Last season was the best of Darren Collison’s career. This year, however, has started off as the worst for the Indiana Pacers starting point guard.
“I want to be there for my teammates,” said Collison, who is averaging career lows in points (8.9), 3-point percentage (32%) and free-throw percentage (69%), after Thursday’s loss to the Spurs, “and right now I haven’t been there for them. Just a tough stretch. I just don’t feel a rhythm at all. Last year, I had more of a feel for the game.”
Collison, who led the entire league in 3-point percentage in 2017-18, has scored five or fewer points in six of the team’s first 19 games including two scoreless outings in the team’s first 12 games. He’s only scored in double figures eight times thus far.
“Nate spoke to me about being more aggressive and getting back to myself. I’ve just been overthinking the first 10, 11 games or so,” Collison said after bouncing back from his second scoreless outing according to the Indy Star. “Sometimes you try to do the right thing and you get away from your game.”
Meanwhile, the other two point guards on the roster have played well to start the season. Cory Joseph has quietly been one of the team’s most important players, and first-round pick Aaron Holiday is making the most of his first opportunity for real playing time with Victor Oladipo out with knee soreness.
It’s not hard to make a case that Joseph should be the starter over Collison right now. With Joseph on the floor, the Pacers net rating is 9.9 (best among regular rotation players). With him off the floor, their net rating is -5.7.
Collison’s net rating is -2.9 (the team’s worst among rotation players), and the team has a net rating of 10.2 when he’s not playing.
As Caitlin Cooper of Indy Cornrows noted recently in her excellent Cream of the Crop series, just about every rotation player has a better net rating with Joseph on the floor with them than when he’s not and the little things Joseph does add up to a big difference for the Pacers.
This isn’t the first time it’s looked like there’s a potential better option as the starting point guard for a Darren Collison team in his career. This isn’t even the first time that it’s happened with the Pacers.
In his first stint with Indiana, Collison was immediately the team’s starter in his second NBA season after the Pacers acquired him in a trade and they made the playoffs as the 8th seed and lost in the first-round to the Chicago Bulls.
The next off-season, the Pacers acquired George Hill in a draft-day deal with the San Antonio Spurs and after Collison missed a stretch of six games with a sore groin near the end of the season and the Pacers went 6-0 without him, he was relegated to the second unit.
“I kept a close eye on it all year,” Frank Vogel said at the time of the switch. “Darren played a terrific brand of basketball all year, and quite frankly, without the injury, I probably wouldn’t have made the change. But like I said to Darren, I thought we were playing at a 7 1/2 or 8, which is very good for our ballclub. I wasn’t going to make a change when were playing at that level. With him coming out and George coming in, I thought we were playing at a level 9.”
The difference with this season is the Pacers aren’t playing well with Collison like they were in the past scenario. If the decision is made, it doesn’t seem like it’ll take an injury to make that call this time around.
Collison spent just two seasons with the team in his first go-round with the Pacers as they traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in a sign-and-trade deal for Ian Mahinmi after the season when he was benched. With his current contract having just this season remaining combined with his age and poor start, his second stint with the Pacers may only last two years as well.
He’s never spent more than three consecutive seasons with a single team as eventually teams always seem to go in another direction at his position. He’s played for five teams in his 10 NBA seasons.
If the Pacers are going to choose to try and keep one of their veteran point guards, Joseph is the most likely candidate with him being four years younger and playing much better. And the Pacers have their possible point guard of the future in Holiday, who needs minutes to keep developing and has a net rating of 9.7 in his limited time so far. The writing may be on the wall already for Collison.
“I think that kid has earned the right to be out on the floor,” McMillan said after Holiday’s initial playing time. “He’s waited. He’s been patient.”
While it’s unlikely that the Pacers will look to put Collison at the end of the bench and no longer play him at all at any point this season, they could potentially look to trade him to give Holiday a clearer path to playing time once Oladipo comes back. Though with his poor play, his value on the trade market probably won’t get Kevin Pritchard too excited about possible deals, and the Pacers may be hesitant to give full-time backup point guard duties to a rookie.
It’s also highly probable given the much larger sample size of the first nine years of his career that Collison doesn’t continue to play this poorly for the remainder of the season, but the longer it takes for him to find a rhythm, the harder it will be for McMillan to keep starting him.
“It’s just a rhythm thing. I’ve always been a rhythm player,” Collison said after the Spurs game. “… All I need is one good stretch and I’ll be fine. Just stay positive, keep your head up and stay in the gym.”
The good news is that Joseph isn’t the type of guy to grow restless at his role of being the backup and you can see the pair of guards have a good relationship with each other which could make any potential changes or non-changes while Collison fights through his struggles easier for the team to deal with without potential chemistry issues. This interview after Collison returned from injury last season while Joseph was starting speaks to this dynamic: