It was a case of the cure being as bad as the disease. The Pacers labored through the 2009 offseason to make themselves a better defensive team, and on that level their season was a success -- Indy moved up from 19th to 15th in defensive efficiency despite several injuries to key defenders in the frontcourt.
Offensively, however, they tanked, and the two phenomena were related. In free agency, Indiana had invested in defenders with limited offensive games, such as Earl Watson and Dahntay Jones, and drafted Tyler Hansbrough to shore up the frontcourt rather than nabbing one of the several productive point guards from last season's rookie class.
HOLLINGER'S '09-10 STATS
W-L: 32-50 (Pythagorean W-L: 31-51)
Offensive efficiency: 101.3 (26th)
Defensive efficiency: 104.2 (15th)
Pace factor: 99.4 (2nd)
Highest PER: Danny Granger (19.85)
Things might have worked out better if Danny Granger hadn't missed 20 games, or if T.J. Ford hadn't gone off the rails (again), or if Mike Dunleavy had made a more robust comeback from his knee troubles. But none of those things happened, and the net result was a Pacers offense in shambles.
Indiana plummeted to 26th in offensive efficiency after finishing in the middle of the pack a year earlier, a performance that directly led the Pacers to once again fall just shy of the playoffs. That continues a frustrating trend of near misses: In the past three seasons they've finished ninth, ninth, and 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Despite their scoring woes, the Pacers played very fast. In fact, they operated as a mini-Golden State in several respects, finishing either second from the top or second from the bottom in several categories in which the Warriors represented the extreme.
Most obviously, the Pacers played the league's second-fastest pace, which isn't necessarily what you'd expect from a team that started plodders Roy Hibbert and Troy Murphy in the frontcourt.
Considering the production of that duo, another unexpected issue was the Pacers' lousy performance on the offensive glass. Golden State was the league's worst offensive rebounding team, but the Pacers pushed them for the honor, grabbing only 21.6 percent of their misses.
Off. Rebound Rate: 2009-10's Worst
Team Off. reb. rate
Golden State 20.9
New York 23.5
NBA average 26.3
There were a lot of misses to grab, too: The Pacers landed 28th in field goal percentage at 44.3 percent. This was partly due to their preference for shooting 3s. Indiana ranked third in the league in 3-point attempts per field goal attempt but made only 34.8 percent of them; alas, this was still a better proposition than their 24th-ranked mark on 2-pointers (47.9 percent).
The Pacers' other problem was a shot distribution that was far too democratic given the limited number of talented offensive players. Granger led the team in usage rate, as one would expect, but how could Jones and Luther Head have more touches per minute than Murphy? The sharing spirit extended everywhere except to puzzling second-year pro Brandon Rush, who finished last in usage rate despite appearing more skilled than several of his more assertive teammates. Somehow he led the team in minutes despite a 9.61 player efficiency rating.
There was good news if you looked hard enough for it -- Hibbert emerged as a solid post scorer, and second-round pick A.J. Price looks like a keeper -- but in the big picture, Indy's offensive performance was a crushing disappointment.
At the other end, the Pacers generated the league's fifth-best defense against 2-point field goals (47.6 percent), but that was the only thing they did well. In particular, they fouled with abandon. Indiana's .341 opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt ranked 27th. (Golden State was 26th, natch.) All the frontcourt players except Murphy had monumental foul rates, with Hibbert's high rate being particularly vexing because it often took his scoring off the floor. On the perimeter, Jones also fouled far too often, leading to his ceding the defensive stopper role to Rush.
Indiana's other big weakness was defensive rebounding. Although the Pacers weren't as bad as they were on the offensive glass, they ranked only 22nd at 73 percent. Combined with the poor offensive rebounding numbers, Indiana's 47.1 rebound rate ranked 29th in the NBA. Only Golden State, of course, was worse.
This makes the offseason trade of Murphy a particular concern. He led the team in defensive rebound rate by a wide margin, nearly doubling the stat of the next-closest rotation player. Indiana has to hope Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts can ramp up their rebounding numbers enough to offset Murphy's departure; otherwise, the Pacers will face a deluge of second shots.
However, the Pacers' biggest problem is a structural one: The organization finds itself handcuffed as it tries to repair the roster, because the team is near the luxury-tax limit and doesn't have the financial wherewithal to go beyond it. Indiana has spent the past two seasons playing a waiting game, signing second-tier players to inexpensive, short-term contracts until it slips under the cap in 2011 and can undertake more aggressive measures. Watson worked out halfway decently; Dahntay Jones, Solomon Jones and Luther Head did not.
The team's only playable card, Murphy's expiring contract, has already been used (see below). Indiana is desperate to move T.J. Ford's $8.5 million expiring deal as well, but it faces slim odds of getting anything of value out of it. Should Dunleavy's knee prove to be at full strength, he'll represent the only other marketable commodity who isn't in the team's long-term plans.
Suffice it to say it was a fairly quiet summer in the Corn Belt. The entire management team -- president Larry Bird, general manager David Morway and coach Jim O'Brien -- are on the final years of their contracts, which could create some activity late in the season if the Pacers' lottery streak looks headed toward five. For now, it's all quiet on this front.
They drafted Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Magnum Rolle. I really like the George pick, as I think he was one of the draft's more underrated players and should thrive in the Pacers' space-it-and-shoot-it system. I understand the concern that he's a bit redundant with Granger, but each is big enough that both can play at the same time against many opponents. I suspect that pairing will be much more troublesome for opponents to guard than the other way around.
