The Indiana Pacers Can’t Beat Good Teams

You know that sinking feeling you get as a sports fan when you watch your team face an opponent in a “second-round playoff preview” in the middle of the regular season and, as the game goes on and the other team handily disposes of your beloved squad, that sinking feeling forms in your soul that “oh gods, we aren’t very good, are we?”

Yeah, that’s how I felt about the Indiana Pacers’ losses to the Milwaukee Bucks (130-110) and Utah Jazz (103-95) over the past week, with the gut-punch 114-113 loss to a New Orleans Pelicans team that is not actually all that good (they’re 10-12 and stand 12th in the West) a piece of gristly, rotting meat in the middle of that nasty sandwich.

The Pacers’ 12 losses are to teams with a combined record of 162-124 through games of February 8. Six of those 12 losses are to teams that if the season ended today would host Game 1 of a first-round playoff series; three are to top-two seeds (Philly, Milwaukee, and Utah.)

The Pacers’ 12 wins are against teams with a combined record of 128-150. Only three teams Indiana has beaten (Boston, Portland, and Golden State) are at or above .500; the other nine wins, including four teams they’ve also lost to, are against teams with losing records.

Overall, they’re 2-7 against teams with winning records (Golden State is 12-12 through Monday.) They’re 1-0 against teams exactly at the dead-even mark. And they’re a not-great 9-5 against teams on the wrong side of a 36-36 pace.

And, of course, the Pacers themselves have exactly as many wins as losses, holding the 5 seed if the season ended today only because the East is such a garbage fire (Golden State is ninth in the West with the same record.)

All this speaks to a team that simply isn’t very good, and one look at the nine-man rotation Nate Bjorkgren trotted out in that loss to the Jazz reminds the observer of nothing so much as a baseball team with two good starting pitchers and “pray for rain.”

Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis are, of course, those two ace starting pitchers. Brogdon’s .122 WS/48 and 3.08 VORP/82 speak for themselves if the 21.7 points per game didn’t already make their own statement.

Sabonis is similarly stellar, with .143 WS/48, 3.42 VORP/82, and 21.0 points per contest.

Too bad the rest of the starting lineup is the perpetual offensive disappointment that is Myles Turner to go along with guys—Justin Holiday and Jeremy Lamb—who make great seventh men but if they’re in your starting lineup, the next question out of your mouth becomes “who got hurt?”

T.J. Warren got hurt. Victor Oladipo got traded for a bag of peanuts and a broken Caris LeVert. The effect on Indiana’s depth has been borderline lethal, and it means nobody can score whenever someone other than Brogdon or Sabonis is called upon to do so.

And the bench? Hoo boy.

Doug McDermott is a fine role player, providing shooting off the bench…or he was that, until he forgot how to shoot and now puts up a merely-adequate 36.1 percent accuracy from long range, well off the 40 percent you really expect from the kind of bench scorer who fills McDermott’s role (McDermott himself is a career 40.8 percent 3-point shooter, illustrating just what a catastrophic dropoff he’s had this year.)

T.J. McConnell can’t shoot for beans from further than 10 feet out from the basket; he’s not even trying to become a modern shooting point guard, posting a hideous .495 eFG% despite a nominal 48 percent shooting accuracy overall; that’s what a .112 3PAR and 27.3 percent 3-point shooting will do to reveal a fraudulent FG%.

On the upside, McConnell’s a capable defender, but when you’re giving the other team a 5-on-4 for their own defense, that’s faint comfort.

Goga Bitadze looks a lot better than he did as a rookie, but he’s still a zero-VORP guy who can’t be trusted with heavy rotation minutes because when he plays against competent centers, they eat his lunch and stick around for dessert.

And Aaron Holiday…ick. He’s actually managed to post negative Win Shares in 481 minutes, playing 20.0 minutes per game and stinking out the joint so completely that he is, when he’s out there, the best player on the other team (as Kevin Pritchard infamously quipped about Lance Stephenson.)

Not negative VORP. Negative WS. As in minus-0.028 WS/48, a stat that suggests that over a 72-game season, replacing him with even a minimally competent NBA rotation bench guard, say, one who manages something in the .080 WS/48 range, would net the Pacers an extra four wins or so over those 72 games.

Once you’re getting rotation minutes with negative Win Shares, that’s the kind of awful that “worst player in the league” epithets are made of.

Holiday is complete garbage. Probably untradable, since he’s shooting just 35 percent from the field, posting a horrendous .421 eFG% (fourth-worst in the league ahead of Draymond Green, Ricky Rubio, and Gary Clark among players with at least 400 minutes this season), and isn’t even worth the roughly $6.3 million he’s due before hitting restricted free agency in the summer of 2022.

The Pacers were fools to pick up the team option on his fourth year. Now they’re stuck with him because the team doesn’t have enough depth to give someone—anyone—those minutes that Holiday is out there sucking like a Dyson vacuum cleaner with a Tim “The Toolman” Taylor power upgrade.

Indiana has two very good players. It has one debatably good but ultimately infuriating player (Turner, who as good a defender as he is, can’t rebound for beans and seems downright scared to do anything on offense.) And it has the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

That 2-7 record against over-.500 teams isn’t a fluke, it isn’t an aberration, it is a simple statement of fact in statistical form that the Pacers cannot beat any team better than they are.

Which means this team will limp to a roughly .500 finish, lose in the playoffs, and frankly you can’t blame the coach. This roster is steaming hot mediocrity hell, and Kevin Pritchard has one hell of an offseason ahead of him in the summer of 2021 trying to turn the Pacers into a decent team once again.