November was good to the Indiana Pacers. The team tore through the month with an 11-2 record that gave them an early, surprise push into the top half of the Eastern Conference. Paul George led the charge with a ridiculous scoring start that netted him Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors, and Indiana’s transition to a smaller lineup was going smoother than anticipated as well, with harmonious play at both ends of the floor.
December has been far less kind. Facing a tougher stretch of schedule, the Pacers have stumbled to a 5-7 record so far this month and dropped to the bottom of the playoff picture in the East after they looked like the conference’s potential second-best team in November. The tight standings in the East do this dance almost daily, but the decline has certainly been sudden and steep recently for the Pacers.
With a 103.5 offensive rating, per NBA.com, Indiana’s offense has still been humming on most nights, but the defense has bottomed out at 104.7. The Pacers’ defensive scheme is still under construction due to the magnitude of its personnel changes from this offseason, and that’s resulted in some major inconsistency as they continue to adjust on that end of the floor. Coach Frank Vogel has remade this team’s defense to utilize its length, hands and speed to turn opposing teams over rather than relying on sheer size and rim protection like during the recent Roy Hibbert days.
That kind of aggressive defense requires much more communication and precision, however, and as the Pacers go through the learning process, their technique hasn’t always been up to snuff. Perimeter switches are often messy, double-teams can be ill-advised and communication has been all-around insufficient.
Polished offenses have started to poke holes in Indiana’s new defense as a result, putting difficult personnel in pick-and-rolls or rub situations and forcing the Pacers to decide on how to match up. When Indiana goes small, opponents have grown keener on exploiting C.J. Miles’s size disadvantage, and even when Miles can force a miss, the Pacers have been getting pounded on the defensive glass as well. On top of all their half-court kinks, Indiana has also been unusually bad for a Vogel-coached team about getting back in transition, often failing to match up effectively even when they do.
Some of the team’s issues can be attributed to the difficulty of such a huge transformation in such a short amount of time, but many stem from lack of attention or lack of effort. No one is immune to criticism in that sense on this team, as they’ve been getting beat at the point of attack, in the paint or in transition. Comprehensive team efforts on defense have been few and far between in the last month for this team, and for such a frenetic team defense, it’s crucial that everyone move with good timing and positioning.
Many of the Pacers’ issues start with George, the team star who’s been lacking both on the court and off during the month December. George’s golden stroke from November has faded, and he’s shooting just 36 percent overall and 34 percent from three this month. He’s been even worse as a lead playmaker and ball-handler, coughing up the rock 3.7 times per game this month, and cratering in his shooting 1-14 with seven turnovers in what was supposed to be a marquee matchup between George and Kawhi Leonard.
Despite his struggles shooting the ball, George has only increased his number of attempts at the rim by a tick, from 20 percent of his attempts in November to just 22 percent this month. He hasn’t even finished effectively when he gets into the paint either, so perhaps there’s some validity to George’s constant complaints that he’s not garnering enough respect from the referees in terms of foul calls. The young star is clearly frustrated by his struggles, and he lit into the referees last week when he believed they weren’t treating him fairly during a tough loss: “The stripes was terrible,” George said. “Hopefully the league does a better job looking at s*** like this.”
George also lashed out to the media this week about being asked to do too much, per Indy Star’s Candace Buckner:
“I’m just doing too much. I feel like I’m forced to do too much right now,” George said. “Trying to create, trying to get the offense going, trying to get going for myself, trying to get the ball moving, trying to make plays happen in the game when we’re having those dead moments. I’m just trying to find my way through that.”
Those comments certainly show some frustration, which is understandable given his team’s recent stretch. It also might be true that George’s teammates haven’t pulled their weight recently, but he hasn’t necessarily either, and he’s supposed to be a leader on this team who helps his teammates through tough times. That might not be a fair burden, but very little about being a public leader on a good NBA team is fair. Undue criticism is part of the gig.
His comments about foul calls might hold some water on certain nights, but commenting on his role in that regard is strange, especially when he’s the team’s go-to guy. There’s a reason the ball is always in George’s hands, and the only times it looks like he’s being asked to do too much is when he makes bad decisions, which has been far too often lately and rarely forced by opposing teams.
Neither the Pacers nor George might be quite the world-beaters they appeared to be in November, but they’re probably not as bad as their recent play would indicate either. Indiana’s style adjustment was always going to be an ongoing learning experience; the team just needs to improve its response to struggle.
That starts with George and it starts with defense, and both have easy adjustments to effort and energy that can be made. This team can deal with any other longer-term issues later, as nothing is going to matter if Indiana doesn’t get back to bringing consistent hard work and execution to both ends of the floor.