Stephenson was a defensible pick basketball-wise and a god-awful one PR-wise. Indiana had just finished fumigating its roster of all the players with rap sheets, an important consideration in the straitlaced Hoosier State, but Stephenson had considerable baggage in college and was arrested during the summer for domestic violence. He already had signed a contract by that point, but it's possible Indy will cut its losses and tell him to stay away, as it did with Jamaal Tinsley two years ago.
Rolle doesn't have a contract but will be at training camp, and given that he's a 6-foot-11 power forward and the team desperately needs help at the 4, he probably will make the squad.
Let Earl Watson go. Traded Troy Murphy to New Jersey, received Darren Collison and James Posey from New Orleans in four-team deal. Price's development made Watson expendable as the backup point guard, while Indiana gave itself a major upgrade in the starting group by getting Collison from New Orleans for Murphy.
Effectively, Collison is the first free agent Indiana acquired with its upcoming 2011 cap space; it just made the move a year early. New Orleans stuck the Pacers with Posey's toxic contract, taking $7 million in 2011 cap room, and that's why they were willing to cut the deal for such a promising young player.
Collison has a bit of T.J. Ford in his game -- a small, shoot-first speedster -- but he's also a good defensive player. Although he's not a high-assist player, he's much more in tune than Ford with the general idea that the other four guys should get the ball once in a while.
That makes this deal a win for the Pacers long term, but in 2010-11 it may not pay great dividends -- Indiana had to open a giant hole at power forward to close the one at point guard. Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts will get first crack at closing it.
Biggest Strength: "First shot" defense
I have little faith in Indiana's ability to retrieve the ball when it forces a miss, but the Pacers should be able to force quite a few misses. The Pacers were pretty good in this respect a year ago, ranking fifth in 2-point field goal defense, and all the indicators are that they'll be better this time around.
For starters, the addition of Collison is a major plus. Although he's very small, he's also a good defender with great fundamentals, and his ability to stop the ball at the point of attack should make life easier for the Pacers' frontcourt. Of course, the departed Watson also was good in this respect, but Ford wasn't and played a big chunk of Indiana's point guard minutes last season.
On the wing, both Rush and Jones are solid defenders, and while Dunleavy isn't great one-on-one, he's an excellent team defender. Granger is a decent defensive player, too, and George's length should make him somewhat competent while he cuts his teeth as a rookie.
Up front, however, is where the greatest upgrade is likely. Murphy was a great rebounder, but didn't do diddly before the ball went up. Hansbrough, presuming he can overcome a baffling inner-ear infection, is a far more active defensive player and will be considerably better against pick-and-rolls. Even Granger and McRoberts are likely to be upgrades.
At center, Hibbert is learning how to use his size to affect shots in the paint, and his sharp drop in fouls last season was a good omen. Additionally, anything the Pacers get from Foster -- a very good defensive player when healthy -- will be a huge improvement on the zilch Solomon Jones gave them a season ago.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding
There's no way to sugarcoat this -- the Pacers are going to get absolutely pounded on the glass. Even if Hansbrough turns out to be a monster, they'll linger among the league's bottom two or three teams in rebound rate; if he does anything short of that, they'll challenge Phoenix for dead last.
Pacers' rebound rates, 2009-10
Player Reb. rate
S. Jones 11.6
*Played for New Orleans
The chart shows the math: Last season Murphy was far and away the team's best rebounder, and he isn't around anymore. Hansbrough and McRoberts, the two probable replacements, grab about 4 percent fewer rebounds between them. That's a large difference, but it becomes a staggering gap if the Pacers go small and use somebody like Posey or Granger as the power forward.
Murphy played nearly 60 percent of the Pacers' minutes last season; the resulting decline in the team's rebound rate would be on the order of 2½ percent if all his minutes went to Hansbrough/McRoberts, and considerably more if they went to smaller players.
Indiana's 71.4 rebound rate a year ago was 29th in the league; Golden State, at 68.0, was the worst rebounding team in history last season. Take off 2½ percent to 3 percent based on the Murphy calculation above, and my back-of-the-envelope numbers project Indy's rebound rate to land between 68.5 and 69.0, depending on how often the Pacers play small. That wouldn't quite make them the worst rebounding team in history, but it would almost certainly make them the worst in the league.
The one possible antidote would be a return to health from Foster. He missed nearly all of last season to undergo back surgery and has been plagued by health problems for the past several years, but when he plays he's a freak on the glass. Just 15-20 minutes a night from him as a backup center would provide considerable improvement.
Stop me if you've heard this before. The Pacers, with one star player (Granger), one second-tier star (Collison this time, replacing Murphy and Dunleavy from past seasons) and a bunch of half-good players will be good enough to compete for a playoff spot … but not good enough to actually earn one.
The upgrade at point guard should be roughly offset by a decline in production at power forward -- I talked a lot about Murphy's rebounding, but he's also a whale of an outside shooter, so the trade may not improve the Pacers' offense much. Meanwhile, the general mediocrity of the supporting crew should mostly offset the offensive output of the Collison-Granger-Hibbert core.
The bar for making the playoffs in the East hasn't been set real high, so with a comeback season by Foster and good health from the others, Indy may squeeze through. That's especially true if the Pacers cash in their expiring contracts early to try to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline. More likely, however, they'll end up in an all-too-familiar position for the fifth straight season.
Prediction: 34-48, 3rd in Central Division, 9th in Eastern Conference