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NBA PM: Chemistry Concerns For the Pacers?

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Chemistry Concerns For the Pacers?

There are disappointments, and then there’s the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers.

Entering play on December 20, the Pacers have won their last two games, but are merely one game over the .500 mark. The club is currently on pace to win just 42 games, and it’s safe to say that Larry Bird would be a tad bit disappointed in that.

With the team reaching two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, things slowly began to unravel, beginning with Lance Stephenson’s departure to the Charlotte Hornets. David West and Roy Hibbert eventually followed out the door, but the prevailing sentiment was that with new pieces surrounding him, Paul George—who seemed to have proven himself to be a true superstar—would be able to bring the Pacers forward.

So, what gives?

For starters, like a few other teams, the Pacers have found themselves with a lot of new faces. Jeff Teague was brought in as George Hill was sent away. Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin entered the mix, as well. That Nate McMillan was tapped to be the successor of Frank Vogel and needed to instill a new identity with the club was an added obstacle.

Through the early going of the season, four of the top 10 rotation players for the Pacers are among the new faces brought to the team: Teague (31.9 mpg), Young (30.7 mpg), Jefferson (15.3 mpg) and Brooks (14.7 mpg).

Those that were high on the Pacers entering this season probably looked simply at the acquisitions and figured that Teague was an upgrade over George Hill and that Myles Turner’s progression would continue with the increased minutes that he would receive after being inserted into the starting lineup. Neither assumption was unreasonable.

Those that weren’t high on the Pacers entering the season probably thought that without Stephenson, West, Hibbert and even Ian Mahinmi, the defensive-mindedness that was a staple of Vogel’s tenure would be a distant memory. Even more of a concern was the question as to how Teague, Ellis and George would co-exist on the floor. Each of the three is excellent when playing on the ball. Although George has proven to be somewhat versatile with the ability to play off of it, having three players who need a lot of touches is a tricky thing to accommodate.

Thus far, the results prove that.

Through about 30 games, the Pacers are allowing 105.8 points per game, which ranks them 21st in the league. They are yielding 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which is 15th in the association. Each of these rankings is a significant departure from last season, where the Pacers surrendered just 100.5 points per game (eighth in the league) and 102.9 points per 100 possessions (third in the league).

Of last year’s key rotation players, Hill and Mahinmi were the biggest losses. That each is a plus-defender lends credence to the fact defensive ineptitude is most responsible for the plight of McMillan’s Pacers.

An even bigger concern, however, is the growing concern over the partnership between Teague, Ellis and George. While it should be noted that George missed seven games earlier this season due to a left ankle injury, the early returns for the trio haven’t exactly been stellar.

According to 82games.com, the starting five for the Pacers—Teague, Ellis, George, Young and Turner—has a cumulative plus/minus of minus-44, which is by far the worst score of any five-man unit. Obviously, the sample size of the other units is significantly smaller, but it’s still worth noting. In contrast, the five-man unit that features Glen Robinson III in place of George, clocks in with a plus-40 plus/minus rating—an 84-point swing. The second-best unit in terms of the plus/minus rating is Teague, Ellis, George, Turner and C.J. Miles. The unit has a plus-20 rating, but such a small sample size (they’ve only played 15.3 minutes together) that it can’t be depended on in any significant way.

Another notable item to report: approximately 28 percent of opponent shot comes from “close” range against Indiana’s starting unit. A shot from “close” range is defined as occurring within 10 feet of the basket. Of the 20 different five-man units the Pacers have played thus far this season, the 28 percent mark is fifth-worst, meaning that there are 15 other five-man units for Nate McMillan’s team that have done a better job of keeping opponents away from the basket.

What the evidence suggests is that, on either side of the floor, the five-man unit that starts for the Pacers isn’t nearly as effective as many imagined they would be. With George having missed seven games, there is something to be said for the club’s still developing chemistry, but usually, after about 15 games, there is at least some evidence of chemistry developing among new pieces—if it is to come at all.

By no means is this to suggest that the Pacers won’t turn things around and find themselves in the playoffs, but Frank Vogel, Roy Hibbert and David West obviously aren’t walking through that door anytime soon.

Nate McMillan clearly has some work to do.

LeBron James Continues His Historic Climb

Several weeks ago, in an NBA Sunday column, LeBron James and his climb up the all-time scorer’s list in NBA history was looked at, in depth. Though still a ways to go, it’s worth re-visiting.

InsideLeBronJamesEntering play on December 20, James and his 27,408 points trail Moses Malone by a single point for eighth on the all-time list. Although James is likely to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh by the end of the season, his entering the top-five would require passing Dirk Nowitzki and eclipsing Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 points, which would probably take James at least another season.

So why are we even bringing this up again? Simple. When James’ climb was discussed back on November 13, he had averaged just 22.9 points per game over the first few weeks of the season. He was noticeably deferential toward Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the offensive side of the ball, and as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, it stands to reason that James will begin to show sides of slowing down. It is only his succumbing to Father Time that can stop him from continuing to pursue Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer.

As of now, though, it doesn’t appear that any demise is imminent.

In his past 13 games, James has increased his scoring output, dropping in 26.2 points per game. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field over that stretch while converting on 36 percent of his three-point attempts. In the latter stretch, he has scored 30 or more points three times, compared to just once over his first 10 games this season. The end result? Entering play on December 20, James has improved his scoring average to 25 points per game—a mark that wasn’t guaranteed and one that didn’t seem all that probable just a few weeks ago.

It’s worth mentioning again, even as LeBron continues his climb toward the top of the NBA’s all-time list of scorers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—the biggest giant of them all—will continue to be a realistic target.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.