D.C. Council Opening Statements: Wizards at Pacers, Game 16
The Wizards, winners of five of the last six games, take on the NBA’s-bes Pacers a day after feasting on Thanksgiving vittles at Al Harrington’s mom’s house in Indiana. The Pacers are 14-1, have won five in a row, and are an undefeated 8-0 at home. If the Wizards win, they will be 8-8, the fifth time they will have had a .500 record since being 33-33 in mid-March 0f 2008.
Teams: Wizards at Pacers
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Radio: WFED-AM 1500/THE FAN-FM 106.7
Spread: Indiana fav’d by 10 points
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Q #1: Perusing the the numbers would indicate that the Pacers are one of the best, if not the best, defensive teams in the NBA (89.3 DefRtg, ranked 1st). Offensively, however, the Pacers are closer to middle of the pack (101.2 OffRtg, ranked 17th). Peeling back the layers, what are some of the specific weaknesses for the NBA’s best team and can those be overcome to do us all a favor by beating the Heat in the playoffs?
@TimDonahue8p9s: The Pacers offensive troubles have been caused at certain times by turnovers, and other times by poor shooting, but the consistent patterns revolve around personnel and timing. The success (or lack thereof) of the Pacers offense has been markedly worse (a) with fewer than three of their core starters on the floor and (b) in the first half (specifically the second quarter) of ballgames.
Indiana has played about two-thirds of their minutes this year with three or more of the George Hill / Lance Stephenson / Paul George / David West / Roy Hibbert lineup on the floor, scoring more than 106 points per 100 possessions. However, in the other 246 minutes, the Pacers have only managed a little under 91 points per 100. The bench has improved this season—the offense collapsed last year as soon as you took more than one starter off the floor—but they’re still learning how to work together.
At no time is that more apparent than in the second quarter this year. If you were to exclude the second quarter performances this year, the Pacers would be averaging more than 107 points per 100 (including almost 113 per 100 after halftime). However, it drops to 82 per 100 in second quarters. Of course, this represents the highest amount of time with two or fewer starters on the floor, and a lot of pressure is put on Lance Stephenson, who has a lot of growing to do. Lance has been asked to step up and lead the bench in second quarters, and he struggles with it. His shooting drops from over 50 percent in the other three quarters to 39 percent in the second, and his turnover rate jumps from just under 12 percent to 16 percent.
Of course, it’s important to remember that the Pacers have played the “easiest” schedule in the league this season, so it’s difficult to see how their strengths and weaknesses will manifest against a team like Miami. In a lot of ways, the Pacers offensive patterns indicate a team that has simply been better than every one they’ve faced, and the second quarter is part growing pains and part experimentation. Tactically, the most consistent defensive success against the Pacers will focus on pressuring the ball, making them use the shot clock, and keeping them off the offensive glass.
Q #2: Nov. 19 represented the ninth anniversary of “Malice at the Palace”—so you know people will be geared up to celebrate the diamond anniversary in about 12 months. Are you surprised at the position the franchise is in now? Who would you say is most responsible for such? And are the Pacers, in a small market, equipped to have at least a decade run as an Eastern Conference powerhouse?
@TimDonahue8p9s: Given how ugly it got at times during the years between the brawl and the lockout, I have to admit that this team is succeeding beyond my wildest dreams at this point. Even when they made the playoffs as an eight seed in 2011, you had to question what their upside was. But during that extended offseason, Larry Bird made three key moves that altered the trajectory of this franchise: trading for George Hill, giving Frank Vogel the head coaching job, and signing David West.
This Indiana organization has become about culture, and that culture is Larry Bird’s vision. During the preseason, I asked Bird how close this team was to the one he had in his mind’s eye back in 2008, when the “Three Year Plan” was announced. “Some of it was opportunity, no doubt,” Bird responded, “but with the additions we’ve made this summer, I think this could be the team that I was envisioning when this all started. All good guys. They all get along well. My point to them tonight will be to stick together and to do things necessary to win together, because not every night is going to be roses.”
At the absolute foundation of this cultural success are those three moves made in 2011. Coach Frank Vogel had turned around the 2010-11 season (Vogel took over after Jim O’Brien was fired with a 17-27 record) and was loved by the players, but he did struggle to control the locker room that year. After the first-round playoff loss to Chicago in 2011 (4-1), many expected Vogel to be handed the job. However, Bird insisted Vogel prove that he could recruit strong top assistants before he would sign him. Vogel did, bringing in Brian Shaw and Jim Boylan. Since, Vogel and his staff have become one of the most respected and successful units in the NBA.
At the draft that summer, Bird picked up a long-time target of his, George Hill. Besides Hill’s intelligence, athleticism, and shooting ability, Bird also coveted that “San Antonio stink.” The Legend knew that he had a locker room full of nice, but immature guys, and he wanted someone who had thrived within one of the finest organizations in this, or any, sport. Darren Collison was the incumbent starter at the point, but by the end of the 2011-12 season, the Pacers had clearly made George Hill their choice.
But the most important move made that offseason was signing David West. It was one of the most perfect moves—in terms of both on- and off-court needs—I’ve ever seen made. David West instantly became the rock of the franchise. Pacer G.M. Kevin Pritchard has since said, “David West is who the Pacers want to be.”
West is skilled, intelligent, physical, and dedicated. He, along with George Hill, brought a level of professionalism that did not exist in Indiana when they arrived.
