multiple positions, the Pacers have an opportunity to create a dynamic modern offense without sacrificing much on defense. How they will go about it, however, remains one of the most intriguing questions of the 2016-17 season.