When you have a young, athletic team with lots of horses who can cause a turnover, run a fast break, finish strong, and get back on defense, it behooves you to play an up-tempo style to take maximum advantage of those strengths.
Indeed, Golden State’s been among the fastest teams in the league during their four-year run of three Finals, two titles, and a likely fourth straight Finals appearance this year under coach Steve Kerr; since 2014-15, the Warriors have been 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 2nd in the league in pace.
Likewise, now that they have Chris Paul and James Harden running the backcourt and a quick, transition-3-based-offense, the Rockets are 8th in the league in pace; last year, their first under Mike D’Antoni‘s offense, Houston ranked 3rd.
Even a bad team can, if it’s got the players to run it, run a fast offense; the Brooklyn Nets (1st in pace last year, 6th this year) may be terrible, but that’s because nobody on that team can make a shot to save their lives or play a lick of defense, not because coach Kenny Atkinson doesn’t have a basically fundamentally sound modern offense; Brooklyn is the answer to “what if you put G-League players on the Rockets then made them play an NBA schedule?”
Then there’s Indiana.
They’ve got a young, fast, athletic team, with Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, a came-out-of-nowhere Joe Young, and the inimitable Lance Stephenson. This is a team that was put on this earth to rip off big runs before the opposing coach can pick his jaw up off the floor for long enough to yell timeout at the referee.
The Pacers are 7th in offensive rating, and in raw point terms, they’re putting up a fantastic 106.8 a game.
Yet they’re 18th in pace. Because their coach is a snail.
McMillan, in his entire career as a coach in Seattle and Portland, spanning 12 seasons between 2001 and 2012, never cracked 90 possessions per 48 minutes in any full season he coached.
His 86.6 pace with the 2009 Blazers was so slow that it ranks as one of the slowest-paced seasons of all time; only the dreadful mid-90s Cavaliers, who played at a pace barely faster than just committing a 24-second violation on every possession under Mike Fratello, were slower (Cleveland’s 82.3 pace in 1995-96 is the slowest season ever, a year where the average Cavs game ended 91-88. Good thing Cleveland had the 10th-best Offensive Rating that year or they’d have been hard pressed to crack 80.)
Indiana has been 18th in the league both years under McMillan; last year, it was because of a directive on high from Larry Bird to “play faster”, which was curious insofar as the Pacers were actually faster in 2015-16 under Frank Vogel in his final season (and ranked 11th in pace.)
It is fun to watch these Pacers because they play with so much energy and enjoy the game so much, but when you look at the numbers, the biggest thing that jumps out is just how much more these guys could do if they took those bursts of energy, those magical runs like the run in the third quarter against the Knicks on Sunday that opened up a 20-point lead after leading by just six at halftime, and made them a bigger part of their overall game.
This is a positive net rating team; the simple laws of probability suggest that the more you do something that has an outcome in your favor, the more likely it becomes that the collection of outcomes (in this case possessions in a basketball game) will have a positive margin (i.e. you win the game.)
McMillan doesn’t get that, and in what is now 14 years as an NBA head coach, he has drawn up slow, plodding offensive schemes that, while they have produced positive results offensively (both these Pacers and his Sonics and Blazers teams had efficient offenses), have both lacked defensively (Indiana is 19th in Defensive Rating this year and they were 16th last year after being staples in the top 5 under Vogel) and failed to capitalize on the very element that would make winning more likely.
It’s hard to call for a coach’s head on an overachieving team like the Pacers, who at 32-25 as of this writing have already exceeded the win total most pundits (including Pace and Space) figured them to be good for this year; the consensus was 30-52.
But Nate McMillan wasn’t the right guy to coach this team when he was hired. And with his snail’s philosophy on a thoroughbred roster, he’s still not the right coach.
But short of a collapse out of the playoffs entirely, there’s just not going to be enough of a push among fans to force Kevin Pritchard‘s hand, and that’s going to cost the Pacers as time goes on.
If the right coach comes along this offseason, it might just be time to make a move.