Of course, the impressive improvement of Roy Hibbert defensively and Paul George in almost every aspect of the game have been vital to this Pacers team. Those guys deserve endless amounts of credit for the work they’ve put in to make themselves better. However, they owe a lot to the organization that Bird has built, and to the locker room culture that has been run by Vogel, West and Hill. George and Hibbert have benefited from a locker that provides safety and support, while demanding a team-first attitude and accountability. This is the type of environment that other young stars—like John Wall—rarely enjoy. That was created by the patience and long-term vision of Larry Bird.
The Pacers are positioned to be a contender for at least the next few years, but a decade is a long time. Also, there are some potential obstacles. The first is being able to re-sign Lance Stephenson next summer, as he’s rapidly inflating the size of the contract he will command. As a small market team, the luxury tax threshold is going to operate as de facto hard cap. They’ve only got about $7 million of space next year to sign Lance before some hard decisions have to be made. Longer term, they have to come up with a replacement for David West at the 4, and Roy Hibbert will be able to opt-out in the summer of 2015.
But those are down the road, and the Pacers are focused on now. The math gets depressing fast, but it seems foolish to waste this rare opportunity fretting about the future.
Q #3: After Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West, and Lance Stephenson, who’s the most indispensable member of the Pacers?
@TimDonahue8p9s: George Hill is wildly under-appreciated by a lot of segments, but he’s been incredibly important to the way this team works. Hill gets criticized for not being a point guard. Hill, himself, says he isn’t a point guard, but that doesn’t matter in this system. Coach Frank Vogel has acknowledged that many of his sets consider the 1-2-3 to be interchangeable. When Hill is “playing the point” for Indiana, the Pacers are scoring 103 points per 100 possessions while only allowing 86. Last season, Indiana posted an offensive efficiency of 105.1 in the regular season and 106.2 in the playoffs with Hill at the point, yet he is regularly identified as “the problem” within the Pacer offense.
When asked what people are missing when they overlook George Hill, Paul George said, “[Hill] does a great job of spreading the floor, being an extension of coach. His IQ for the game is a that C.P. (Chris Paul) level. He really gets it, and understands spacing and ball movement and where to be.”
Hill doesn’t “create” for other players, as is normally expected of a point guard. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not a floor general. Paul George continued, “He’s the one directing traffic … getting guys in the right spots. That’s what people miss—he’s not a point guard, but he fills that role for us. His IQ and knowledge of the game is up there.”
“A lot of times, [Hill] is just overlooked, in terms of his contribution … but he’s just a big play guy for us,” David West told me before the season. “He’ll make a key play … make a key steal, get his hand on key ball … grab a big rebound … call the right play, while we’re out there. Sometimes, that stuff doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. You have to be inside the game to see it. Ultimately, he holds his own at the toughest position in the league on a night-in, night-out basis.”
Larry Bird described Hill as a “2/1,” but wasn’t bothered by it. “I played with the same kind of individual in Boston, who did pretty well—Dennis Johnson,” Bird said. “He was not really a point guard, but he made things happen. You don’t have to be a pure point guard, getting 14 or 15 assists. [You need to be] a guy who steadies the group down, and really run the team as far as don’t let them get too far low, and don’t let them get too high.” Echoing a common sentiment, Bird finished, “You just gotta play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and George does a fantastic job of that.”
Hill is a guy who, unfortunately, often gets judged on what he isn’t, as opposed to what he is, and that makes a lot of people miss his importance to the rejuvenation of this franchise.
Q #4: What (or who) has been working?
@Truth_About_It: The Wizards have won five of six games, so what has worked? Well, aside from John Wall being on the court, not much. Actually, I take that back. Let’s not lose the fact that Wall finally has competent help on the court. Plus/minus leaders (and minutes) over the last six games for Washington:
- Marcin Gortat: plus-76 (206 minutes, 6 games)
- Martell Webster: plus-71 (246 minutes, 6 games)
- John Wall: plus-60 (234 minutes, 6 games)
- Nene: plus-29 (216 minutes, 6 games)
- Trevor Ariza: plus-12 (74 minutes, 2 games)
- Bradley Beal: plus-10 (162 minutes, 4 games)
And now the bad news: No one else who has seen signifiant minutes is in the positive of plus/minus. But somehow, Randy Wittman has been able to turn to three players who consistently avoid completely blowing it for the Wizards, but have otherwise been quite terrible and are a losing proposition when they simply step on the court:
- Garrett Temple: minus-39 (117 minutes, 6 games)
- Jan Vesely: minus-38 (116 minutes, 6 games)
- Eric Maynor: minus-37 (55 minutes, 6 games)
One non-John Wall five-man unit which has seen five or more minutes together over the last six games has gotten the job done. Eric Maynor, Garrett Temple, Martell Webster, Jan Vesely, and Marcin Gortat are plus-1 in 10 minutes together over three games.
So what’s the key in Indiana aside from John Wall? Nene, definitely. Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza, of course. Marcin Gortat, more than the others. Gortat struggled against Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors. But in the following three games, all wins, he was able to handle himself against the Tyson Chandler-less Knicks (Andrea Bargnani and Kenyon Martin), an aging Pau Gasol (and not much else on the Lakers), and, man, he out-talented Zaza Pachulia (and a Milwaukee team without Larry Sanders).
Roy Hibbert, however, will be a different story. Gortat is 7-2 all-time versus Hibbert, and their head-to-head stats (via Basketball-Reference), in consideration of Hibbert averaging more minutes, are closer than one would expect. But this is a new day and a new game. Gortat has been hot lately, but to stand a chance, the Wizards need him to be hotter than ever.
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