The Indiana Pacers have big problems

The impression the first 19 games of the Indiana Pacers’ season have left on you likely depends on the expectations you had for them coming into the year.

A somewhat fashionable pick to jump into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, the Pacers are off to a 9-10 start to the season and sport the point differential of an 8-11 team, per Basketball-Reference, despite having played the fourth-easiest schedule in the NBA to date. They’ve been dreadful on the road, losing to the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers and getting blown out by the Chicago Bulls (17), Milwaukee Bucks (18), Charlotte Hornets (22), and the Portland Trail Blazers last night (22). Their seven double-digit losses are more than all but three teams and they’ve needed overtime for three of their nine victories.

Those expecting the team’s shift to a smaller, quicker lineup powered by Jeff Teague at the point, to lead to a goosed up offensive efficiency have been disappointed. Indiana is indeed playing faster (10th in possessions per game prior to Wednesday’s loss, per but that increased speed has not yielded increased efficiency (23rd in offensive rating). Thus far, the Pacers have been a league-average shooting team that almost never goes to the line (27th in free-throw rate) and rarely makes opponents pay on the glass after misses (22nd in offensive rebound rate).

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Paul George has picked up right where he left off, Myles Turner has taken a step forward, and the Pacers have gotten ace deep shooting from C.J. Miles and even Thaddeus Young; but Jeff Teague (shooting 41 percent from the field and 26 percent from three) has been a major disappointment as the engine that was supposed to power an improved offense and has failed to mesh with Monta Ellis–whose usage rate has plummeted to a career-low and whose effectiveness has been neutered–in any manner. Al Jefferson, who was supposed to dominate backup bigs in the post, instead ranks in just the 60th percentile among post scorers, per Synergy Sports, and on only 3.4 such plays per game.

Possessions can turn into dribble-fests as George or Teague or Ellis maneuvers at the top of the key, waiting for an opening that never comes. Everything looks smoother when Indiana puts one of them in a pick and pop with Turner, as they did repeatedly in beating the Clippers–without George–the other night. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a true big man that can hit consistently from the outside throws a crimp into every defense’s game plan. Turner is shooting an incredible 56.9 percent as the roll man, per Synergy, fourth-best among the 34 players taking at least two such shots per game. A healthy portion of those looks have been jumpers, and he’s knocked them down–he’s shooting 45.5 percent on catch-and-shoots so far this season. Stretching the defense by directly involving him in the action just makes everything cleaner for everyone else. Driving lanes are wider, the basket isn’t as well-protected, helpers have to worry about an additional threat.