The Indiana Pacers season died today after being swept by the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The sweep was the first in the franchise’s history in a 7-game series. Here’s the autopsy on what caused the Pacers demise in 2016-2017.
Patient: 2016-2017 Indiana Pacers
Cause(s) of Death:
- Larry Bird
- Nate McMillan
- Thaddeus Young’s wrist
- LeBron James
Summary of examination:
No better place to start than the top for why the Pacers season died. While Bird did well to add Thaddeus Young for the 20th pick in a weak draft class and the trade for Jeff Teague seems like it’ll work out for the Pacers as long as he re-signs this summer, the team’s various puzzle pieces just never fit together. The team was built with multiple ball-dominant, undersized guards with Teague joining Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey on the roster. Ellis and Stuckey make the fit worse by being woeful shooters from the outside. And because Bird thought he didn’t have enough of these ball dominant, undersized guards, he also added Aaron Brooks.
Al Jefferson was added after Bird couldn’t afford to spend the $16 million per year on Ian Mahinmi that he received from the Washington Wizards, but he was only effective on offense when surrounded by shooters which the Pacers were in desperate need of all season long, instead eating up Jefferson’s real estate to work in the post most of the season were Lavoy Allen or Kevin Seraphin. Jefferson also looked disinterested in anything resembling defense all season, adding to the team’s woes in that area.
By the end of the season, Bird has spent $27 million of the team’s salary cap on three players that gave the Pacers nothing in the playoff series against the Cavaliers. Stuckey was injured and released late in the season, Jefferson never saw a minute of playing time in the series, and I wish we saw that little of Ellis. Even as his playing time shrank to just five minutes played in game four, the Pacers were outscored by seven points in that stretch. They lost the game by four. This was Monta’s biggest highlight of the series.
Ellis and Jefferson still have multiple years left on their contracts though the Pacers can rid themselves of Ellis’s player option for the final season by waiving him before the end of the next season like they did with Stuckey this year. Bird’s spent a lot of precious cap space on players that have made the Pacers worse. The Pacers were outscored by 2 points per 100 possessions with Ellis on the court per NBA Wowy, despite spending much of that time with the starters (CJ Miles with the starters meanwhile was the 5th-best lineup in the NBA that played over 400 minutes together). The Pacers were outscored by 6 points per 100 possessions when Al Jefferson was on the court, and 3 points per 100 possessions with Stuckey. None of these players added anything on the defensive end either besides Ellis’s penchant for guessing correctly to get a steal or two per game.
Bird’s poor roster construction the last two seasons has wasted two years of Paul George’s prime at the worst possible time as his contract comes another year closer to being up before George can hit free agency after next season.
All these additions led to a roster that had a nasty problem of both too little shooting and too little defense. After years of being in the upper echelon of team defense, the team struggled all season long to be consistent on that end of the court after losing George Hill, Ian Mahinmi, Solomon Hill and Frank Vogel, despite Bird’s confidence that assistant coach Dan Burke would take care of that end.
Bird allowed Vogel’s contract to expire (article had previously said Vogel was fired, but his contract simply wasn’t renewed) after the Pacers lost in the first round to the Raptors in seven games while saying that he wants a “new voice” in the locker room and for the team to play faster. Vogel led the teams to the playoffs every year except for one: the year Paul George recovered from his broken leg. They were one win away from getting the final playoff spot that season. Meanwhile, Bird quickly decided without interviewing any other candidates that his “new voice” to get the team to play faster was a coach that had been with the Pacers the previous three seasons and was notorious for his ultra slow-paced, but efficient offenses at Portland, Nate McMillan, which brings us to the next cause of death.
McMillan in his first year as head coach for the Pacers was dealt a flawed roster from the start (see above) but did little to find ways to put some of these mismatched pieces in a position to succeed. Bird wanted the team to play faster on offense, but they were only 18th in pace this season. Most perplexing of all was McMillan’s decision to start Ellis for 33 games of the season and then two more in the playoffs, even though it was obvious as soon as Teague was acquired that Ellis and Teague would never fit together. Pacers were outscored by nearly eight points per game when Teague and Ellis shared the court in the playoffs. Even after realizing that finally pulling the plug on starting Ellis after the first two games against the Cavaliers, McMillan somehow decided that he should attempt to finish the game with Ellis as he played six minutes in the fourth quarter of game three during the Pacers historic collapse.
Meanwhile, the Pacers starting lineup with either Glenn Robinson III (+6 per 100 possessions) or CJ Miles (+7.7 points per 100 possessions) was one of the better 5-man lineups in the league. When Robinson got hurt, McMillan made the mistake of making the starters worse for the sake of the fit of the bench by going back to Ellis over Miles. It didn’t hurt the Pacers in the regular season as they ended the season with five straight wins, but we saw the effects of it in the playoffs.
He chose to bog down bench lineups with double plodders (pairing Jefferson and Allen or Jefferson and Seraphin or Allen and Seraphin) for much of the season while never giving Georges Niang an opportunity to play as a power forward to see if he could help the spacing issues and stay with a stretch big better than the other bigs that came off the bench. Driving players like Stuckey and Ellis could never find any space in the lane and spent a lot of time bricking jump shots from the outside and Jefferson was short on room to operate from the post in the paint.
The Pacers were very much a team that was living in the past under McMillan with a general a lack of awareness of the 3-point line. The Pacers were tied with the 4th-best 3-point shooting team in the league by percentage at 37.6%, but were a lowly 27th in the league in attempts per game. On the other end of the court, the Pacers gave up the 5th-most 3-point attempts and were 13th in the league in opponent’s shooting percentage from long range (35.5%).
Another of the more puzzling moves from McMillan was his coaching of second-year player Myles Turner. Turner’s usage percentage mysteriously dropped after the All-Star break from 21% to just 16% with McMillan on record of saying that he wanted Turner to not shoot it every time and “distribute more,” but this made Turner hesitant to shoot when opportunities were there as he was stuck thinking too much instead of just playing with instinct. A finger injury in March didn’t help, but the drop in usage started before the injury. Turner got better as a passer throughout the season, but that’s a waste of Turner’s talents when he’s passing out to players like Ellis in the corner. Turner was called the Pacers best shooter and potentially the best Pacers player ever down the line at different times by Bird in the last two years, but Turner went from being the 2nd or 3rd offensive option to only the 4th or 5th for reasons unknown. Turner still has plenty of room to grow by adding strength and gaining more of a low-post game, but there’s no reason that his jump shot shouldn’t have been utilized more in the offense this year.
Too often this team seemed undisciplined and unorganized on defense, and at some point, the team’s inconsistency of play from one night to another comes down to the coach as well, which brings up the next cause of death.
The Pacers at home this season were one of the best teams in the league with a record of 29-12 that was tied for 7th-best in the league, but on the road, the Pacers record of 13-28 was the 8th-worst in the league. The road woes came even against the bottom-feeders of the league as the Pacers lost to the following non-playoff teams on the road: Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks (twice), Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets (twice) and Miami Heat (twice).
All of these bad losses become even more frustrating when just one more win this season would have avoided the first-round matchup against LeBron James, and the Pacers had a much better shot of challenging the Toronto Raptors or any other team in the East than James and the Cavaliers. By winning only two of these 11 games, the Pacers would have been the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers effort on defense came and went all year. Scott Agness reported after today’s game that the general feeling was that they were “horrendous” on defense all season and that communication was the biggest thing that they lacked.
Some of this inconsistency from early in the season can be blamed on a lack of familiarity with each other as the team was overhauled from the previous season, but they never seemed to find much chemistry until Lance Stephenson arrived on the scene.
Thaddeus Young’s Wrist
Thad Young showed how important he was to the Pacers when he suffered his wrist injury and missed eight games. The Pacers would the first two, but then lost the next six going into the All-Star break. Young came back after the All-Star break and still helped the Pacers with his hustle, effort and array of lefty floaters in the lane, but his wrist was clearly still injured and his improved shooting stroke from outside was unable to make a return in the second half of the season. For a stretch early in his return, he struggled to even catch passes from his teammates.
Young shot 39.6% from 3-point range on 111 attempts before the All-Star break and only 14% after on just seven attempts. Young was unable to even consider shooting from the outside as his wrist recovered. The Pacers were 27-22 before Young’s injury and 15-18 after the injury.
James delivered the final death blow to the Pacers season by being the best player in the world throughout the first-round series. Every time Paul George had an amazing game in the series, James answered. James averaged 32.8 points, 9.0 assists, 9.8 rebounds and 3 steals per game and was the catalyst to the Pacers historic collapse in game three as he was unstoppable while surrounded by four shooters in that fourth quarter and the Pacers had no answer for the lineup. The Pacers could have avoided facing James by taking care of business in the regular season though as talked about above.
Drugs in system at time of death
Abnormal levels of hype and adrenaline
Lance Stephenson, Born Ready, briefly brought this team back from the dead when it looked like the team would fail to make the playoffs as they went 5-1 after he was signed to a 3-year, $12-million deal after Stuckey suffered a season-ending injury. His energy and passion was infectious for the Pacers as the team finally were consistently showing up night after night with their season on the line. The Pacers outscored opponents by 10 points per game with Stephenson on the court in the regular season and look like they have a steal at just $4 million for next season.