The Pacers’ Starting Lineup Problem

The Indiana Pacers are stuck between a rock and a hard place with their choice of starting lineup.

Among players with at least 400 minutes played so far this season—in other words, high-minute-volume starters, of whom there are 98 in the NBA as of games of November 16—here are Indiana’s five guys ranked by True Shooting:

Bojan Bogdanovic (5th), Victor Oladipo (79th), Myles Turner (81st), Darren Collison (84th), Thaddeus Young (90th.)

And here, by on-court Net Rating, are the Pacers’ four highest-minutes reserves:

Cory Joseph (13.1), Domantas Sabonis (7.0), Doug McDermott (6.4), Tyreke Evans (5.6).

All four of those guys, incidentally, have positive on-off splits, meaning the Pacers are better with them on the court than off it.

And because of the way coach Nate McMillan uses that fifth spot as a sort of lineup wild card with a starter, the only two guys on the team who are net negatives in terms of Net Rating are Collison (-1.6 on-court, -13.5 on/off split) and Bogdanovic (2.9 on, -3.9 on/off split.)

So…well, OK, I think we’ve learned that Darren Collison sucks and maybe they should just trade him for a bag of used basketballs and some laundry detergent for Aaron Holiday‘s Hickory uniform.

But besides that, what else have we learned?

I think the biggest takeaway here is that it looks like the Pacers are giving away the game in the first quarter, as they have a bad habit of falling behind early, but there’s a method to Nate’s madness.

Oladipo turning into the new King in the Fourth like Isaiah Thomas was during the 2016-17 season with the Celtics seems to be by design; his usage rate rises throughout the game, the first quarter often seeing Vic score no points or just put in a basket or two as he feels out the defense.

And, of course, Pacers fans are downright spoiled by “OladiMVPo Mode” late in games.

But more importantly, we have a potential explanation for why Indiana always seems to pull off some crazy voodoo in the second quarter like the stretch against Miami where a 12-point deficit turned into a 12-point lead in a glorious run with the reserves in the game.

The Pacers are so deep that they have a plus-Net-Rating starting group (mostly) and still manage a plus-Net-Rating bench group, something that shouldn’t even be mathematically possible (but that’s just how awful Collison is; he skews the numbers that far.)

Domas looks like the Sixth Man of the Year, and the advanced stats seem to want the eye to believe that Cory Joseph is the team’s Lou Williams.

Reek can’t finish at the rim to save his life (he’s seventh-worst in the NBA from three feet and in among anyone with at least 25 attempts) but he’s hitting 41.7 percent of his threes after lighting up the Heat like a Christmas tree on Friday. Once Nate figures out how to use Reek, that’s only going to get better in terms of his shot selection and his True Shooting.

The point of all this is that, barring Collison getting shipped out of town for a starting point guard who’s not hot garbage, Indiana has this curious alchemy going where the starters look terrible in the first quarter but all the numbers seem to say what fans already know:

Having a bench unit this deep is the engine that drives a thousand comebacks.

I don’t know that Nate can make major changes to the lineup without risking collapsing that bench advantage. It’s not a bad problem to have, being solidly nine deep like that.